Dan Rather and the elite quarantine

BY RAFFI MELKONIAN

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I don’t know the details of what happened between Professor Ogletree and his ill-fated book. Since everyone should have heard the story by now, it suffices to say that the justly famed scholar’s latest work contained some inadvertent plagiarisms. Ultimately, Professor Ogletree has both apologized and taken substantial steps to fix the problem. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of the matter. People make mistakes, and this episode will rightly take its place among that sprawling pantheon.

But the unfortunate events surrounding All Deliberate Speed aren’t the first time Harvard has had to deal with this and related topics. Indeed, students are relatively often found to be actually, intentionally, cheating. And given the amount of righteous indignation surrounding the Ogletree episode, it’s surprising to note that Harvard’s vengeance is limited. From what I can remember of my last two years, cheaters have been frequently dealt with administratively – the university’s equivalent of a slap on the wrist.

But the story is different for those found cheating to get into Harvard. We need only look back to April 10 of last year, for example, when the Adviser cryptically noted that a person who tampered with their grades for graduate admission had been duly expelled. People enamored of the College, on the other hand, might prefer to remember the sordid saga of Blair Hornstein, the putative undergraduate whose admission was revoked after details of her dubious efforts in high school got national attention. The message from both episodes is stark and unmistakable. Cheat once you’re here, and the soft mercy of your colleagues awaits. But if you cheat to get here, if you break the cordon sanitaire around the drab-brick tower, then you’re thrust out from among us like the most loathsome of beasts, at once noxious and irredeemable. The self-appointed elite protects its own, and scorns the undeserving interloper.

Harvard’s not the only one to have adopted this puzzling double standard. Indeed, those who’ve been following the news recently will have noticed that CBS is in the midst of trying to save their longtime headliner, Dan Rather. If the wizened (but sadly not wise) anchor had been a young reporter just breaking into the big-time – like Jayson Blair, for example – he would have long ago been fed to the media wolves for such a blazing indiscretion. Rather might not have invented the disputed documents or the underlying story, but blinding oneself to apparent forgeries of such fiendish incompetence seems almost as bad, and his “fake but accurate” defense sounds like the childish moaning of a high schooler found checking his hand for history notes he’d inked the night before. But Rather is “in the club,” and he’s been there for a long time. And so, instead of tossing both Rather and his prevarications overboard, CBS seems willing to sacrifice the last flapping strands of their journalistic reputation in his defense. I don’t mind particularly, as I’d like nothing better than to see CBS submerged. But surely Sumner Redstone and his shareholders must think otherwise, and I’ve even heard of some people with a soft spot for “60 Minutes.”

Dan Rather aside, I’m not sure my less-seemly side minds the double standard I’ve discussed above. After all, we’ll all be protected from our mistakes and lies to some extent too, and I’m not naïve enough to believe our students above either. But amid commentary that seems to think the real double standard is that we treat our students too roughly, it seems useful to point out the extent to which we’re pampered. As those of us who’ve been through summer associate programs will confirm, mere bouts of negligence, or incompetence, or even recklessness, seem to roll off our backs, at least until we poke our heads out into the real world. And though I’m not proud of it, I guess I’m grateful for such small mercies. I’m sure they’ll save us trouble yet.

Raffi Melkonian is a 3L. His column will appear regularly.

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