Guilty Until Proven Innocent

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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.

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.