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.