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Orient coverage of Helen Andrews talk inaccurate and incomplete

November 9, 2018

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

Dear Editor,

I write in response to the Orient’s recent coverage of visiting lecturer Helen Andrews’ talk last week. While I am glad the reporter attended the talk and even stayed to ask Ms. Andrews follow-up questions after the lecture, I’m disappointed that the Orient’s subsequent reporting on its content was inaccurate, incomplete and disingenuous.

The reporter incorrectly states that Ms. Andrews argued in her lecture that, under McCarthyism, “all accusations were supported by evidence.” Ms. Andrews did not assert that all accusations were supported by evidence during the McCarthy era, and she did not say this evidence “support[ed] the idea that the alleged communists were a threat to America.”

Ms. Andrews’ discussion of the McCarthy era was narrowly focused on the anti-Communist newsletter Red Channels and Vincent Hartnett’s above-board documentary work for it. Unlike other McCarthyite organizations, Ms. Andrews claimed, Hartnett and the publishers of Red Channels exposed Communist supporters using publicly available evidence (such as newspaper articles, signed petitions and Congressional testimony), took care not to make unsupportable claims and signed all articles with their names. When accused Communists explained themselves or renounced their Communist views, Hartnett and Red Channels removed their names from their newsletter.

Ms. Andrews contrasted these standards and practices with contemporary methods of exposing people as racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise bigoted. She mentioned a handful of cases where professors, high school teachers and corporate employees—without a chance to defend themselves—lost their jobs because of social media posts taken out of context. She also brought up Moira Donegan’s “Shitty Media Men” list, which collated anonymous sexual assault allegations in a Google Doc, as a counterpart to Red Channel’s practice of signing all articles. Ms. Andrews’ overall point was that contemporary activists who seek to out wrongdoers and believers of dangerous ideologies do not adhere to strict principles governing documentary evidence, authorship and the opportunity of defense.

The Orient represented Ms. Andrews’ comments about the #MeToo movement and sexual assault disingenuously. When questioned about whether the #MeToo movement has made the world a better place, she did say “no,” on the grounds that the lack of evidence behind claims and the failure to discriminate in seriousness between different types of sexual misconduct will degrade the legitimacy of sexual assault claims in the long run. The Orient failed to mention that on an immediate follow-up, a student asked Ms. Andrews if she thought it was possible for someone who had experienced sexual assault to hold her view. She said “I guarantee it,” and explicitly told the student that there was “subtext” to that answer. This context is essential to understanding fully Ms. Andrews’ comments about resilience, healing from trauma and participating in policy discussions as a survivor.

Four students lingered after the lecture to talk to Ms. Andrews, including the reporter and this letter-writer. The reporter respectfully and cogently challenged Ms. Andrews on a number of her statements from the lecture, including her hypothesis (not assertion) that incidents of collegiate sexual assault were lower in the 1940s and ’50s than today. After a discursive discussion about Ms. Andrews’ reasons for finding the claim plausible, and as the five of us exited the Shannon Room, the reporter and Ms. Andrews exchanged some light banter. Ms. Andrews teased that the reporter would have a tough time fact-checking the claim. She then joked—joked—that the difficulty in investigating the claim made it intellectually stimulating and persuasively useful. She did not seriously say that “arguing points that could not be proven but that also could not be disproven is an effective tactic of persuasion.” To present that as Ms. Andrews’ view is not charitable or fair to the circumstances of the conversation.

Ms. Andrews was certainly provocative, but her lecture was much more nuanced and detailed than the Orient gave it credit for, and the reporting was decisively incomplete. The Orient coverage failed to report on the substantive content of the lecture, necessary context to understand Ms. Andrews’ more controversial claims, Ms. Andrews’ tone at critical moments and even which student group brought Ms. Andrews to campus—and why.

Ms. Andrews’ arguments might be offensive and shocking to many Bowdoin students, but the Orient should communicate them accurately to its readers, so they can engage with Ms. Andrews’ ideas as thoughtfully and carefully as the Orient reporter and students in attendance did.

Sincerely,

Samuel Lewis

Class of 2019

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