We’ve been following, here on the First Things website , the case of the Princeton student who admitted on Monday that he had faked attacks on himself last Friday.

I find it a fascinating, albeit sad, story, but a pair of our friends—both members of First Things ’ board and both, interestingly, academics—have written to object to the coverage. “What does this have to do with religion and public life?” asks one. And the other friend is even sterner: “There is no good reason for FT to have been swept into this story . . . . Assure me that I am wrong in fearing that FT is taking on the role” of culture-wars publications.

There are two easy answers here. The first is that, over the weekend, one of our assistant editors, Ryan Anderson, got hold of information that no other publication seemed to have—namely, that in the student’s background at Groton and the timing of events there were reasons to doubt the story. We’re a magazine, in competition with other magazines. How could we not post the material? In its Monday morning article , the New York Sun still didn’t have the reasons for doubt—and neither did Brit Hume on Fox television Monday night (he apparently corrected himself later in the broadcast).

The second easy answer is that there shouldn’t be anything we can’t cover. I’ve never been fond of navel-gazing—this kind of Who-Are-We? introspection, energy turned in on an organization’s structure rather than out on the organization’s work—but, generally speaking, I think the work of the magazine is broad enough that it can fit in a little bit of almost any genre, including the kind of small newsbreaking we had with the Princeton story. We’ve got a magazine , a daily article , and a blog . There’s room in all that for a little bit of everything.

But maybe easy answers aren’t sufficient. As I said, I find the Princeton story fascinating. For one thing, it all happened so quickly. On Friday night, the boy reports his attack. On Saturday the bloggers and early news reporters start noting it. Late Sunday night Ryan Anderson reports the story on First Things —adding the background for doubting the story and urging calm. And Monday around noon the Princeton student confesses. Just as an example of the speed of news cycles in the Internet age, it’s an interesting case study.

And that’s to say nothing of the general phenomenon of faked attacks that seem to have become endemic in academia—or of the fallout from this particular case. Though all the prior incidents of which I’ve read have been on the far left, from now on there will be assumed to be parity: Thanks to the Princeton student, newspapers will comment on faked attacks as something crazed people do on both the left and the right. There’s real damage here, as well, to our friend and boardmember from Princeton, Robert George, who will be attacked for not seeing through the student (though the fact that, with Prof. George’s help, the fraud broke down so quickly helps).

Still, even though the story is a good one— good in the journalistic sense of the word—maybe it’s not good that we covered it, in the institutional, final-cause sense of good .

That doesn’t seem right. But, then, I’m just a journalist—and journalism, as Andy Ferguson once remarked, isn’t so much a vocation as a character defect.

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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