Guilty Until Proven Innocent

My experience of being wrongfully accused doesn’t compare with that of Judge Kavanaugh.

But I’ve also had outlandish charges made against me–charges that were false but almost impossible to defend against.

The first case occurred in 1996 when I was an associate professor at New York University.

As the faculty considered me for tenure, a colleague charged that I was guilty of plagiarism, which can be the kiss of death in both journalism and the academy.

Here’s what happened.

As part of a U.S. State Department grant, I was working with Russian educators who were trying to introduce Western-style journalism into universities there.

As part of that effort, I was tasked with preparing educational materials geared toward reporting and writing.

One NYU professor had created a series of writing examples that everyone used in the department.

As part of my package for tenure, I included these exercises, which were prepared for the Russians, as an example of service to the profession.

The professor who attacked me for plagiarism said I had claimed the work as my own.

That was utter nonsense, but it didn’t make much difference.

As a result, a stellar tenure package–a slam dunk in the words of some of my colleagues–didn’t make it through the process.

Why had he decided to attack me? When I was hired, his friend at The New York Times didn’t get the job. My attacker, a former columnist at The New York Times, vowed to get me booted from the university to avenge his friend.

I didn’t have any ability to defend myself against the accusation because tenure meetings are secret, and I was excluded from the discussion.

It’s worth noting that the professor whose work I had allegedly plagiarized defended me.

But the damage was done. An accusation without foundation carried the day, and I had to find another job.

More recently, an anonymous accuser charged that I had created a “hostile work environment” in my department.

We were hiring a documentary producer. Since I was the only person in the department who’d directed and produced documentaries, I thought my analysis would count for something. I was dead wrong!

One of the finalists produced short videos about illegal immigrants in California. The material was poorly produced and edited, but one member of the department thought the content was compelling.

The videos were so bad technically, I said, it would be like hiring someone to teach writing who didn’t know much about grammar.

My expertise, however, came across as “mansplaining,” and the accusation went to the dean.

Because of my comments, an investigation was launched, which found no basis for the claim of creating a hostile work environment. But I never got to confront my accuser. I never received an apology.

Today an accusation often carries more weight than the truth. Somehow the standard has become guilty until proven innocent.