By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Making sense of the Amy Bishop story

In my latest for the Guardian, I warn of the danger that news organizations will try to get too far ahead of a sensational story.

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  1. Neil Sagan

    Danger indeed. Kennedy engages in the same journalistic malpractice – sensationalism and speculation – that he cautions others, scolds really, not to get out “too far ahead of.”

    Has Bishop raised the specter of an unidentified black man being a suspect? No, but that doesn’t stop Dan from bringing it up. Sure, it happened in Boston and the reporting of it it was a failure of journalism, except for the Herald’s Kim Tan who knew Stuart’s story didn’t hold water.

    Using the word “Danger” as a caution about journalism in a story about a homicide may be as hyperbolic and ridiculous as it is ironical and inappropriate. Moreover, it puts the good professor up on a pedestal of journalistic professionalism and after all isn’t that really the point?

  2. BP Myers

    And sometimes, journalistic instincts are vindicated:

    Prosecutor says Amy Bishop could have been charged in 1986

  3. Steve Stein

    Adam’s on the case, watching the media run with the killer nerd angle!

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: That is such a great item. Thanks for linking to it. But let’s be clear. It’s not the “media.” It’s the Herald.

  4. BP Myers

    Heh. Adam wrote: “I am not, I confess, a Dungeons & Dragons connisseur.”

    Translation: He’s played a few times but doesn’t want to admit it.

    Anyway, nice to see him showing some love to message board commenters. He usually goes out of his way to denigrate most of what he reads.

  5. Mary DeChillo

    Some of the best information coming out about this case is being printed, of all places, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, usually a publication that avoids these kinds of stories. Read the comments after each story and you will get a glimpse into academia (most of those commenting I assumer are academics of some sort, not the general reading public). It’s a world under itself. The hot top is whether or not denial of tenure played a part in her alledgedly shooting the faculty members.

  6. Aaron Read

    Virtually everyone commenting at the Chronicle is in academia because few non-academics pay for the subscription & website access; only a very few parts of the Chronicle’s website are free.

    I worked FOR colleges in various contractor and volunteer roles for ten years after going to BU. Then in 2007 I actually went to work AT a college, and man what a difference. When you’re in the inside…black is white, up is down, freedom is slavery and reality is fiction. I think Dan will back me up on this.

    Also worth noting: denial of tenure can be for a variety of reasons, no less than half of which are capricious, mean-spirited, unfair and have nothing to do with your skillset or ability. And “never forgive, never forget” is the slogan of academia everywhere. That’s bad enough, but denial of tenure is virtually a death sentence for most people; you’ve just spent at least 15-20 years of your life working towards this one goal and it’s been blown to hell, no chance for review or recourse…and there are virtually no other options. Basically it’s “get tenure” or it’s “start your life over at age 40 with no marketable skills”. I might be exaggerating a little, but not much.

    Let’s not forget how incredibly hideous the job market is for academics these days…read William Pannapacker’s excellent series about “Just Don’t Go (to Grad School)” and advanced degrees in the humanities.

    Note: FWIW it is somewhat better for those in the natural sciences, as Bishop was; her PhD is in genetics. It’s still not great, though.

    Yeah, sure, the economy sucks for everyone…but not too many jobs require you to make a two decade commitment before experiencing a 90% chance that you will never get even a living-wage-paying job in your field. Nor do many jobs have such gaping inequality…by which I mean between those who have tenure and those who don’t; coupled with the bizarre and not-entirely-based-in-reality “rules” for which one must live by to achieve tenure. Yes there’s inequality between the stockboy and the CEO, but you can follow the logic of that inequality…even if it’s horrible logic. I’ve consistently seen the tenure process baffle those who aren’t in academia. Hell, even those who ARE in academia.

    To be frank, between the enourmous stress, the persistent inequality of tenure, the unreality of academia, and Bishop’s own instability (I’m making an assumption on that last point, but I don’t think I’m reaching too far)…it doesn’t really surprise me that Bishop reacted in this way.

    To be honest, based on my own experience, I’m kinda surprised more people in her position don’t react that way. It’s just so easy to feel backed into a corner and aggrieved by a patently unjust system. True or not, if that’s what a person is feeling and their life as they know it is at an end…are we surprised that such a person could be powderkeg waiting to blow?

  7. Mary DeChillo

    Aaron, Thanks for your thoughts on the tenure angle. Academia is a world unto itself. One might call it feudal, from the viewpoint of adjunct and non-tenured faculty. I feel badly for Dr. Bishop’s 4 children, the collateral in this case.

  8. Steve Stein

    Is it just the Herald? I thought I saw it in other places (possibly spawned from the Herald story).

    Talking Points Memo has the “missing” Braintree police report from 1986.

  9. Nial Lynch

    Dan- Your Guardian piece links to the Herald story where a relative describes Bishop “a far-left political extremist who was obsessed with President Obama to the point of being off-putting.”

    A quick look at the first 400 hits in a Google search finds exactly one MsM cite of the description- the original Herald story. It would be my guess that if the relative had said that she was “a far-right political extremist who was obsessed with Sarah Palin” it would have been more widely reported.

  10. BP Myers

    “It would be my guess that if the relative had said that she was “a far-right political extremist who was obsessed with Sarah Palin” it would have been more widely reported.”

    Perhaps it’s merely the source, and a case of the boy who cried wolf.

    When you call everyone who doesn’t agree with you a “far-left extremist,” it is perhaps easy for the one time it may be true to be lost in all of the noise.

  11. Sean Griffin

    Nice try, Nial Lynch. So where is the MSM on the Gregory Girard (Manchester-by-the-sea weapons stockpiler a Palin fan and Tea Party supporter)story?

  12. Becky Hart

    What strikes me about this story is how differently it might have played out if Amy Bishop was, instead, Andrew Bishop. Would a young man who shot his sister, threatened someone with a shotgun, punched a fellow restaurant patron in the face, and told people his frustration with neighborhood children might come to blows have been treated so leniently? I fear that while we take violence by men seriously, we don’t do the same for women. There were many points in this woman’s life where intervention by law enforcement and/or the justice system could and should have prevented the terrible crime in Alabama. Voilence by women may not be as common, but it should be addressed when it occurs.

  13. Aaron Read

    The Chronicle of Higher Ed has posted a nice article (and fortunately in the “free” section) that explores the potential link between denial of tenure and “going postal”.

    On a side note, I learned today that many college campuses (I won’t comment about my own campus…partly for propriety and partly because it’s not relevant) do not perform background checks on faculty. Changing something like that seems like it’d be easy to do but it’s not; it’s a subtle but far-reaching psychological effect that further alienates a culture of “being above the fray” that’s common in academia. I suspect that in the wake of Amy Bishop you’ll see a lot of campuses rush to change that point, and no doubt some will do it well, some will ramrod it through with little public disapproval, and some will try it and the faculty will scream bloody murder over it. (pun not quite intended)

    @Becky Hart: I think that’s a very valid point. But I’d like to add to it: the tenure system can be rampagingly unfair to everyone, but it’s much worse for women by virtue of childbearing and childrearing…two things being on the tenure track not only makes very difficult to do but doing them will make it hard to get (or stay) on the tenure track because it’s often looked down on. Gender inequality is alive and well at many college campuses. FWIW, that does not appear to really be a factor in the Amy Bishop case.

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