Monday, November 23, 2015

Post-Dispatch Editor Withdraws from Webster Class After Outcry

Posted By on Mon, Nov 23, 2015 at 6:30 AM

click to enlarge Webster University - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/PATRICK GIBLIN

The political and national editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Christopher Ave, had signed on to teach a class on politics and social media next semester at Webster University.

But Ave withdrew from the adjunct position on Friday, following an outcry over his role editing — and defending — a controversial story earlier this year. He tells Riverfront Times he wanted to "spare the university from further distraction and controversy."

The story, which was the subject of a Riverfront Times column on June 22 and a subsequent cover story, outed Jefferson City political consultant Brittany Burke as a possible rape victim — even while detailing, at great length, the "night of partying" that led up the possible assault. It also gleefully reported details of Burke's sex life, including her affair with a married politician, even though that relationship had at best a tenuous connection to the incident.

See also: How the Post-Dispatch Shamed a Possible Rape Victim — and Embarrassed Itself

The daily's handling of the story drew condemnation from the Columbia Journalism Review and the Poynter Institute, as well as the feminist website Jezebel. But Ave has never backed down or apologized — instead issuing a statement standing by the story and also defending it on KMOX.

click to enlarge Brittany Burke - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRITTANY BURKE
  • Photo courtesy of Brittany Burke
  • Brittany Burke
And that came back to bite him with his recent adjunct appointment at Webster.

Burke happens to be an alumnus of the Webster University School of Communications. So when she heard Ave had been hired to teach the class, she fired off a letter to Dean Eric W. Rothenbuhler, detailing both problems with the Post-Dispatch's journalistic technique (she was never given a chance to talk off the record by reporter Virginia Young) and the story itself (in addition to being outed as a possible rape victim, she was wrongly identified as a lobbyist). 

More than that, she detailed the way the story humiliated her. "Radio and TV personalities were debating my reliability, morality and whether or not I was victim enough," she wrote. "The same thing happened on Twitter. I began receiving degrading and harassing messages on Facebook. Follow-up stories ensued calling me a 'professional train wreck' and an 'irresponsible sorority girl' that 'played the rape card.' A graphic of what my personal rape card would look like was designed and shared with the world on Twitter."

The Journal, which is the student paper at Webster, ran Burke's letter at the top of its website. Twitter outrage followed. Burke says she heard from numerous supporters.

Within a day, Ave had withdrawn. 

In a prepared statement, the university said on Friday, "Today Saint Louis Post Dispatch Political and National Editor Christopher Ave notified us that he was withdrawing from teaching for us next semester. The class he was scheduled to teach, on politics and social media, was a special topics class scheduled to coincide with the election cycle. We will be working to identify a suitable substitute."

Ave also gave us a statement, saying,

I initially agreed to teach at Webster University because I believed students would benefit from the course I was asked to conceive and design, especially in an election year. As I said in my resignation letter, I still believe that to be true. I find it unfortunate that any person — well intentioned or otherwise — would seek to limit academic freedom at an institution of higher learning. However, I decided to withdraw from the appointment in an effort to spare the university from further distraction and controversy.

Burke says she's relieved that the matter has been resolved so quickly. 

"I hate to take joy in people's misery," she says. "But I want to see him gone. He just seems to be out of touch. I just think he's bad for journalism."

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com


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