The Young and the Uppity

Anyone who’s just won the Nobel Prize won’t be easily destroyed by criticism. Testing this hypothesis, we called Robert Fogel of the University of Chicago. He’s that school’s fourth scholar in four years to receive the Nobel for economics, but the first to be attacked by a campus publication as “a second-rate scholar.”

Fogel’s secretary–not to mention the student who denounced his scholarship–doubted that Fogel had even read the piece. If he hadn’t, Fogel didn’t stoop to saying so. “I guess my reaction was that if I was 20 I might have written it,” he told us. “It was written by a young person–I presume he was young–”

An undergraduate, we said.

“–who had a particular point of view and made a forceful case for it.”

A very forceful case, and a pretty damned smart one. We’d decided to ask Fogel what he thought because the student who ripped him, fourth-year history major Josh Mason, was wondering how Fogel took it. Mason admitted he’d been thinking “off and on” about what he’d say if Fogel called him, and it did not sound like a call he was dying to receive. “He’s always courted publicity. Maybe he’s pleased to see his work debated,” Mason said hopefully. “If the school lives up to its rhetoric, he’d be thrilled to see his ideas engaged critically. But I don’t know if he does.”

Fogel is best known as coauthor of Time on the Cross, a 1974 study of slavery that made his reputation as a father of cliometrics–the use of modern economic tools to analyze historical data. The Sun-Times noted in its predictable editorial hailing Fogel that the book “aroused considerable controversy because it argued that slavery, despite its inhumanity, has been both profitable and efficient for its beneficiaries.” The controversy turned on whether Fogel was a racist.

Oh, come on! said Mason in the student-run Grey City Journal. The efficiency of slavery is common knowledge. Nitwits may have called Fogel a racist, but competent critics never did; they called him a bad historian who misread extremely sketchy data to draw conclusions he hadn’t proved and would actually abandon when he published a second book on slavery in 1989: for example, that whippings were rare, that slaves lived better and worked harder than free laborers, and that slave families were rarely divided.

“Almost every major claim advanced in Time on the Cross falls apart under the slightest scrutiny,” says Mason. He scrutinizes more than slightly, quoting from a 150-year-old plantation diary to demonstrate that Fogel misrepresented it and challenging Fogel’s math.

“So why did Robert Fogel win a Nobel Prize?” Mason wondered. “No one claims that he came up with any new economics. . . . But because his results, which had no lasting impact on the scholarly consensus in his field, are so in tune with the free market dogma that so overawes contemporary intellectuals, he will be going to Stockholm in January.”

Whenever locals win high honors the civic press can be counted on to fling its caps and shout huzzahs. The Sun-Times and Tribune saw what Chicago wanted to see–fresh acclaim at the highest levels for this town’s streak of stubborn independence. Time on the Cross, said the Tribune, “sparked not only surprise but outrage by arguing that the peculiar institution, while morally repugnant, was economically efficient. He has not retreated from that vexing position.”

In fact, wrote Mason, the claim of economic efficiency, which was old hat, was one of the few claims Fogel didn’t retreat from.

“At a time American universities are coming under justified criticism for adopting speech codes and succumbing to political correctness,” said the Sun-Times, “the University of Chicago has stood out as one campus where the pursuit of knowledge is not compromised by partisanship or contemporary fads. For 101 years, the University of Chicago’s culture has been steadfastly committed to the competition of ideas, unfettered by politics. The results speak for themselves.”

An even better emblem than Fogel of this heady campus culture is the uppity Grey City Journal. And if the Sun-Times can forgive the Journal its leftism–surely the Sun-Times doesn’t really believe partisanship only dumbs things down–it might agree. This is a historic year for the Journal. Led by “coordinating editor” and business manager Bill Boisvert, so transparently first in a collective of equals that he jokes about it, the Journal bolted last spring from the confines of the student newspaper, the Maroon, where it was no better than a section, and set up shop as a separate student paper. A “manifesto” printed last month said why:

“Over the decades, as the Maroon solidified its reputation as a purveyor of garbled publicity handouts, as its editorial board hewed ever more rigidly to the corporate line, and as its management adopted the arrogant, incompetent Bossism that has ruined the nation’s economy, we at the Grey City Journal began to chafe.” What’s more, they heard a call. “We know,” said the manifesto, “that there are many progressives, in Hyde Park and Chicago, who are hungering for an antidote to the triumphalist elitism, misogyny, racism, violence and consumerism that disfigure our culture.”

This over-the-counter remedy for everything that ails America looks and reads better than ever, according to sources closer to the Hyde Park cultural wars than we are. “It’s changed a lot,” says David Rodnitzky, present editor of the Maroon. “Last year its focus was on political issues–the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Bosnia. And this year their focus has been almost entirely on campus investigative stories–Fogel, the university hospital, whether it denies low-income patients. Once they got into the free market they actually had to sell their paper, and to have front-page stories about how Israel is raping the Palestinian people does not sit well with many advertisers.”

Boisvert replied that expanded coverage of campus affairs was something the Journal had intended all along. That’s why he frets about the university having to sign the Journal’s checks. “The Maroon doesn’t worry much about that because it’s not interested in hard-hitting reporting about the university,” he said. “But we definitely are.”

Crewdson’s Conflict

Here’s a poser: should the reporter who has to report the deliverance of Robert Gallo be the one who launched the investigation of him in the first place? What’s poetic justice may not be good journalism.

Not that the break the government gave Gallo last week when it called off its dogs was the stuff of total victory. “I have been completely vindicated,” says Gallo. That isn’t the case. Nevertheless, a finding of scientific misconduct by Gallo was withdrawn. No new evidence in his favor came to light, but an appeals board of the Department of Health and Human Services established new standards of evidence HHS’s Office of Research Integrity concluded were too high to meet. “As a practical matter,” said the chief of ORI, his office could not proceed.

The Tribune’s John Crewdson, however much it may have galled him, had to write this story. As he acknowledged in his article last Saturday, Gallo’s troubles began with Crewdson’s massive 1989 history of the discovery of the AIDS virus. Crewdson suggested then that the virus Gallo claimed to have isolated and reproduced actually was misappropriated from the French, and he’s been harrying Gallo ever since.

“I hope that this is the beginning of the end for AIDS,” a scientist in Gallo’s laboratory gushed in the New York Times when the case was dropped. Oh, sure! So now every single person who’s died of AIDS since 1989 must belong on Crewdson’s conscience! Gallo despises Crewdson; his book Virus Hunting alludes to him in these colorful terms: “one journalist’s bizarre and obsessively defamatory article,” “this ridiculous view,” “from analysis to assassination,” “one obsessive reporter,” “most ludicrous of all were publications by John Crewdson of the Chicago Tribune.”

Crewdson’s article about Gallo’s good fortune was more partisan than Philip Hilts’s in the New York Times, but a bigger problem is that it was less coherent. Hilts laid out Gallo’s history–and Crewdson’s role in it–with greater clarity and dispassion than Crewdson did. Crewdson seemed much more comfortable on Sunday in the role of interpreter. He maintained in the Perspective section that a breach has opened between the scientists who judge scientists (ORI) and the lawyers who judge scientists (the HHS appeals board). Gallo got off because the lawyers employed “a standard of evidence that investigators complain guarantees few scientists could ever be held responsible for misconduct.”

But Crewdson concluded with a warning: U.S. representative John Dingell is nearing the end of his own two-year investigation, which “is expected to produce much new information–and even some answers.” It sounds as if Crewdson knows more than he’s telling and can hardly wait to tell it.

Maybe a paper should assign two reporters to stories such as this–one to dig and another to cover with majestic evenhandedness whatever comes along. But by now the Tribune institutionally is almost as closely identified with getting Gallo as Crewdson is personally. A “good cop, bad cop” tandem wouldn’t impress anybody. Besides, what other reporter could be trusted with the HIV story–not by the lofty standard of disinterestedness but by the mundane one of knowing what he’s talking about? A first principle of journalism is not that the reporter must remain scrupulously above the fray. It’s that he must remain scrupulously above the fray except when it’s more convenient that he isn’t. The Tribune followed this flexible maxim to the letter.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.