In early January, Harvard University’s first black female president, Claudine Gay, resigned after only six months in the office. This came in the wake of more than a month of criticism of her disastrous December performance in a congressional hearing about anti-Semitism on college campuses, during which Gay refused to say that calling for the genocide of Jews was harassment.
In a memorable exchange, Representative Elise Stefanik asked Gay, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment? Yes or no?” Instead of simply responding with the word “yes,” Gay equivocated: “The rules around bullying and harassment are quite specific, and if the context in which that language is used amounts to bullying and harassment, then we take—we take action against it.” After Stefanik pressed her multiple times to offer a clear answer, Gay continued to claim, inanely, that genocide was dependent on “context.” The backlash to her testimony was so swift and severe that Gay quickly issued a public statement attempting to clarify her remarks and placate critics. “Substantively, I failed to convey what is my truth,” Gay told the Harvard Crimson.
Then she was found to have plagiarized her scholarly work.
Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute and journalist Christopher Brunet published an article on Substack documenting many instances of plagiarism, including in Gay’s doctoral dissertation. The Washington Free Beacon’s Aaron Sibarium found additional, flagrant examples in Gay’s published work, spanning decades. Despite strenuous efforts by the Harvard Corporation to claim that Gay had merely made minor errors, the school’s corporate mandarins ultimately could not explain away the growing number of examples of intellectual theft. Gay resigned.
And at every turn of this disgraceful story, the mainstream media played blocking tackle for Claudine Gay.
After her testimony debacle, for example, the Washington Post cast Gay as a hero of free speech in an article headlined “Harvard faculty, alumni fight for president as push for free speech grows.” The New York Times described her answer to the genocide question as “lawyerly” in a flattering piece called “What to Know About Claudine Gay, Harvard’s Embattled President.” (“Her appointment as university president was seen as both history-making and timely,” ran a typical sentence).
Other journalists and pundits simply cried racism. Charles Blow of the New York Times claimed Gay was being unfairly persecuted by the right because she was a black woman. “Racist mobs won’t stop until they topple all Black people from positions of power and influence who are not reinforcing the structure of racism,” said anti-racist entrepreneur Ibram X. Kendi.
Mara Gay of the editorial board of the New York Times also refused to see Gay’s departure as being about anything other than race, saying on MSNBC, “This is an attack on diversity…I don’t have to say they’re racist because you can hear and see the racism in the attacks.” Her Times colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones declared, “Academic freedom is under attack. Racial justice is under attack. Black women will be made to pay.” Forbes repeated the theme with a piece headlined “Claudine Gay Resigns from Harvard: Why Black Excellence Is Never Enough.” And Politico added to the growing pile of stories about race—“Harvard governing board, activists, say former president was a victim of racism,” ran its headline.
Even when it came to Gay’s many instances of plagiarism, which broke through into everyday conversation only thanks to the dogged reporting of journalists like Sibarium, other journalists still tried to protect Gay’s reputation rather than report out the story.
Some chose denial. Atlantic contributor Jemele Hill, posting on X, said, “It wasn’t proven she plagiarized, FYI. Harvard didn’t find that evidence.” The Washington Post made a single acknowledgement of the plagiarism charges in a lengthy story and failed to note their validity: “Then came allegations of plagiarism against Gay, which were publicized by conservative activists.” The New York Times refused even to use the word to describe what Gay had done, preferring instead to call it “duplicative language.”
Similarly, to avoid “plagiarism,” Matt Egan of CNN engaged in on-air linguistic gymnastics so awkward and discomfiting, it was like watching a hippopotamus walk a tightrope. “Claudine Gay has not been accused of stealing anyone’s ideas in any of her writings,” he said. “She has been accused of sort of more like copying other people’s writings without attribution. So it’s been more sloppy attribution than stealing anyone’s ideas.”
Other outlets found a way to blame Gay’s accusers for her own unethical behavior. The Associated Press posted a link to its story about Gay on social media with the summary, “Harvard’s president’s resignation highlights new conservative weapon against colleges: plagiarism.” The New York Times called Gay’s resignation a “proxy fight over campus politics” and referred to Gay’s many acts of plagiarism as merely “allegations.”
Gay herself was given ample space on the op-ed page of the New York Times to have her say, which she used to exculpate herself by doubling down on her denials of plagiarism while pointing to the supposed “racial animus” she had faced as president of Harvard.
Please. To the contrary, her academic career reveals the astonishing amount of racial preference she received every step of the way; her scholarly record was mediocre at best, even without the plagiarism revelations, particularly for the president of the nation’s preeminent university.
As for race, when a white man (such as Stanford University president Marc Tessier-Levigne) or a white woman (such as University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill) loses his or her job for cause, it’s business as usual. When a black woman does, according to MSNBC’s Joy Reid, it is “an open war on black progress.”
This is why so many mainstream outlets did not pursue the plagiarism story until scrappier conservative journalists made it impossible to ignore. They didn’t want to break the unspoken conventions about diversity, equity, and inclusion that dominate today’s newsrooms. They hoped that by ignoring Gay’s sins, they would avoid committing the modern sin of exposing a member of a protected class.
Instead, they claimed her ouster was the result of a coordinated and vicious attack by right-wing culture warriors. “The resignation of Claudine Gay as president of Harvard University marks the culmination of a conservative war on higher education, long fought on campuses and in statehouses,” the Washington Post declared. MSNBC, also embracing martial metaphors, noted: “Right-wing culture warriors develop formula to manipulate soft targets in higher education.” In its nightly newsletter, Politico described “how the right toppled Harvard’s president” thanks to a “conservative media ecosystem” that launched a “sustained pressure campaign” against her.
In the end, Gay’s scholarly sins will go largely unpunished. She may not lead Harvard any longer, but she is comfortably ensconced in a highly paid, tenured position. But the hypocrisy of the media establishment couldn’t be clearer. As historian David A. Bell noted, speaking for many in the academy who actually still believe plagiarism is bad: “What bothers me most about this whole affair is the fact that Gay herself has not taken responsibility for the plagiarism and that so many have supported her in not doing so.”
In the end, Gay’s inability to condemn the anti-Semitism on her campus or to acknowledge her own plagiarism brought her down, as well it should have. Too bad the journalists and media outlets that claim to hold the powerful to account without fear or favor were too busy covering for her to cover the story properly.
Photo: AP Photo/Steven Senne
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