I returned a few days ago from a trip to the South with my wife and four old friends. We visited important civil rights sites in Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Jackson, and Memphis. It was a deeply moving, deeply informative, deeply disturbing, and deeply uplifting trip. There were many highlights, with the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum and lynching memorial in Montgomery among the most moving. Both, in different ways, told the story of the hundreds of years of enslavement and racial terrorism that African Americans have endured in this country. EJI has documented more than 4,000 cases of lynching and underscored that one of the most important motivating factors behind the Great Migration of some 6 million Blacks from the South was the desire to flee racial terror and endemic violence. It is a history that most Americans either don’t know or choose to ignore.
Other sites and museums documented the astonishing efforts of hundreds and thousands of (mostly) unnamed individuals who fought enslavement, Jim Crow, and racial terrorism. In each city, we stopped to read the plaques and remembrances of those who were part of that struggle, soldiers in a battle for equality and dignity. In Montgomery, we read the plaque (left) dedicated to Charles Oscar Harris, African American Community Leader, who was one of the longest active Republicans in Alabama. “On March 11, 1875,” the marker noted, “Harris and other prominent Montgomery African Americans tested the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by purchasing tickets to the white-only section of the Montgomery Theatre. Being denied seats, they pursued their rights in court.” He raised 10 children with his wife, Ellen Hassell Hardaway, 9 of whom attended college (the 10th died in childhood). Mr. Harris, the plaque informed, attended Oberlin College.
In the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, we learned about Emily & Mary Edmonson (right), who “were just 16 and 13 respectively in 1848 when they snuck aboard The Pearl in Washington DC,” hoping to sail north to freedom. They were caught, but “white abolitionists helped their father, a free black, buy their freedom before they could be sold into prostitution. Educated at Oberlin, the girls became abolitionists.”
Walking on, we came on a tribute to Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, “one of the first African American women to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree.” Dr. Cooper graduated from Oberlin in 1884.
In Montgomery, we visited the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. King served as pastor from 1954-1960. Our tour guide, Wanda Howard Battle, led us to a wall of portraits of the church’s pastors. She pointed to a photograph of Vernon Johns (left), who served immediately prior to Dr. King. Johns graduated from the Oberlin Seminary in 1918.
All this was fresh in my mind as I watched Ted Koppel’s CBS Sunday Morning report on the Oberlin-Gibson’s affair. His segment had all the subtlety of a snowplow in a blizzard. From the first moment to the last, the coverage was geared to tug on the heartstrings of its early morning viewers by foregrounding Dave Gibson’s illness and his elderly father’s broken neck. (I am sincerely sorry for Dave’s, and his family’s, pain and suffering. I have known him for decades and always enjoyed our chatter in his store; I continue to wish them all well.) But neither the elder Gibson’s fall and resultant broken neck – which has never been demonstrated to be linked to the ongoing civil suit – nor Dave’s tragic illness have anything to do with the issues involved in the lawsuit and do not belong in a journalistic account which attempts to shed some light on what happened on November 9, 2016, and in the ensuing days and months. By closing his segment as he did, suggesting that “David Gibson, in the terminal stages of pancreatic cancer, may never know the answer” to the question “What is the fair price for a family’s good name?” Koppel left little doubt as to where his own sympathies lay.
Equally problematic was his roster of on-screen interviewees consisting of individuals who were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Gibson’s cause. Dave Gibson was given most on-air time, and he was supplemented by conversations with Lee Plakas, the Gibson’s attorney, Misty Smith, a juror who found for the Gibson’s, and Dan O’Brien, a reporter with the Chronicle Telegraph, whose coverage showed a striking support for the plaintiff’s case.
The sole interviewee who could speak on the College’s behalf, President Carmen Ambar, was interrupted (by my count) five times by Koppel whereas the others’ answers to his questions were not only unchallenged, but often prompted. Like a lawyer leading a witness, Koppel asked juror Smith, “You were personally convinced, and the other jurors were convinced, that the college supported the students financially?” “100%” came the unsurprising reply. The camera kept a steady, lengthy gaze on Dave Gibson’s face as he struggled with his emotions when talking about his elderly father. (Nathan Carpenter, editor of the Oberlin Review was on air for 29 seconds but nothing remotely relevant remained in the broadcast.)
Koppel’s report was built around the issue of reputation, i.e., the Gibsons’ reputation, asking more than once, “what price can be put on a family’s reputation?” And this, more than the events themselves, was at the heart of the CBS report. The facts of the case were presented in piecemeal and dramatic fashion, with a scrolling yellow marker on an email highlighting the possible reimbursement of $100 of gloves standing in for the smoking gun which inevitably led jurors to their $44 million verdict against the college. (If the glove fits, you must convict!) Indeed, the only new information in the report (for those of us who have followed it, granted, only a tiny minority of those who tuned in on Sunday morning), was offered by Misty Smith, one of the jurors. She told Koppel that after hearing Dave Gibson’s emotional testimony about how he didn’t want his 91-year old father “to pass away [having] people thinking he was a racist…you just feel the heart [sic], like the whole courtroom just went [phew]. You know, like that, everyone I think was trying to hold back tears.” Juries are won with emotion and narrative, and the plaintiff’s lawyer understood that perfectly. The student protest, labeling the store as racist, and the college’s refusal to affirmatively state that Gibson’s wasn’t racist (something the administration had never said in the first place), was seen as an unwarranted and unprecedented attack on the Gibson’s reputation. [For those who want to place the Gibson’s specific response within a larger analytic framework, I would recommend Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Beacon Press, 2018).]
Reputation was on Koppel’s mind when he discarded the kid gloves with which he had handled the other interviewees and began a cross-examination of President Ambar. Why does a journalist of Ted Koppel’s reputation not question a single statement by interviewees who support the Gibsons and yet interrupt, dispute (“Factually correct, but still misleading,” he says as an aside to his audience after one of her responses) and challenge the – let’s just come right out and say it — African American president of Oberlin College, someone who wasn’t even at the College when these events happened?
For someone concerned with reputation, it certainly seemed to me that his intent was to undermine her reputation. “I mean,” he asked, “if your reputation was destroyed overnight, you could hardly put a price on that, could you?” Seriously? A classic when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife question? This was followed by a demand that she “be specific” (i.e., name names) of those who have suffered mistreatment in the store, something he well knows she will not do on national television. Look, I have been at Oberlin for 33 years, long enough to know that charges against the store are raised periodically, long enough to have talked to, and heard of, young black men who were asked to take off their backpacks when entering the store while their white friends weren’t. This information neither proves or disproves the charges the students leveled against the store, for while I am aware of that history, I also enjoyed my daily conversations with the African American gentleman on the register who handed me my daily paper along with his political commentary. Like much else, there is a tremendous amount of complexity involved in this issue, but Koppel (like others) doesn’t seem concerned with that.
Reputation. What is the price of one’s reputation? The loss to the Gibson family, Koppel suggested over and over, was more reputational than economic (although, if one is interested in complexity, one should look to the economic issues involved, as well.) But if we are to see the Gibson’s battle as a reputational one, and argue that no one should be falsely charged (a general proposition that I strongly support), then what about the College’s reputation? Since this event, the College’s 186-year reputation as one of the finest liberal arts institutions in the country, one of the best conservatories of music in the world, and, to be sure, an institution that has made its share of mistakes over that long history, has been reduced to this event, and this event only; everything else that it has done and continues to do is viewed through the lens of the Gibson’s affair.
Now, we might expect this reaction from the likes of Michelle Malkin, a right-wing commentator and Oberlin alumna who wrote, “The jury voted. Now it’s time for more parents, alumni and donors of ideological insane asylums like Oberlin to vote with their own feet and pocketbooks. De-fund the divisive defamers of American higher education. It’s the only way they’ll learn.” Less likely, but equally troubling, are the comments (shared by many others) of Richard Epstein, a constitutional lawyer at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, who wrote, “Oberlin College may well go bankrupt, perhaps it should.” Most troubling, to me, are comments by alumni such as one which appeared on social media after the CBS report: “The level of ethical and moral bankruptcy this has demonstrated,” the person commented, “has led me to sever my ties to the school completely…So good luck and go with God as this whole debacle may be the thing that tips the school into closing eventually. I wish I could feel the sorrow I feel at the loss of a place I loved. But my God the way this all played out has left me feeling that the Oberlin of today isn’t worthy of survival.”
[For those who think that the college could have done a better PR job, perhaps that’s the case, but as I wrote in a recent piece about the so-called Bánh-Mi debacle (later picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Vox), in a 24/7 news cycle and feverish social media world, we rarely get to tell our own story – others are telling it for us, and more than often not in a way that reflects neither reality, complexity, or truth.]
And so I ask, in what equation are we asked to feel sympathy for a family that may have been falsely accused by a group of students (and I would highly recommend the analysis by Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a fellow of the Bennan Center for Justice, on the legal question of boycotts and free speech) and yet applaud the reputational trashing of a nearly 200-year institution, going so far as to call for its closure, because of a single event?
The disquieting irony of the question that Koppel raised to President Ambar – what price can you put on your reputation? – is that while overflowing with sympathy for the Gibson family (and I share in concerns for their health), he nevertheless seemed content to let this incident, which is still playing out in the courts, demolish the reputation of Oberlin College. I remain immensely proud of the College as an important institution of higher education with a proud history and a vibrant present that is played out on a daily basis in the classrooms, labs, recital halls, and art studios on campus. As the editors of the Oberlin Review wrote in the first issue to greet the students as they returned from their summer vacations this year, “even with the media maelstrom swirling, Oberlin students spent the summer doing what they do best: finding work they care about, committing themselves fully to it, and leaving behind a legacy of care and compassion. They again dismantled the notion that this student body is a monolithic entity full of naïve children who know nothing about how to function in the real world. Oberlin students demonstrated — as they have time and time again — that they are fully up to the task of empowering themselves and others to make significant, long-lasting impacts on their communities.”
To answer Ted Koppel’s question: the College’s reputation is invaluable. Take a trip down South, read our history on the monuments, then come and sit in on our classrooms, talk to our Mellon Mays and Bonner Scholars, read the articles that our undergraduates are publishing in national journals, attend a concert, visit the schools where our alumni teach, the research labs where they work, the nonprofits they run. This is why Oberlin’s reputation, no less than the Gibsons’ reputation, should be valued.