Why? That was the first question that came to my mind when I saw the front page article about Zach Jesse. Why does this article exist? Why is it written the way it is? And why is it appearing now?
Two important notes: One, do not think for one second that I am a so-called "rape apologist." Three very dear friends of mine (one of whom is a sister in every way but blood) have been raped. I have never felt more rage or helplessness than when they were attacked, and what happened to them still saddens me deeply. Two, in the interest of full disclosure, Zach Jesse is a close friend of mine. We were in the same section in our first year of law school and quickly became friends, forming a year-long study group with three others in our section. We remain friends to this day.
I am incredibly fortunate that I was able to attend one of the top journalism schools in the country as an undergrad. The lessons I learned there were solidified in the two years I spent in the business and continue to inform me to this day. All of my schooling and experience has led me to one conclusion: The Collegian's news judgment was severely lacking in both running this story and in the way the story was written.
I am in no way defending what Zach did ten years ago; it was wrong, and UVA's newspaper would have been totally justified in running a story about the rape. Which, in fact, it did. And if the purpose of the story (as some have theorized) was to make women aware of a registered sex offender on campus, why is the story being run now, rather than when Zach arrived on campus?
The argument that Zach's history is a matter of public record rings hollow to me. That is certainly a true statement, but the supposition that anyone who types Zach's name into Google would find his criminal record leaps over a much bigger point: Why would anyone be Googling Zach at all? Both the story and opinion editor Ben Panko's response make it seem as though this information coming out is a given, but I fail to understand how. Does the staff of The Collegian regularly sit down and Google all 400+ law students in hopes something will come up? I sincerely hope that the reporters for The Collegian will come forward and say what the genesis of their story was; the odds of this happening organically seem to be rather small.
Panko stated that the purpose of this story was not to drag Zach's name through the mud, but that "the main focus of this article actually concerns the University of Richmond School of Law." This might have been the intent of the article, but that was not what ended up on paper. Focusing on one case is a classic tool of the journalism trade, and it is one I used on several occasions when I was still in the business. The story here, however, does not use Zach as an illustrative example; Zach is the story. The Law School is a backdrop to hint at issues of favoritism, conspiracy and underhanded dealings.
This issue starts with the headline; by saying "Richmond law school set to graduate," it simultaneously downplays Zach's accomplishments and hard work in getting to a point where he can graduate from law school and makes it sound as though the law school is the active party in graduating Zach, rather than him earning his degree.
The issues only continue within the article. Sentences such as, "It is unclear why a registered sex offender was admitted on scholarship to the law school," when the answer can be found within the article. Dean Perdue says that "she could not offer specific information about the admission of or other decisions concerning any law students." That's why it is unclear. There's no mystery here; I encourage anyone to walk into the law school admissions office and ask to know about my admissions process and why I got a scholarship. The answer will be the same: No. It's not a conspiracy or coverup, it's federal law.
Furthermore, if it is true that "how Jesse came to receive ... his other leadership positions remains unanswered," then the reporters have failed massively in showing basic journalistic skill. I will take it upon myself to answer those questions: He earned them because he is one of the smartest and hardest-working people in the law school. There's no conspiracy to put Zach on the Moot Court Board; he worked through the competition like dozens of others and earned his place. Zach got his leadership position on the Honor Council because he was voted into that position. He is perfectly capable of determining issues of plagiarism and cheating, regardless of his past. The wording of the article twists standard procedure into coverup and "no comment" into conspiracy.
We are supposed to be a nation of second chances. Zach Jesse has taken that second chance, and done well in law school with it. In his response, Ben Panko claims that the story is not about Zach Jesse, and is an example of "compelling journalism." I charge that both of those statements are incorrect. This story isn't compelling journalism; it is tabloid journalism, and it is nothing more than muckraking about Zach Jesse. I believe The Collegian has shown exceptionally poor journalistic skill in both the composition and writing of the article and has exhibited shoddy news judgment in running a story that is not current, timely or newsworthy. The news judgment is even more suspect given the timing of the article--less than six months before graduation. The Collegian has decided that ten years later, at one of the most important crossroads of his life, Zach Jesse should wear a scarlet letter for his actions, and that is the biggest failure of all.