A troubling suicide raises questions about coverage ethics

The Virginia Quarterly Review is a tiny and respected literary journal that was founded in 1925 and which last broke with its tradition of genteel obscurity in 2006, when it became an overnight sensation by winning the National Magazine Award for general excellence, the industry’s top honor. Now it is in the news again, this time because its no. 2 editor, Kevin Morrissey, a hard-working 52-year-old journeyman, shot himself in the head near his redbrick office on the University of Virginia’s stately grounds.

Why his death, like most suicides, wasn’t ignored by the media isn’t immediately clear. Apparently because Morrissey’s relations with his boss had soured, his suicide has been seized upon as a case of workplace bullying. The affair has been fluttering through the national media and may be en route to becoming a cause célèbre.

That media embrace is both revealing and disturbing. What’s of greatest concern, I think, is the casual and uncritical way that the coverage has turned Morrissey’s death into a sociological parable—demonizing his boss and longtime friend, editor in chief Ted Genoways—and cherry-picked facts and anonymous comments to suggest that Morrissey was hounded to his death by an office tyrant.

That’s essentially the story offered by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, New York Post and the NBC Today Show, (the New York Observer dissented), with the most thorough accounts in the Chronicle of Higher Education (title: “What Killed Kevin Morrissey?”) and the Charlottesville, Va., alternative weekly, The Hook.

Yet the evidence of bullying is paper thin. The allegations against Genoways are a grab-bag of claims of favoritism, occasional harsh language and the like, capped by his putting Morrissey on a week’s paid leave after a clash with a co-worker.

Nowhere have I seen accounts of harassing behavior intended to belittle or publicly humiliate Morrissey—whom Genoways had brought with him when he started the Review’s turnaround in 2003. Nowhere are there tales of disproportionate burdens or ridiculous deadlines imposed on Morrissey. Nowhere is there persecution or verbal abuse. Where was the bullying?  

Yet in the aftermath, members of Morrissey’s family (from which he had been estranged), said they heard from staffers that he was demoralized by his treatment at work. So the bullying narrative emerged, and off we went.

How come? Why insist on this story line? I think, ironically, that the explanation lies, in part, in the peculiar ethical rules that govern coverage of suicide.

For the journalist a suicide story is always trouble. That’s partly because it’s painful and intrusive. And it’s partly because there’s an irreducible mystery at its core—why?—and the only person who might unlock that mystery, if questioned skillfully enough, is gone.

So you turn to the survivors. And while a reporter normally believes that with proximity comes credibility, that the nearer people are to the news the more valuable they are as sources, that’s often untrue—especially with suicides: The closer people are, the more damaged, baffled, guilt-ridden, emotionally invested, and problematic they’re likely to be as sources.

So the media steer clear. Although suicides claim twice as many lives as murders do, only three types generally make the news: those that take place in public, involve public figures—or exemplify some larger social problem.

Enter workplace bullying. This is a robust area of social science-type research and consultancy, so it’s easy to solicit learned sound bites on how perfectly some headline-worthy affair—no matter how poorly documented or weakly understood—fits a supposedly classic pattern of office abuse.

The result is a suicide that’s now legitimately newsworthy—but only if the reporter skirts the messy personal stuff: How serious was Morrissey’s depression, was he being treated, when did he buy his gun, had he threatened suicide before, how many years since he last spoke to his family, had he clashed with bosses elsewhere, what was that cryptic final note to an old girlfriend about? None of those questions, which touch on intensely private matters, are really addressed—even though they’re unquestionably relevant.

That’s because under the ethical strictures journalists subscribe to, if Morrissey died because he was lonely and despondent and dead-ended and because he over-reacted to routine workplace miseries, his suicide wouldn’t be any of the public’s business. It wouldn’t be a story.

So there’s an inherent professional reason to soft-pedal evidence of personal pathology, and to tilt the coverage toward this hot new social malady.

To think that compassionate ethical concerns would produce such bias is troubling. Equally troubling, in view of the media-fueled clamor for a sweeping university inquiry, is the possibility that the legacy of Morrissey’s death will be the death of the publication for which he worked so hard.

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18 responses to “A troubling suicide raises questions about coverage ethics

  1. Pingback: A troubling suicide raises questions about coverage ethics …

  2. This is, by far, the smartest and most level-headed analysis I’ve read on this tragedy. Thank you.

  3. Ed, reminds me of that piece we did on the ex-publisher at DBR. Good article.

  4. Mr. Wasserman, you write: “Nowhere have I seen accounts of harassing behavior intended to belittle or publicly humiliate Morrissey . . . Nowhere is there persecution or verbal abuse. Where was the bullying?”

    I am one of these people who, by being close to Kevin Morrissey and his suicide, must be (in your words) “damaged, baffled, guilt-ridden, emotionally invested, and problematic.” Yet allow me to lay out a set of documented facts that I think add up to just one example of workplace bullying at VQR:

    On July 19, Ted Genoways e-mailed Kevin Morrissey informing him that he had been accused of “unacceptable workplace behavior.” He then told Morrissey he could not come in to work; if he was at work, he must leave; he could not attend several already-scheduled meetings; he could not communicate with staff; he could not do any work unless expressly assigned by Genoways; and from home he must work normal business hours. (When Morrissey informed Genoways, by e-mail, that for technological reasons he was not able to do from home the work assigned to him, he received no response.)

    Genoways did not explain what “unacceptable workplace behavior” Morrissey was accused of. Instead, Genoways, who was out of the office for the week, told Morrissey he would investigate and then meet with Morrissey the following Monday. To my knowledge, during that time Genoways did not interview Morrissey or staff members Molly Minturn, Sheila McMillen, or Waldo Jaquith in order to investigate the truth of the allegation. To my knowledge, he did not inform his supervisors in the president’s office that he had taken action against Morrissey. To my knowledge he did not inform Human Resources either. He did not inform other staff members. Finally, Genoways told Morrissey that if he failed to comply with his instructions he would face disciplinary action.

    Apparently Genoways meant disciplinary action above and beyond being sent home for a week without explanation.

    To my knowledge, at a meeting with Genoways on Monday, July 26, with a representative of the president’s office present, Morrissey still was not told why he had been sent home. There was no evidence that any investigation had occurred. During the last week of his life, Morrissey sent Genoways at least one e-mail with several questions he needed answered in order to complete his regular duties; there was no reply. Then on Friday, July 30, Morrissey received an e-mail from Genoways telling him that he had possibly endangered the life of a Mexican journalist.

    It is no attack on Genoways personally to call this unacceptable management, even bullying. Nor is it to claim that Genoways is to blame for Morrissey’s death. It is merely to state, as I understand them, the facts of those two weeks — mostly absent what I think was a slow and sometimes almost shameful reaction by the University of Virginia. And it’s hardly a one-time incident; rather, this was part of a pattern, a record of which should exist at the university dating back at least three years.

    I agree with you that the “workplace bullying” trend story can flatten real events into a pre-packaged media narrative; however, I worry that you too easily dismiss the credibility of people you don’t know.

    • edwardwasserman

      You make an eloquent case, Mr. Wolfe, and you’re backing me into a corner, which isn’t a comfortable spot. Look, Genoways may be a tough and abrasive manager, and may have handled this situation ineptly. That’s regrettable. But I don’t think that’s what characterizing him as a bully means. To me, it suggests a pathology of victimization, a wanton abuse of authority, and a pattern of sadistic humiliation of vulnerable underlings. And that’s what I do not see in any of the accounts, including, with respect, your own. Rebuking a subordinate (especially via a private e-mail), removing him discreetly from a situation you think he’s screwing up (especially when you’re out of town and can’t deal directly)–these aren’t indefensible responses and are consistent with the actions of a boss who’s trying to act humanely, and whose subordinate he has lost confidence in. Genoways may have been wrong, and he may be total jerk (although I live just outside Charlottesville I’ve never met him nor did I ever meet Morrissey), but on the strength of the accounts I’ve seen, his actions fell within the reasonable limits of managerial discretion–and error. Your late colleague may have been disheartened by a deteriorating situation at work; but the reasons he took his own life are deeper and more complicated than that, and I don’t buy the notion that Genoways’ bullying killed him, which in my view is the plain implication of the coverage I was criticizing.

  5. Mr. Wasserman, I’m certainly not asking you to buy the argument that Genoways’s bullying killed Kevin Morrissey. Although I agree that this is the frame of many of the stories about this situation, it is not, in fact, the argument that anyone on the staff of VQR is making.

    Regarding the allegations that are being made, in your original post you define bullying as “harassing behavior intended to belittle or publicly humiliate Morrissey.” I think I gave you a clear example of that, with the caveat that in this case “publicly” be defined in the context of the workplace and not the larger public. It is harassing behavior to punish someone without ever explaining why. It is belittling behavior to do so before one’s colleagues. (At least three people in an office of six reported to Morrissey.) I ask you: what is not humiliating about being treated this way without the opportunity to even defend oneself?

    These issues are, I suppose, subjective, and reasonable people can disagree. But in your response, you seem to have moved the goal posts on me. No longer is bullying defined merely as harassment intended to bully and humiliate; now it’s a “pathology” — a disease — that manifests “a wanton abuse of authority” and a pattern not just of humiliation but of “sadistic humiliation.” I haven’t seen bullying defined this way anywhere else. Maybe we can just stipulate that neither of us are experts.

    Still, I am a relative expert on the facts of what happened in the VQR office and your summary of what happened — i.e., your summary of my summary — simply doesn’t wash. Genoways did not remove Morrissey “discreetly from a situation [he] think he’s screwing up.” When the person who manages at least half of the office is removed without any notice or explanation — without telling anyone — that is hardly discreet. You assume that Genoways thought Morrissey was “screwing up” something, that he had “lost confidence” in him, but in fact Genoways never offered any justification for banning Morrissey from the office beyond a single report of unspecified bad behavior. He never explained the move to Morrissey, either via e-mail or when they met in person, and he never communicated to staff about the situation in any way.

    You write that this is not an “indefensible response,” but I don’t think you’ve adequately defended it at all. It certainly isn’t humane, and assuming that it is part of a pattern of behavior on Genoways’s part, it fits most any definition of workplace bullying that does not rely — spuriously, I think — on melodramatic markers like pathology and sadism.

    And it is part of a pattern, and one that can be documented. Genoways regularly refused to communicate with Morrissey — would not speak to him in person, would not come in to the office, would not fulfill his own responsibilities, and would not answer e-mailed questions necessary for Morrissey to fulfill his own responsibilities. Genoways regularly put Morrissey in situations that could potentially damage Morrissey’s professional reputation. And Genoways went out of his way to humiliate Morrissey before his colleagues.

    One example: A number of months ago, Genoways remarked separately to two of the VQR staff that Morrissey was in a bad mood that day, and the staff more or less agreed. The next day, Morrissey called those two staff members into his office, separately, and tearfully apologized for his behavior, explaining that Genoways had informed him that the staff members had filed formal complaints against him.

    This is but one example. You write that Genoways may be a “jerk” but he is not, by the evidence presented, a bully. I have not, nor has anyone on staff, personalized this issue in that way. No one has called Genoways names. They have, however, emphasized a pattern of behavior that fits most definitions of workplace bullying and that ought to be unacceptable.

    I think you and I agree about the tenor of the media’s coverage; however, we seem to very much disagree about the facts of the case and what can be defined as good management.

  6. Good Lord, Mr. Wolfe. You are coming across as a bully, yourself.

    • How is he coming across as a bully? ???

      I, for one, do agree that the media has taken an easily packagable and ‘sexy’ storyline and run with it, regardless of facts to the contrary. The Today show even said that Morrissey blamed Genoways in his suicide note when he did no such thing.

      But, as Wolfe points out eloquently and with evidence to back his argument up, just because the media may have been reckless doesn’t mean that bullying wasn’t taking place or that UVa did not fail in it’s duty to ensure a non hostile work environment for University employees.

      I have no connection to the event, other than being a UVa graduate. I feel for all parties involved. Suicides are particularly painful deaths for family members and friends to come to terms with….

  7. I think the main focus and gist of Mr. Wasserman’s piece is the oddly disproportionate coverage given to the suicide. A legitimate observation. Insider telephone calls by outraged Morrissey friends, colleagues, and family members to contacts in the media (one VQR staffer’s mother is an NPR reporter) most likely precipitated the initial coverage. It snowballed from there. But were they wrong to be outraged? Did in fact Genoways hound a depressed Morrissey to his death? Another VQR employee reported Genoways also hounded her out of her job. And the entire staff of VQR–not just Morrissey–repeatedly complained to U VA authorities about Genoways in the months before the suicide. So Mr. Wasserman should rethink the idea that there was no bullying, or it was insufficient to be worth noting. And speaking of friends and contacts, I hope it is not rude to ask whether Mr. Wasserman has any connection to Mr Genoways? Given that letters-to-the editor signed in bulk by VQR connected writers rallying round Genoways are sprouting up hither and yon, full disclosure is warranted.

    • As I said in my reply to Brendan Wolfe, I never met Genoways or Morrissey. Let me add that I never had any contact with them of any kind, personal or professional, or with their publication, or, to my knowledge, with anybody who works or worked for or wrote for their publication.

  8. Vikram | September 1, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Reply
    Good Lord, Mr. Wolfe. You are coming across as a bully, yourself.

    *** SO true, here as on The Hook website. He’s been shoving every commenter around for weeks claiming impartiality but in one unconnected reader’s view, just attacking genoways any way he can and shouting down any defense of genoways with claims of special knowledge, basically telling evyone that they couldn’t POSSIBLY have a valid opinion because HE knows things you’ll never know.

    And speaking of friends and contacts, I hope it is not rude to ask whether Mr. Wasserman has any connection to Mr Genoways? Given that letters-to-the editor signed in bulk by VQR connected writers rallying round Genoways are sprouting up hither and yon, full disclosure is warranted.

    *****You are of course not questioning Wolfe’s motives or connections in your disclosure request. Wolfe is married to former VQR employee Molly Minturn, and claims privileged information through interrogation of her and the reading of many ofnher confidential VQR-internal e-mails protected by University regulations. He has not admitted to any incident between genowyas and his wife that raised his ire against genoways, so perhaps he is totally impartial, but one wonders in light of his blog fervor where he was, precisely, in his vociferous anti-genoways pose back before Morrissey’s death when his lucid and probing and ‘disinterested’ but seemingly highly informed comments might have done some good.

  9. Why does Brendan Wolfe never admit that he is married to Molly Minturn, who was a staffer at VQR. He’s clearly invested.

  10. I find it interesting that Mr. Wolfe finds it necessary to post a link to Mr. Wasserman’s blog on the Hook’s comment section, as though to draw the angry mob from that website to this one. Incendiary? I think so. Self-serving? Yep. Civil? I think not.

  11. I think Jake’s point is fair enough. That wasn’t my intention, and it doesn’t seem to have had that effect either way.

    • Edward Wasserman

      For what it’s worth, no sign of mobs with torches and pitchforks outside my house.

      Let me add to my disclosure comment above, posted yesterday. Since I wrote that I received an e-mail from Genoways responding to the column. So technically I have now had contact with him. Since he chose not to make the content of that message public, I won’t either.

  12. @ Vikram: I fail to see how Brendan Wolfe’s detailed, lucid, and civil post can be construed as “bullying.” Who is the putative target? Edward Wasserman appears capable of acquitting himself decently.
    @ Jake: Why should Wolfe not post the link if Wasserman’s piece is germane to what has now become an extremely widespread discussion of issues relevant to the larger society? No one is preventing *you* from posting elsewhere, or from dissenting from Wolfe’s comments here.

  13. Genoways in his own words:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/36484172/Untitled
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/36486709/Untitled

    Now ask yourself, given the same alleged malfeasance, would Genoways have written like that about, or to, the rich benefactress whom he had brought into his employ (she had a desk in his office)?

    Would he have written like that to a black female employee with the full faith and credit of the EEOC?

    Would he have written like that to his wife?

    I happen to think all of the above would have given him more to think about, more reason for reflection and tact, than this old, depressed white man.

  14. @ Publius: I’ve never claimed “impartiality”; you’re welcome to show me where I have. And I’ve never told anyone or meant to imply to anyone that “they couldn’t POSSIBLY have a valid opinion”; I’ve merely insisted that people argue from facts, and respond to what I’ve actually written. Here, you and Vikram have not done that, either. You prefer to call names and question motives.

    I do claim privileged information, but I haven’t asked anyone to make their argument based on that, or even to evaluate mine based on that. Rather, I’ve asked people not to assume they know the facts of what went on at the VQR office if they weren’t there and don’t know the people there. And I’ve asked people not to make claims about the motives of people they don’t know.

    You say you have no connection to these events, and yet you also seem to assume that I base my arguments on “confidential VQR-internal e-mails protected by University regulations.” How do you know that? And who are you (indeed, who are you?) to ask me what role I played before Morrissey’s death?

    I’m happy to step back from this, because Mr. Wasserman’s blog is not the place for this argument. My apologies to him that such unpleasantness has taken up so much of his space.

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