As Interim President Wanda Austin passes the torch to President-elect Carol Folt in July, Folt will inherit a slew of scandals that have been unearthed over the last year. With this transition, the media’s spotlight will now be directed onto Folt to see whether she will fulfill promises of increased accountability and transparency and build a healthy collaboration with news media.
With its own journalism school, USC is widely seen as an institution that values the media and its role in upholding a just society. But at past events, like the “Conversations with the Dean” event held by the Gould School of Law in February, Austins’ comments reflected a concerning distrust in journalism. According to Annenberg Media, Austin reportedly said the Los Angeles Times is “just having a great time at [USC’s] expense” in reporting on these scandals and is “interested in selling newspapers, so they’re looking for the most salacious titles that they can possibly come up with.”
However, the leader of a university should be ready for scrutiny — by both its stakeholders and the press. While scrutiny is difficult and uncomfortable for anyone affiliated with USC, an administrator with the University’s best interests at heart must understand the role of news media in keeping institutions accountable.
The purpose of journalism is not to coddle or comfort; rather, it exists to serve as a watchdog to strengthen accountability. When institutions like USC try to bury problems in hopes of them dissolving instead of addressing them and exposing the errors of our ways, people inevitably get hurt. We saw this with the scandal involving former campus gynecologist George Tyndall, in which USC ignored reports from victims about sexual assault for years.
Yet, USC quietly reached a settlement with him and kept the scandal hidden until the Times article was released and still failed to report Tyndall to the medical board until nearly a year after he left the University. Without the Times’ reporting, the survivors’ voices may have still been suppressed by USC in an effort to keep the lid sealed on these controversies and save face.
To say that the reporters covering these scandals are having a “great time” unfairly sensationalizes rigorous, conscientious reporting. As fellow members of the Los Angeles community, the Times reporters probably take no pleasure in airing USC’s dirty laundry. It is not the reporting that sensationalizes the issues but the shocking elements of the scandals themselves that interest people. The Times, as well as other outlets across the country have simply done their job in informing the community of facts they deserve to know.
Labeling the Times’ headlines as “salacious” is a misguided critique on the nature of journalism. The role of headlines is to summarize an article and grab readers’ attention. To the extent that the headline is accurate and factual, writing it in a captivating manner is no sin — after all, a journalist’s role is to inform the community, which can only be done if their articles pique interest and are read.
Austin is certainly entitled to her own opinions on the Times’ reporting, but as the head of our University, her words reflect a worrying and increasingly rampant sentiment of distrust in an institution that serves to protect the vulnerable and hold those in power accountable.
If USC’s administration is as committed to atonement and transparency as it claims to be, it must support journalism even when the truths it unveils are uncomfortable to read and tough to swallow.
At the same Gould event, Austin said the key to good leadership involves “holding up a mirror to yourself.” When Folt assumes the USC presidency, hopefully she can support and respect the institutions holding up a mirror to USC: the media.