Saturday, August 6, 2011

National “Scandal” (Part II)

The conservative online magazine, The Daily Caller, has recently printed two more “exposés” on Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat/Iowa) and my best friend, Josh Pruyn.

Here are The Daily Caller’s Parts One, Two, and Three if you care to read. If you don’t (and I don’t blame you if you don’t), here’s a brief recap of events that I covered in my recent post, “National ‘Scandal,’” that should bring you up to speed:

My friend Josh, years ago, worked as a student recruiter for an evil for-profit school called Westwood College. Over the course of his five months at Westwood, he took note of the many unethical recruiting practices that were encouraged by superiors on the Westwood salesroom floor. Eventually, he quit. And last fall, Josh testified before the Senate about his experiences at Westwood during a hearing presided over by Sen. Tom Harkin, who was aware of the many crimes the for-profit college industry had been committing. Recently, journalist Jonathan Armstrong of The Daily Caller printed three articles about Josh and Harkin, claiming, for one, that Harkin’s staff “supplied” Josh with an answer to a question that Harkin was going to ask him. In Part Three, Armstrong reports that Josh lied about a particular anecdote (which I’ll get to in a bit.)

[Before I go on, I should admit that this fiasco has stirred my passions and enflamed my anger like little else. And I write the following not with steely objectivity in mind—only the impassioned truth. This narrative, as you can tell, includes most everything I love or loathe in this world: the for-profit college industry, billions of dollars of student debt, millions of hapless debtors, the desecration of my friend's honor, and the rightwing's brainwashing media. (No, actually, I loathe all these things.) The only thing missing from this story that could excite my ire even more is news of Westwood’s new initiative to fund a genocide on all of the arctic’s moose calves—an event that would surely push me to join some lunatic, gun-toting anti-everything fringe group like the Montana militia. (Note to self: Joining the Montana militia probably should have no place in my fantasies.)]

I digress. Please permit me to sort out all the bullshit into smoking, smelly, orderly piles:

1. Josh is “supplied” an answer.

Armstrong reports, in Part One, that Josh was supplied answers by an aide of Senator Harkin. Let me back up and explain the story a bit… At the time of the Senate hearing (Fall 2010), there were baseless and flagrantly false rumors that Josh had a “connection” to the James Hoyer law firm that was, at the time, suing Westwood. (Josh has, literally, connections to no one minus his online Euchre friends and members of his old club college hockey team.) If Josh did in fact have an unethical connection to or was getting paid by the James Hoyer law firm, then news of such a relationship could have, as Armstrong correctly observes, “undermined [Josh’s] credibility as a witness” in the Senate testimony. (Needless to say, Josh had no such connection with the law firm.) To address this issue and to give Josh an opportunity to make it known to all that he had no such connections, Senator Harkin would ask Josh a question about such connections at the hearing. Senator Harkin’s aide emailed Josh a suggested answer. The email is below.

I admit: it looks a little fishy. But here’s why it’s not fishy: First of all, everything Harkin’s aide wrote is true. Secondly, Josh told Harkin’s aide all this stuff. The words in that email are, more or less, Josh’s words. Harkin’s aide was merely repeating what Josh said to him. (To his credit, Armstrong points out that “the answer Pruyn gave in the hearing was technically true.”) So what’s the big fucking deal? There really is no big fucking deal, but let me go on…

2. Josh was hypnotized (Manchurian Candidate-style) and his brain was disfigured by an evil liberal not-for-profit that manipulated how worded his testimony. (Detect sarcasm, please.)

Josh wrote a testimony for the Senate hearing. This was edited by multiple people: 1. Angie Moreschi (who is a lawyer at the James Hoyer firm, which was independently suing Westwood); 2. Ryan McCord (who is Senator Harkin’s aide who sent the above email); 3. Jennifer Webber (who was from TICAS, a left-wing nonprofit organization.); and 4. Me, (who touched up his grammar in a couple rough spots.)

Armstrong insinuates that these groups (minus me) manipulated Josh’s words, and that they were more or less using Josh as a mouthpiece to do harm to Westwood for their own interests. It’s more than clear to me that they of course did want to make Westwood look bad—a task that, no doubt, is incredibly easy. And while I’m no legal ethics scholar, I quite frankly do see how the law firm’s suggestions to Josh might be unethical (even if they didn't suggest anything noteworthy). That said, this is the sort of stuff these people were changing in Josh’s testimony, as Armstrong reports:

-“I do have one suggestion,” said Jennifer Webber, member of TICAS, in an email, “and that is to remove the phrase where it says that he functioned like a salesperson with leads, like an encyclopedia salesperson. I don’t think an analogy is needed, plus, aren’t encyclopedias a good thing? They were (are?) are [sic] great resource in the days before the internet!”

-Also, McCord and Moreschi found a “factual weakness” in Josh’s essay: “I just want to make sure he’s giving the most accurate information,” they wrote.

Let me clarify that these people didn’t insert lies into Josh’s testimony or wildly radicalize his words. Rather they fact-checked his assertions and softened his tone. (McCord, for instance, questioned Josh if he really wanted to use the word “evil.”)

How, uh, dare they?

3. Josh, allegedly, lies to the Senate about a Westwood student named Jeffrey.

In his testimony, Josh claims that a prospective student, Jeffrey, was harassed by Josh’s superiors who wanted to sign him up. When contacted, Jeffrey, for whatever reason, couldn’t remember such a phone conversation. This, as Armstrong insinuates, further brings Josh’s testimony under question. Josh has no idea why Jeffrey doesn't remember that conversation.

4. Let's look at this from a wider angle. Westwood is evil and this is all bullshit.

-“If [an admissions rep] fell behind in your enrollments or start quotas you’d be expected to make at least 150 calls a day if you didn’t want to be harassed and threatened by your supervisor.”

-“At any given time, multiple contests for gift-cards, paid time-off and other incentives were offered [to admissions representatives] in order to motivate representatives to enroll as many students as possible.”

-“[The students] were often characterized and described among admissions staff as stupid, lazy, and generally unaware of what was in their own best interest.”

-“Individual enrollments could mean paid time-off or gift cards, and when I was there, a successful year earned the top representatives an all-expenses-paid trip to Cancun.”

-“The representatives I was told to emulate would exaggerate expected salary data, present misleading tuition information, and fabricate the credentials of faculty members.”

-“The most appalling example was when the assistant director of admissions on my team was presented with a “Best Liar” award at a team celebration.”

Armstrong or Westwood or anyone couldn’t question any of this because it's all true. And it was all terribly damaging to Westwood’s reputation. So what’s an evil corporation to do? You do the only thing you can: You try to damage the reputation of the witness. You try to damage Josh… You encourage people at “news organizations” with overt political agendas to write pseudo-news stories that do, on first appearance, looks like actual news to the polarized and easily deluded. You pick out meaningless, minor aspects of the story (Harkin’s aides email, the “Jeffrey” thing) and blow them out of proportion in hopes of bringing the whole testimony into question.

This is a non-issue. A non-story. I agree that there are some ethical questions about a law firm giving Josh’s suggestions, but in no way was any one manipulated, and in no way was anything falsified.

I’m disillusioned to see that the writer, Jonathan Armstrong, is my age (27). Any American, young Americans especially, I feel, should be empathetic toward the downtrodden and disadvantaged; toward those who’ve been lied to, bilked, and stolen from. We should be exposing stories about the corporations that steal from thousands, not the courageous few who risk all by standing up to them.

Yet what we have here is one of the many handmaidens to the corporate elites who--for favors or money or jobs--aid the avaricious and powerful on their crusades to make profits. I suppose I shouldn’t judge someone's character too harshly, as I know nothing about him other than what he's written in these stories. And hell, perhaps he was ordered to write such stories by his superiors? But if I’ve learned anything from Josh, it’s that the only voice one should heed, is not your boss’s, or your father's, or your president's, but the true arbiter of all that's right and wrong: that of your conscience.


Trish said...

If TV shows are anything to go on, witnesses are coached regularly (does the first part of that sentence lessen my credibility). Why is the right interested in exposing this as a 'scandal'?. Does it just go along with their desire to support big business in spite of the cost? Forgive me if you've already discussed this. my memory seems to be going. probably too much artificial sweetener. BTW, did you ever see the documentary of how Donald Rumsfeld helped get aspartame approval thru the FDA in spite of some alarming medical concerns?

Ken said...

Trish--Good question. Harkin is a Democrat and a progressive, so anything the right can get on him is good for them. Plus, this hearing has shown that the government needs to regulate the for-profit college industry, and the right hates everything about regulation. Haven't seen the Rumsfeld documentary. What's it called?

Ken said...

PS: Here's a good NY Times article reporting about fraud at a few more for-profits.