Education

Georgetown Prep after the Smear

A network television news camera outside the Supreme Court in 2014. (File photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The media circus is gone, but mess they left behind remains.

On the afternoon of Thursday, September 13, as parents arrived at our school to pick up students, a journalist from a major network camouflaged herself among them, avoiding identification at our front gate. She was subsequently found snooping around the halls of our main building and was escorted off campus. She later apologized.

But others soon followed. One reporter from a national newspaper deceived his way into our library so that he could rummage through old yearbooks. Some of our alumni had news crews staked out in front of their houses. Reporters were even harassing their elderly parents, tracking down home addresses and banging on doors, demanding interviews.

Journalists phoned us by the dozens, mostly demanding to know how long we had presided over a circus of drug and alcohol abuse, misogyny, and criminality. At least these reporters gave us the courtesy of a call. Many other national media outlets simply ran archly critical stories without bothering to contact us at all.

This was all necessary for American democracy, some of them explained, since one of our graduates had become a Supreme Court nominee. In a sense, that’s understandable. But as I learned firsthand, the lens trained on Georgetown Prep was warped, obscuring details that ran counter to preferred narratives, and the resulting portrait of our community was grossly distorted.

We were garishly described as an institution that “celebrated heavy drinking,” “a troubled, morally questionable symbol of a snobby elite [where] alcohol was an integral part of the school’s identity,” and a place where “disregard or mistreatment of women [was] widely accepted.” A “debauched . . . scene of cloistered young men.” And those are just a few such insults from the more than 60 articles that appeared about Prep in the Washington Post alone.

Another article in the Washington Post, headlined “Why bad behavior gets a pass at elite institutions,” speculated outrageously and without evidence that “sordid” institutions such as ours “funnel women toward rich, white men who can misbehave with few consequences.”

Nor did the untruths conclude with the Senate proceedings. Just last week a Post reporter contacted me about what she called a “fun little item” regarding our search for a new director of alumni relations. Despite the fact that I informed her, in writing, a mere eight minutes after she contacted me that the job had posted in July and had nothing to do with the present media frenzy, the Post printed her story falsely claiming the search came as a result of the very controversy that paper so breathlessly stoked. Worse, when I demanded a correction, the Post initially “stealth edited” the story without informing readers that it had been changed, even though the error undermined its entire premise. Only later, after additional entreaties, did the editors acknowledge their mistake and add a note at the top of the story.

Some advised us that we should just take our lumps, and soon the furor would dissipate. Many commentators, peddling fake concern, urged us to repudiate our predecessors, Jesuit and lay alike, to trash their legacies and start fresh.

But integrity is not about doing what’s expedient. We must take responsibility for our shortcomings, but not at the expense of defending the guiding mission of our school. Yes, we have labored for years to protect students from a broader culture chockablock with degrading influences. And yes, we are painfully aware that all our students, and indeed everyone in our community, will fall short in the eyes of God. Human failing, and the effort to reconcile our lives with the teachings of Christ, are at the very heart of our school. We are not indifferent to sin and temptation. Indeed, we have built our lives around confronting them through faith and service.

That’s why we returned the phone calls and the emails from reporters. The president of our school, the Reverend James R. Van Dyke, penned not one but three separate public statements and essays reflecting on where we could have done more while setting the record straight on the falsehoods told about us.

Here are some specifics ignored in the torrent of coverage: Every student takes rigorous classes in Christian ethics, personal and social. They all learn Catholic social thought, to understand the demands of a faith that does justice. The students themselves run what’s called the Arrupe Society, a service program that runs food drives and blood-donation initiatives, serves the Best Buddies program (founded by a Georgetown Prep alumnus), volunteers care at an assisted-living facility for elderly women, and tutors in impoverished sections of our community.

Nowhere did the press mention how those programs helped produce alumni who went on to lives of public service — in elected office, the diplomatic corps, the military, the judiciary, and countless charitable groups such as Somos Amigos Medical Missions, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Special Olympics, and Save the Children.

Instead of presenting a three-dimensional view of culture at Georgetown Prep and the type of young men it produces, reporters took up amateur cryptology, attempting decode the obscure meanings of yearbook citations from 35 years in the past. One of America’s most distinguished magazines, The New Yorker, even aired speculation that one such allusion may “refer[] to the practice of anally ingesting alcohol or drugs” — a lunacy that was swiftly repeated by many other publications. We were in contact with a reporter for a national newspaper, working on a long-form story about Prep in the 1980s. He intended to debunk this particular unfounded rumor, among others, that he knew to be false from his own time as a Prep student. He had other named sources to back him up. But the piece was never published. Here’s the explanation the reporter gave us: “The essay didn’t run because I couldn’t make it work. I agreed with my editors in this assessment after reviewing my drafts.”

Nobody at Georgetown Prep expects special pity in light of these experiences. Indeed, the problem is that almost any institution could be broadly caricatured in the underhanded way we have. Find examples of human failing or sin, declare that a pervasive culture exists, and then add an indignant denunciation that it was allowed to happen.

In 1981, the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for a story that its reporter had entirely fabricated. Does that mean the Washington Post fosters a culture of deceit? In 2003, a New York Times reporter — who had been fired for plagiarism and worse — wrote a book claiming the paper was rife with drug and alcohol abuse. Is that account true or perhaps is there more to the story?

Balance and accuracy aren’t just abstract concepts. They are part of the explicit promise that news outlets make to the public they claim to serve. But anyone hoping for a nuanced and even-handed look at the true mission and track record of Georgetown Prep would have found few examples in the mainstream press.

At the height of the press scrutiny one of our alumni, Joseph Schmitz ’74, published an essay that touched on the hostility toward our school. Schmitz noted that he had “testified before Congress multiple times as a constitutional due process expert” and had “served as a Senate-confirmed inspector general and authored ‘The Inspector General Handbook’ (2013).” He wrote that he was “not aware any credible evidence that ‘misogyny ran deep’ at Georgetown Prep, not during my time there in the 1970’s, not during Brett Kavanaugh’s time there in the 1980’s, and not during my five sons’ time over two decades starting in 1995.” No reporters ever contacted him for his input.

It is hard not to wonder what has motivated all this deep indifference and indeed deep antipathy from the press. And it is harder still to avoid the conclusion that many simply sought an expedient narrative that would bolster the arguments made by their ideological allies, tipping the scales toward their preferred political outcome.

Let me anticipate an argument that we might hear: that we are too thin-skinned, unaccustomed to criticism. That with the privilege of being an esteemed school comes the responsibility of enduring tough public scrutiny. Yet this past summer, before this story ever emerged, we set the theme for the coming academic year: The Year of Discernment. That’s a quality of thinking that St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, believed was fundamental to the spiritual life. It means reflecting each day on our consolations so that they may be recognized and cherished — and seeing what St. Ignatius called our desolations, so that they may be identified and overcome, so that we become truly free for a greater, more generous response to God’s loving presence in our midst. We think and teach on that every day.

If there has been any self-reflection from the press in the aftermath of their barrage, it has been hard to find. We’ve seen no contrition for the harms caused to many wholly innocent people, no apparent concern for how the haranguing may have affected our community or the young people in our care.

We pointed out many of these problems in the reporting to our hometown paper, the Washington Post, and urged them to put serious thought to it. Instead, we got a reply that lectured us on the subtleties of journalism and insisted that they had done nothing wrong. Then, incredibly, they asked if they could sit in on student classes and ask them “about the negative fallout.”

The answer to that is no.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its original posting.

Patrick Coyle — Patrick Coyle is director of marketing and communications for Georgetown Preparatory School and a member of the class of 2003.

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