Robert VerBruggen and J. Michael Bailey

"Many editors now feel that readily acknowledging mistakes can help strengthen credibility."

--Alicia C. Shepard, American Journalism Review, Vol. 20, June 1998

Northwestern University alum Robert VerBruggen was Editor-In-Chief of conservative student “newspaper” The Northwestern Chronicle when it published defamatory statements about me in 2005. VerBruggen's unprofessional response was more troubling in many ways than the initial error, as discussed below.

I have been a vocal critic of Northwestern's former psychology department chair, J. Michael Bailey, since 2003, primarily because of the way he exploits the media for his own pseudoscientific ends.

Robert VerBruggen ran the Chronicle like a blog. Unlike the real student newspaper The Daily Northwestern, contributors to the Chronicle posted articles that apparently received little or no journalistic oversight from VerBruggen or his staff before publication. When VerBruggen allowed Bailey to post a rambling defense of his questionable research and ethics, VerBruggen wrote, "To my knowledge, it is the first professor-written article we've ever run. There are of course conflicts with this setup, especially in that he is both a source and a writer" [emphasis added]. The Chronicle also lists Bailey as staff.

“Raw Data”

The Chronicle publishes many pieces under the title “Raw Data,” which apparently means any unsubstantiated, unedited materials a staff member chooses to put on the Chronicle website.

As an example, VerBruggen ran a 12 October 2005 story mentioning me. It contained libelous claims that I filed for bankruptcy and other defamation. The article was written by Willow Arune and put online by Bailey. VerBruggen’s predecessor was was still listed on the Chronicle site as editor, and she was smart enough to remove the article in question immediately upon receipt of my complaint. VerBruggen was clearly upset by this, writing:

I apologize that our former editor took it upon herself to resolve the situation. It was not her place to.

I also apologize for posting the article without reading it more closely; I received a handful of documents meant to complement the story as raw data, so I did not edit them. I presumed the person who gave them to me would have the evidence necessary to support the statements.

I have removed the section of the account pertaining to bankruptcy, and I apologize for its initial inclusion.

The fact that Robert VerBruggen was more upset about the previous editor usurping his authority than about shirking his duties as an editor should give pause to any graduate journalism school or potential employer reviewing his résumé.

When I asked for the name of his advisor at Medill and pointed out that contributor and "self-confessed eccentric" Willow Arune claims to be an international fugitive charged in a multimillion dollar forgery, VerBruggen started getting a little snippy:

Anything you want to resolve, you will discuss directly with me.

Retraction

On 15 October 2005, VerBruggen printed a tepid retraction:

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous posting of this article contained an assessment of Andrea James' financial situation. James has asserted this assessment was not accurate, and the Chronicle has no independent evidence that it was. (Willow Arune had previously made the same assessment in Transgender Tapestry).

Upon reading VerBruggen's retraction, the Transgender Tapestry subscription manager confirmed these libelous claims by Arune do not appear anywhere in their publication. Once again, the Chronicle had no independent evidence (to use VerBruggen's phrase), and this time the bogus reporting was written by VerBruggen himself.

VerBruggen dragged another publication’s name into his mess with his irrelevant and unjournalistic justification for his earlier misstep. On 25 October, VerBruggen finally retracted his parenthetical excuse.

Conclusion

It appears VerBruggen saw this “Editor-In-Chief” title as more of a way to pad a résumé than an actual journalistic responsibility. Cold fusion, Intelligent Design, and pseudoscientists like Bailey will continue to get uncritical carte blanche coverage and “balance” as long as naïve journalists like Robert VerBruggen exist. If his old personal website is any indication, he still doesn't accept responsibility for his missteps. Let's hope that VerBruggen's practice of publishing “raw data” will be an exception among the next wave of journalists. True professionals take responsibility for their work and know not to exacerbate a journalistic misstep by making the same mistake again.

References

VerBruggen, Robert. Correspondence with the author. 13-14 October 2005.

VerBruggen , Robert. From the editor. 25 October 2005.
http://www.chron.org/tools/viewart.php?artid=1270

Staff profile for J. Michael Bailey. Northwestern Chronicle. Retrieved 25 October 2005.
http://www.chron.org/tools/bio.php?id=jmbail

Bailey JM. Academic McCarthyism. Northwestern Chronicle. 9 October 2005.
http://www.chron.org/tools/viewart.php?artid=1248

Further reading

Goldacre B. Don't dumb me down. The Guardian, 8 September 2005.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/badscience/story/0,12980,1564369,00.html

Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University
http://www.bu.edu/com/jo/science/

National Association of Science Writers (NASW)
http://www.nasw.org/

NASW: A Field Guide for Science Writers
http://www.nasw.org/field.htm

Lewis R. Scientists can help keep the media's take on research closer to reality. The Scientist, Nov. 25, 1996: Volume 10, Issue 23. p. 11.
http://www.the-scientist.com/1996/11/25/11/1

Mooney C. Blinded by science: How ‘balanced’ coverage lets the scientific fringe hijack reality. Columbia Journalism Review. 2004: November/December.
http://www.cjr.org/issues/2004/6/mooney-science.asp