Michael Barnett: Inside our pages: ‘No comment’ doesn’t mean no story

When an enormously popular professor is inexplicably cut loose by the University after 17 years, there is bound to be a groundswell of support for him. When that professor is a sex educator who engaged his students in conversations about pubic hair and orgasms, The Hatchet is bound to write an article about him.

Three weeks ago, readers learned of the dismissal of Michael Schaffer, whose human sexuality class typically filled up minutes after registration began. But not everyone was pleased with his candid class discussions. A female student, in a spring 2005 evaluation, fiercely criticized Schaffer, and threatened to file a lawsuit against him for sexual harassment, the professor told The Hatchet. In the absence of what he perceived to be a full explanation from GW about his dismissal, Schaffer concluded that the lone student’s evaluation led to his not being asked back.

For more than a month, University officials remained mum on the personnel move, only intensifying speculation that a single student’s criticism felled Schaffer. Last week, we learned from Schaffer – still not from the University – that he got the boot because his academic standards were not rigorous enough for GW.

This most recent revelation negated the previous reason the professor gave for his dismissal, leading some people to suggest – erroneously in my view – that The Hatchet jumped the gun on the initial story.

For one thing, Hatchet editors knew the story only reflected Schaffer’s take on events, and made that clear in the article. The criticism would still be warranted, however, if the story’s author had not repeatedly asked for University comment for her initial report.

This newspaper pressed numerous University officials for response for at least a week before the article was scheduled to come out, on Sept. 12. When the article first came to my attention on Sept. 10, I conferred with my news editors, who agreed that we still shouldn’t run the piece until we gave officials a few more days to comment. The University did not take us up on our repeated requests for comment, and so the article ran on Sept. 15, without official comment.

GW might have hoped that by not commenting the issue would go away. Anyone who pays attention to local media coverage knows how that one turned out. Local television outlets, a higher education publication, The Washington Post and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picked up the story. The free tabloid D.C. Examiner had it splashed across its front page in scandalous letters.

In the end, the story proved not to be as sexy as the professor’s class material. But we were still right to report the initial speculation because the University did not disavow it. This was not a case where The Hatchet got the story wrong, but simply one where the story changed.

Perhaps the article should have occupied a less prominent space on the newspaper’s front page. Hatchet editors will think of the Schaffer article when similarly incomplete stories are slated to run in the paper.

This experience, however, will not make us think twice about reporting on an issue that University officials shirk with a “no comment.”

-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is The Hatchet editor in chief.

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