A couple of inaccurate headlines in Saturday’s papers stand as tributes to the power of weasel wording. The stories reported on the findings of an ad hoc committee created to look into allegations that Dean John Lavine of Medill fabricated a quote that appeared a year ago in his “Letter from the Dean” in the alumni magazine.

The Tribune story was headlined in print “NU panel exonerates Medill dean” and on-line, “Northwestern panel says there was ‘no evidence’ that Medill dean fabricated column.” The Sun-Times story was headlined “Panel clears Medill dean / Finds no evidence he made up quotes.” The story by Eric Herman, quoting Northwestern Provost Daniel Linzer, reported that “a committee of three prominent Medill graduates found ‘no evidence to point to any likelihood that the quotes were fabricated.'”

Herman wrote the sharper story, quoting Linzer more fully. “No evidence to point to any likelihood” sounds like a cute way of saying there’s evidence, but not enough of it to drag this matter on. Of the quotes in question, the money quote had Lavine claiming that an unnamed junior had said about a marketing class, “I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I’ve taken.” David Spett, a suspicious Daily Northwestern columnist, said he talked to every student in the class, including all five juniors, and all denied making that statement. Northwestern professor David Protess and Tribune columnist Eric Zorn later said that they’d reinterviewed the five juniors, with the same results. That’s evidence. 

The Tribune story didn’t even identify the members of the panel. Herman’s did. They were Jack Fuller, former editor and publisher of the Tribune, and Northwestern trustees Teresa Norton and Paul Sagan, who is also cochair of the Medill Board of Advisors. A  Boston businessman, Sagan is the son of Chicago publisher Bruce Sagan,  a close friend of Lavine’s.

Here’s the key graph from Linzer’s letter “to the Medill Community” Friday trying to put the Lavine matter to rest: “The committee unanimously concluded that although a record of the student statements that were quoted cannot be found, sufficient material does exist about the relevant storefront reporting experience and marketing course to demonstrate that sentiments similar to the quotes had been expressed by students. Thus, the committee found that there is ample evidence that the quotes were consistent with sentiment students expressed about the course in course evaluations and no evidence to point to any likelihood that the quotes were fabricated. The committee further stated that the author of a piece like the ‘Letter from the Dean’ could not reasonably be expected to have retained for a year the notes or e-mails documenting the sources of quotations used in the letter; nonetheless, the committee advised that in the future such meticulous archiving might be desirable given the heightened awareness of the problems that can result.”

This passage is a travesty. Lavine’s sin was to publish a quote that he did not attribute and later could not support. Linzer’s sin is the opposite. His letter is all unsupported attribution and no quotation. He does not produce the report whose conclusions he’s announcing. He tells us the committee concluded that the quotes in question were true to the spirit of student sentiment — but that’s never been the issue. He writes “no evidence” when there is. He speaks of “heightened awareness” as if to reduce an angry confrontation to a golden teaching moment. Until they speak for themselves and say differently, I will not believe that Fuller, Norton, and Sagan fully approve of the way Linzer construed their work. And until Linzer produces it, I will not believe they even submitted a formal report. Linzer’s letter has the ring of something spun out of — well, not whole cloth, but conceivably a telephone call from Sagan saying Lavine has egg on his face but let’s get past this.

Northwestern isn’t past this. Despite what headlines said, Lavine wasn’t “cleared” or “exonerated,” not even in Linzer’s account. Lavine’s aggression in changing Medill has made him a lot of enemies among the faculty, alumni, and student body They won’t let this drop.

UPDATE: Paul Sagan responded Sunday morning to my e-mail asking him to comment on Linzer’s letter.  “I respect that you have a job to do, but I’m afraid I can’t help you,” he wrote back. “I am a trustee of the university and my obligation is to serve the shared interests of the students, faculty and administration.  I believe I’ve done that in this case by offering my views to the provost, and I don’t think I would be helping any more by giving an interview.  I can refer you to the provost’s office for additional comment.”