Failure in Journalistic Education: An Encounter with the Columbia Missourian

September 13, 2016

The University of Missouri at Columbia became notorious, last year, for events that Wikipedia summarizes thus:

In 2015, a series of protests at the University of Missouri related to race, workplace benefits, and leadership resulted in the resignations of the president of the University of Missouri System and the chancellor of the flagship Columbia campus. The moves came after a series of events that included a hunger strike by a student and a boycott by the football team. The movement is primarily led by a student group named Concerned Student 1950.

National Review (Melchior, 2016) reports that these events were deeply unpopular with alumni and also with potential future students. The impact upon the university was reportedly severe: as of April 2016,

freshman enrollment is down 25 percent, leaving a $32 million funding gap and forcing the closure of four dorms. The month after the protests, donations to the athletic department were a mere $191,000 — down 72 percent over the same period a year earlier. Overall fundraising also took a big hit.

Among the events chronicled by National Review, I was particularly interested in the one where Melissa Click, a professor in the university’s School of Journalism, was charged with assault and solicited the use of force to prevent media coverage by — would you believe — a student in her own journalism school.

I would have been inclined to assume that Click was just some kind of renegade, not at all representative of the J-school or of the university or the city of Columbia. Would have been, I say, but for two sets of experiences. First, I lived in that city and attended that university for a few years myself. And second, in the summer of 2016, I had my own unpleasant encounter with the Missourian.

During my time in Columbia, I had the bewildering experience of being physically attacked — by a woman who called herself “the crazy lady,” swinging a baseball bat at me — for which I was then punished by being subjected to a restraining order (despite the court-ordered investigator’s conclusion that I did not pose “any immediate danger or harm”). The faculty of the School of Social Work, where I was newly enrolled, seized upon the episode as an excuse to harass me for the balance of the academic year. I did not return to this pattern of abuse in that poorly ranked program, choosing instead to finish my degree at the University of Michigan (ranked first in the U.S. in social work).

So much for the city and the university. Unfortunately, next I was to have this encounter with the Missourian. It started when I saw the following article in the May 29, 2016 issue (click to enlarge):

image-of-missourian-webpage-re-violence-against-women

Meg Hegemann happens to be my ex-wife. In that article, the caption at the bottom of the picture reads as follows:

Members of Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church settle into the pews at the beginning of service on May 8. The Mothers’ Day message, titled “Teach Your Children Well,” discussed the theme of violence against women, and Pastor Meg Hegemann spoke about her personal experience.

I found that caption intriguing because I knew Meg’s life story fairly well, up through our divorce in 2002. I was pretty sure that, as of that date, she had no significant “personal experience” in the area of violence against women. It was possible that she had been speaking of something that had happened since 2002, but that seemed unlikely; she had apparently been with her second husband since shortly after our divorce, and I doubted she would be complaining of violence at his hand, with him sitting there in her church.

I would have been happy to start by checking this with Meg herself. Unfortunately, she refused to respond when I tried to contact her, in the year or so after our divorce; she has not spoken to me in the past 14 years. Besides, I would have had to verify whatever she told me because, as she admitted during openly recorded conversations in July 2002, she had been lying to me for years.

As another way of checking out this claim that Meg had “personal experience” in the area of violence against women, I contacted student journalist Erin Quinn, author of that photo caption, and asked her what Meg had said, during that sermon. This seemed like a reasonable inquiry. It’s not as though these were deep personal secrets. Meg had made her statements out loud, to an audience.

In order to explain my interest, I told Ms. Quinn about the trauma that I had endured in my domestic abuse experience, there in Columbia, with “the crazy lady.” From personal experience at Columbia’s Missouri United Methodist Church, I knew that there were gossipy and meanspirited elements within the city’s Methodist community. If I was being used as a convenient target of false accusations, I wanted to know.

It did seem that Meg, in particular, would be capable of making such accusations. I recalled that, while we were dancing together during one of our first dates, back in 1993, a look of anxiety or fear had crossed her face, as she noticed one of the men standing nearby. I asked what was the matter. She said that, for a moment, she was afraid her ex-boyfriend had followed her to that dance hall. The bystander at whom she had glanced was indeed an unpleasant-looking individual. As I got to know more about Meg, however, I would eventually conclude that this purported fear was quite farfetched. For one thing, her ex-boyfriend lived more than 140 miles away, and would presumably have no way of knowing where she was on that particular evening. Moreover, as I would eventually learn, what actually happened in that relationship was not that the man was in any sense violent or threatening. He was a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. He tried to help people. As far as I could tell from Meg’s comments, the only damage occurring in that relationship was the damage that she did to his marriage.

In short, it seemed Meg could sometimes be among those damsels who appeal to gallantry by alleging distress. And apparently such allegations gain traction at the Missourian. Because when I asked Ms. Quinn what Meg had said in that sermon about violence against women, she refused to answer. Not to blame her alone: she was a student, and she said she was proceeding according to her supervisors’ instructions. Then again, the excuse of “only following orders” has long since failed to justify wrongful behavior.

Under such circumstances, a person in my position might consider him/herself entitled to relief under the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. For example, the Code says this: “Seek truth and report it”; “Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story”; “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources”; “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing”; and so forth. Taken together, such excerpts from the Code seem to affirm that Ms. Quinn and her newspaper handled this matter improperly.

So it looked like Melissa Click’s appointment in the J-school might be consistent with the latter’s ethics after all. The Daily Caller reports, moreover, that Dr. Click’s husband, a professor in the religious studies department, participated in the harassment of the journalism student mentioned above. It wasn’t just the J-school; apparently the university likewise had no serious problem with the behavior of either of these professors.

By refusing to answer my question, Ms. Quinn did provide an answer of sorts. It certainly appeared that Meg had made comments, regarding violence against women, that had something to do with me in particular. Otherwise, during our exchange of several emails, I think Ms. Quinn would have just said that Meg’s remarks were not about me. It also appeared that those remarks may have been too ugly to share: again, Ms. Quinn would presumably have told me if Meg were merely complaining about my haircut. The topic was violence against women; I seemed to have been slandered in that regard; and the Missourian seemed inclined to protect the female committing that slander, without knowing or caring whether she might actually have been the abuser during our years together.

I did make still another effort to follow up on this incident: on two separate occasions, I attempted to contact Rev. Brad Bryan, who has replaced Meg as minister at the church where she made her remarks about violence against women. I have verified that his office does respond promptly to inquiries from others. But it did not respond to those inquiries from me. To my knowledge, I have never met, spoken with, or otherwise been engaged in any way with Rev. Bryan. His repeated refusal to respond to me, in particular, did seem to suggest that he had formed some kind of negative impression of me, based on something that he must have heard from someone other than me.

I made yet another attempt: I contacted another man whom I had met at one point, while I was still living in Missouri. This man apparently had years of experience with the United Methodist community of central Missouri. I sent him a message, on Facebook, notifying him of the foregoing concerns. Facebook confirmed that he had seen the message. But he, too, declined to reply.

In short, the indicators available to me all seem to point in the same direction. It is regrettable that the so-called free press, in the form of the Columbia Missourian, was useful only to support the politically correct claim that a damsel was distressed. At the Missourian, that claim — unsupported by evidence — apparently trumps the ethics of the journalistic profession. This intellectual irresponsibility is consistent with my own horrendous experience (above) as a student in the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri – Columbia.

The Missourian trains students to become journalists. It appears that, for all its past laurels, that newspaper has become something of a journalistic cesspool. It’s not just the Melissa Click travesty. More quietly but ominously, students like Ms. Quinn have been going forth, for some years now, to join the profession that purports to inform the American public on daily events. Let us not be surprised that Americans’ trust in the media has sunk to its lowest level in more than 40 years. In the wake of this sort of experience, it would obviously be more difficult for me, personally, to doubt conservative complaints about suppression of the truth in mainstream media.

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