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Pub Backs Blogger in Emails Before Canning Her

In the latest backlash over the firing of Naomi Schaefer Riley from the Chronicle of Higher Education, internal emails show that management supported Riley before abruptly canning her.

To recap, Riley, a former WSJ editor and Harvard grad, wrote for the publication’s Brainstorm blog for a year before Editor Liz McMillen (pictured above right alongside Riley) suddenly fired her this week for a post she wrote on Black Studies, saying the program should be eliminated, basing her view on dissertation titles. McMillen had received a petition of online signatures calling for Riley’s firing. In an interview with FishbowlDC she claimed reader reaction did not sway her decision to let Riley go. Instead, she said, Naomi’s post and subsequent response to her critics did not meet their “editorial standards.”

Which is a funny thing to say considering a publication editor guided Naomi through that response every step of the way. (See the exchange of emails after the jump…)

Play by play

After Riley wrote the piece, negative reaction from readers poured her, calling her racist. (Raise your hand if you’re a blogger who gets called racist, sexist, or prejudice in any multitude of ways on a weekly basis?)

What happened next is, at best, suspect. Management asked Riley to write a response to her critics. She was guided in that posting by Deputy Editor of The Chronicle Review magazine Alex Kafka, who couldn’t have been more kind to her in those exchanges, even, at one point, joking about how he ate too much at his 91-year-old father’s birthday party. He even included party pictures. (We sure hope Kafka is no longer bloated from all the crap he ate at the party.)

“I had an email exchange with editor,” Riley told FishbowlDC by phone yesterday. “I said this is what I would say, he said, that would be great. He approved it. They encouraged me to write it, then they approved it.” Riley says the idea that they expected her to write up something specific and that she didn’t follow her orders or write a “strong enough” response as McMillen told Fishbowl, is “quite amazing.”

What’s most infuriating, says Riley, is that in the year she worked there bosses gave her no indication that they were displeased with her work. “They didn’t try to sensor any of my posts,” she said. “I didn’t have some warning. I feel like this whole thing just came out of the blue.”

In an online orientation packet Naomi received before she began blogging, Kafka wrote this astonishing advice: “We urge you to think of them not as forums for polished mini-editorials, but as places to react, thoughtfully but passionately, to breaking news on topics you’re engaged in. … Try to enlighten your readers, but also provoke their thinking by presenting new perspectives you draw in from other sources.”

Important: See the introductory letter Naomi received from Kafka before she began blogging for the magazine…

On May 2, 2012, at 11:44 PM, Alex Kafka wrote:

Hi, Naomi. Pls. see http://tressiemc.com/2012/05/02/the-inferiority-of-blackness-as-a-subject/ and google the Purdue petition etc. I guess I’d urge you, predictably enough, to write a calm, respectful, substantive response to some or all of this. I think we’ll also see if the dissertation authors want to respond in a guest post. Let’s touch base by phone tomorrow, if that’s OK. I’ll be working from home in the a.m., so if you have a few minutes, could you call my cell, BLANK? Thanks.

Best,
Alex

To: Alex Kafka
Subject: Re: Critiques of your post

Alex, I will give you a call in the morning. I am happy to hear you out on the subject but I am not sure that this disagreement is substantive at all. The comments seem to boil down to this:

I am picking on people because they are black (and I am a racist)
I am picking on people even though I don’t have a phd
I am picking on people who are too young and inexperienced to defend themselves
I am picking on people even though I haven’t read their entire dissertations

All I can say is that if these dissertations were all written by old white men I would still think they were irrelevant and unnecessarily partisan. I have not called people names. Over the years I have critiqued dozens of dissertation and other research topics by academics. There is a long list of disciplines that I would happily get rid of, as I’m sure you know.

From: Alex Kafka
Date: May 3, 2012 12:03:10 AM EDT
To: Naomi Riley
Subject: RE: Critiques of your post

Points well taken. I think it’s that last one that might be bugging them the most. But yeah, let’s talk. Even if it were a post saying just what you do below, boiling things down, then responding, even tersely, to each point, that would at least indicate that you’ve heard them.

OK. Gotta sleep now. Just ate too much at a nice birthday dinner for my dad’s 91st (!). You can see some pix of it, him, and him and my mom here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexanderkafka/

We’ll talk tomorrow. G’night.

Best,
Alex

Note to readers: Before Naomi started blogging for the Chronicle of Higher Education, she received this note from Kafka. We’ve bolded the highlights.

Dear Ms. Riley:

I’m thrilled that you’ll be blogging for Brainstorm. Like my colleagues, I’ve loved your writing for The Chron and elsewhere and think you’ll bring a lot of energy, insight, and individuality to the blog.

Attached are three documents:
1.       A contract that I need you to sign and snail-mail back to me
2.       A brief blog orientation that might be of help in figuring out how you’d like to approach your Brainstorm venue
3.       A guide to WordPress, which is our blog software

I’ll need you to email me a good (preferably color) jpeg headshot for us to use on your page. We keep the bio blurbs on the blog short and sweet (no room for book titles, etc.), so I propose:

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a journalist focusing on higher education, religion, philanthropy, and culture.

That sound OK?

Once I have the jpeg and we agree on the bio blurb wording, our Web producers will build your blog page, and email a password to you (you can change it later). Your logon will be nriley . We’ll try to get you going by the beginning of March and will add you to the Brainstorm payroll starting that month.

Given your exceptional experience, I think both the substance and software mechanics will feel familiar to you. But keep that WordPress cheat sheet nearby, as well as my phone numbers and email, especially for the first few weeks until you feel steady on your proverbial blogging feet.

I look forward to working with you and reading your thoughts on politics, society, and especially how broader trends play out on campus.

Best,
Alex

We particularly enjoyed the Brainstorm Orientation document Naomi received before she started blogging for the publication. We clipped one pertinent graph from Kafka:

“At their best, blogs provide windows into the thinking and personalities of their authors. They are fundamentally different from other kinds of essay and opinion writing. We urge you to think of them not as forums for polished mini-editorials, but as places to react, thoughtfully but passionately, to breaking news on topics you’re engaged in; to work out, however incrementally, your ideas, questions, prescriptions, and tangential musings; to interact with your readers who e-mail you or opine in your blog’s comment field. Try to enlighten your readers, but also provoke their thinking by presenting new perspectives you draw in from other sources.”

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