Blaming the news media

I tried to resist writing about UNC again, but this latest poll about the declining trust in the news media spurred me on. It’s so easy to blame the media.

The leaders of the UNC Board of Trustees for the past 10 years wrote an op-ed to newspapers across the state imploring UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp to reconsider his resignation. There is much to consider in the op-ed, particularly the point about all the good things that the chancellor has done, which echoes comments made by system President Tom Ross a few days prior to Thorp’s resignation.

I will focus on the criticism of the media coverage of the ongoing problems at the university.

But under the 24-hour news cycle and social media, it is very difficult for our new leaders to develop. Those in the public arena today find themselves under assault. Every decision is questioned, and there is a standard set that very few, if any, can meet. The net result of this overzealous scrutiny is that we are discouraging those with potential from serving in public roles. We respect the rights that come with a free press but at the same time, there is a responsibility to see and report more than one perspective.

Let’s look at that broadbrush condemnation:

* Thorp has been chancellor for five years. That is a generous amount of time for a leader “to develop.” Two of those years have been spent dealing with scandals in the athletic department, academic departments and, now, administration. Those in the public arena may find themselves under assault, but there’s also good reason for examination. (By the way, the writers selected three people as examples of leaders who became visionaries after facing adversity. Steve Jobs was fired; Nelson Mandela was jailed; and Margaret Thatcher resigned. That would seem to argue that Thorp has a bright future.)

* The media culture sets a standard that very few can meet. It troubles me that the leaders of the trustees actually believe that finding a leader to uphold the honor and tradition of UNC amid the pressures of money and misbehavior is seemingly impossible. The fact is that the 24-hour news cycle is not going away. Good leaders and managers understand that and adapt to it. Thorp’s management came under scrutiny because the behavior of employees continued to embarrass the university. Thorp stood by Coach Butch Davis for too long. He didn’t seem to realize the problem of the Kupec-Hansbrough relationship until too late.

* “…there is a responsibility to see and report more than one perspective.” It is unclear what perspective of all this that is being ignored. I’m assuming it is all the other good things that have happened at the university since 2008. I’ve no doubt that the chancellor’s hard work brought much to the university. And it is nice that the former leaders of the board of trustees think those things outweigh everything else. It’s a shame that that good work gets overshadowed by the ugliness that crept into the university, but it did.

Conveniently, the op-ed doesn’t address any of the issues that caused Thorp’s resignation. Some of the scandals occurred while the op-ed writers were chairing the board of trustees. But instead of taking any ownership of them, they blame the news media — presumably the News & Observer, which has done outstanding work reporting  the problems at the university. For instance, I wonder what would have happened had any of the boards of trustees acted strongly to tone down the emphasis on winning in football. Maybe all of this could have been avoided.

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