Where are the media defenders re Delta Zeta?

March 1, 2007

My post on Delta Zeta has generated a lot of traffic and more comments than any other post so far. And a few other links, for example: (http://wagnercomm.blogspot.com/)

I kept looking for defenders against what I thought might be an overly aggressive and unwarranted attack on the reporting of the NYT. Instead, I found a lot of people very frustrated with this kind of media story which creates a headline out of essentially nothing.

Just a couple of additional comments. I wondered why I was seeing it this way and so many others seem to be accepting the NYT report at face value. I sort of think it is the old story of the frog in a beaker. Over the years (Ted Koppel and I attribute the change to the start of 60 Minutes) we have become accustomed to news and entertainment being completely blended. After all, what is this thing called “reality tv”? But as a society we have been remarkably uncritical of the implications of this. Neil Postman did his best in the late 70s I think, when he wrote Entertaining Ourselves To Death (this books ranks up near the McLuhan sphere in my mind). Too many good people have been hurt, too many good organizations have been severely damaged or destroyed, too much economic and life value wasted on the altar of media entertainment. This has been a primary theme of mine since 2001 when I started drafting Now Is Too Late. What continually amazes me and surprises me is that this insight about the harmful effects of infotainment still strikes a lot of people as new and innovative.

The other comment has more to do with how a story like this evolves. This is important for everyone in PR and crisis communication because the main point I wanted to make relating to this story is what happened to Delta Zeta is an accident waiting to happen to you. No one is safe from a media-created crisis. Now, this is pure speculation, so don’t think I really knew what went on.

I suspect one or more of the young women in the chapter who were asked to leave were unhappy about the action taken. They may have even noted that it seemed to them more than coincidence that the ones who were left were attractive while some of the others were not. It certainly is better to be a victim of a situation like this–particularly a victim of racial or attractiveness discrimination–than to accept that you were asked to leave because you did not meet a commitment standard. So they talked. And they may have even called a reporter. At some point someone did. “Did you hear about this sorority who dumped all the unattractive, non-white ladies?” If it got like this to Mr. Dillon, his ears would have perked up. He’s a good reporter. So the story was written in his mind. The headline was already there. Hey, let’s talk to the girls, get their story. Sure enough, it was all about discrimination. He talked to the University. The president was aghast. When he finally got around to talking to the sorority and found a considerably different story, he had a problem. Either dump the great headline and story to match that he had painstakingly researched, or accept that what they said was the truth and there was no story here. Let’s see, be honest, or get ink? Hmm. I think I will get ink. This is a good story. Ok, we’ll include what the sorority said, but we will so bury it, and add the suggestion that they really wouldn’t talk to us, to firmly attach the black hat. And so the story goes… As I said, pure speculation.

But, on the other hand, the communication from the sorority leaders was sorry at best. The statement sent to Good Morning America was completely confusing.While the letter on the website contained the relevant information that made it pretty clear and obvious that the report was maliciously bad, it was buried in the middle of the letter. An experienced communicator was badly needed here. The message on the website should have made it clear that the NYT report was completely off-based and deliberately ignored the key facts that the reporter was presented.

I know a lot of people have been hurt by this report. And an awful lot of people and good organizations continue to hurt by news people who are not bad people and not incompetent people, but people responding to the pressures of their job. And the rest of us need to understand, their job is not to report the truth. Their job is collect an audience for the sake of the people paying their bills–the advertisers. Let me repeat it. Their job is to collect an audience for the sake of the people paying their bills. If telling the truth lets them do it effectively, then fine. If not, then fine. That is way overstating it, but it is also very important that people start understanding the real situation we are in.

If you have any doubts about what I am saying, I beg you to get and view the outstanding PBS three part series, News War. You will see this New York Times story, plus all the garbage on PrimeTime, etc., in its proper light.


12 Responses to “Where are the media defenders re Delta Zeta?”

  1. DzAlum Says:

    People are not fighting back because many sisters and alum know this is not unusual. The archaic beliefs of women who are dated and snobby are interpreting the beliefs and moral codes of Delta Zeta to fit their personal biases.

    This is not the first time the national leaders of Delta Zeta has torn apart chapters, “reorganzied” and evicted 100% committed members.

    The current National leaders need to be replaced, only when they are ousted will Delta Zeta be able to heal.

  2. Another DZ alumna Says:

    The previous comment seems to have been made by one of the naive young women who, instead of appreciating the massive time, talent and treasure her sorority was bringing to the table to help her chapter succeed, rebelled out of the fear of change and was not asked to help rebuild. And now they are shocked that a few mistruths spouted out over a personal vendetta to get media attention have spun out of control. It’s too bad the NY Times was so desparate to make a story that they bought the “victim” stuff and have lead these women to get completely exploited by the media as they enjoy collecting trips to NYC to say whatever the media wants to hear.

  3. Jim Lucas Says:

    I’ve been following this story for the past month. The bottom line is that this is a great story. It’s “Animal House meets Mean Girls”. Non-conformists against a snobby establishment. The suprising fact is that it took so long for this story to be told. The reason that very few people are rushing to the side of Delta Zeta National is that that there are very few people who openly cheer for the villains of the piece.
    On another note, DZ National made several serious, stupid blunders. One of the 29 worked at the campus newspaper. Bad move #1. Trying to remake the chapter into what it was not was another. Now they have a well deserved PR nightmare.
    “Another alumnae”, don’t confuse effort with results. Bringing in other women who did not reflect the campus and chapter culture was a recipe for disaster. Pretty isn’t everything. They merely hastened what they intened to do in the first place. They nuked this chapter and looked bad in the process

  4. Wahine Says:

    I tend to agree with Jim most of all here, although I second that recommendation of “News War”. I’d disagree that all journalists are just out to report the news in order to please stockholders: last night’s installment took pains to show how the internal culture at most newspapers is still very different from say, television news (“If it bleeds, it leads”).

    As far as how the average person sees this story, the national organization seems to be doing exactly the wrong thing:

    “To protect the DePauw University student body, our Delta Zeta chapter members, and the local DePauw community, Delta Zeta national officials decline further media requests at this time.”

    Wow. Why not take a page from Jet Blue, admit that mistakes were made, and start a dialogue?

    The truth is that once certain ideas are fixed in the public’s mind, no amount of telling them that they “misunderstood” will improve their view of you. You have to work with what you have. I.e. you know they hate “New Coke,” no amount of telling them that they loved it in taste tests will bring them back to your side… so you work with it, and bring back “Coke Classic”. And you give the public credit for the change, which gives them a nice big warm feeling. I’m sure there’s still a way that Delta Zeta and other Greek organizations can improve this situation, with the help of others at DePauw and in higher ed.

  5. gbaron Says:

    Wahine, I’d like to thank you for making the initial request. Not sure what you got me into on this one!

    As I look at all the responses, one thing seems clear–nothing is very simple. And that is a fundamental problem with the way the news media tends to present things. Complex stories that multiple layers of good and evil do not work well in our “instant news” world. Instant not just in the sense of having to be fast, but being boiled down into a substance that no longer resembles what it boiled down from–like instant coffee.

    I think what we have to do is continually demand of our media that they not keep falling into the melodrama trap–reducing the story to its simple compelling, headline grabbing elements.

    You’ve helped us all here, thanks!

  6. DzAlum Says:

    If HQ had been paying attention to Delta chapter to begin with, maybe they could have aided them better.

    My chapter has been without a CCD, RCC, and any other HQ contact for 4+ years. I have no need to rebel.

    Change is good, but the kind of change that took place at DePauw–the way it was handled? No. That was inappropriate.

    You dear sister, sound like someone who is obviously very closed-minded and blind to the truth.

    Delta Zeta–the sorority, our beliefs, our values, our creed–No, Delta Zeta is not the problem here. Delta Zeta did not evict those girls, a few ill-advised women did.

  7. DePauw And DZ Alum Says:

    The articles which have been published regarding the Delta Zeta chapter at DePauw University and the university are inaccurate and grossly mischaracterize the situation.

    What these girls have done to the chapter, the sorority, and all sororities is nothing short of Slander and Libel.

    Am I over exaggerating? Not at all. I am saying this as someone who knows what happened and what continues to happen regarding my chapter.

    If you don’t know what happened, then you don’t have a lot of room to criticize anything.

  8. Amber Says:

    As a member of Delta Zeta my chapter has had many opportunities to discuss what has happened at Depauw. While it is unfortunate that the DZ reputation at Depauw has dwindled to being labeled as socially awkward nationals did everything they could to help the chapter. At almost all sororities we are asked by our chapter to look nice when we are in our letters meaning when we wear shirts, bags, sweatshirts, and especially our jerseys. This isn’t because sorority girls must be pretty but it is respect and pride in your letters. This isn’t asking girls to be skinny and blonde… but more of having pride in themselves and their chapter. All across America the Delta Zeta chapters differ in the types of girls that are in them. This is usually because of the area, for instance chapters in Arizona and New Mexico tend to have more girls who are Native American because that is where a lot of the people who go to those colleges are descended from. In California there is so much diversity in the chapters that it is impossible to walk in the chapter room and label them as one type or the other. Delta Zeta prides itself on being a diverse and accepting sorority that DOES NOT adhere to the typical “sorority girl” image. In my own chapter we have all different sizes, ethnicities, hair colors and backgrounds.

    The simple matter of this is that the Delta chapter was having trouble getting recruitment. ANY sorority that goes through a formal rush must have each girl putting 110% into it because you want to attract the girls that will represent the sorority best, in mind, body and soul. My chapter is already having recruitment practices for the newly initiated members because if you want to have a good group of girls you have to stand out.

    When Nationals went to Depauw to ask the “higher ups” to let them leave campus for awhile to regroup and reorganize they were refused. They were told that one thing that had worked for other sororities is to interview and question the girls on who would be dedicated enough to make a change. The girls that remain in the house wanted to stay and help, the others didn’t want to put all the time and effort that would be needed which is fine because that is their choice and shouldn’t be forced to do things they don’t want to do. Nationals granted them alumna status so that they didn’t have to waste the years that they had put into the sorority. Why wasn’t this brought up back in December when it happend if it really made them so upset? That is my question. Hopefully someone can answer me because if they were given the options and selected to leave that meant that they had to leave. Point blank. I hope that the DZ nationals side of the story gets out at some point because it is a shame that only one side is being represented.

    proud DZ member

  9. DZ Alumn NC Says:

    It saddens me to see such things as this in the media about my sorority. It further saddens me to see very little information from Nationals being reported by the media even though it is available to them. It seems the media is focused on the “discrimination” that supposedly occurred because it will generate more interest than the whole story.

    I was surrounded by diverse, wonderful, insightful women as an active sister. Never was there any discrimination towards anyone. As someone mentioned earlier, I had a sister I could cry with over a guy, one to help me with religious matters, one to be nerdy with, and one to just hang out with. We all come in all shapes, sizes, and intellectual gifts. The beauty of DZ was the ability to be surrounded by them all and the acceptance of them all.

    There are always two sides to every story but, there seems to be only one side being reported. I hope that the DZ nationals side of the story gets reported – and reported correctly and accurately.

    Proud DZ Alumn

  10. Amy DPU'94 Says:

    To me, it’s not the WHY of this story so much as the HOW that’s got my head spinning. I’ve been following it since Joy mentioned it on The View — my mom knew this story would hit close to home for me, since my Alpha Gamma Delta chapter at DePauw was closed in 1993 due to low chapter totals and difficulty recruiting (and it certainly wasn’t from lack of attention from our IHQ!).

    As I understand it, from reading information from the NYT, DPU and DZ, totals at DZ are quite low because of the declining greek system at DePauw (which is reportedly down significantly from more than 85% in the 90s). When approached about recolonizing DZ if nationals decided to close the chapter, DPU administration would not make DZ any guarantees.

    Rather than take their chances with the university, DZ tried to re-organize their current chapter by going through this membership review and selecing those women who appeared dedicated to recruitment, etc.

    Formal rush is particularly difficult for a small chapter, and continuously recruiting takes a toll on the membership. After all, rush events are mandatory, so what’s a member to do when those events conflict with class or studies? Skip a rush event for any reason and some will question your commitment and your relationships to your sisters — it’s a stressful time, emotions run high and things are said.

    To bring this back to COMMUNICATIONS:
    Problems arose when a) DZ national unilaterally determined who was and wasn’t “dedicated to recruitment,” b) sent the ones they didn’t chose letters rather than having a representative on campus to meet with the members and their interested alumnae, c) sent said letters one week before finals that served double duty as end-of-semester eviction notices, since DPU has a residential greek system, d) didn’t even tell the university what they were doing until four days later and e) gagged all media communication from DZ. To previous commentor, Michelle, it’s hard to hear and report their side of the story when they refuse to tell it. Their web site is down now, but http://www.deltazeta.org had a link on the upper left of its homepage this morning with text of their (confusing) news releases.

    No wonder the disenfranchised women were frustrated and eager to tell their side of the story. Had DZ national handled their communications appropriately, in person and in a spirit of community, the media circus probably never would have happened. DePauw administrators would have undoubtedly been more open to exploring options to help them succeed, and those 30 or so women would be enjoying their friendships and their time at DePauw. My heart breaks for them.

  11. Michael Says:


    I am a DePauw grad (’93), a fraternity member and a consultant to media companies on Internet strategy & product development. Thus I have a personal interest in the story, and the way it was portrayed in the media and commented on by individuals such as yourself.

    That said, please allow me to address your search (“I kept looking for defenders against what I thought might be an overly aggressive and unwarranted attack on the reporting of the NYT.”) and address your implied concern of a “media story which creates a headline out of essentially nothing.” Let me be clear: I am addressing what you wrote, and not implicitly or explicitly advocating on behalf of the NY Times.

    My thesis is simple: Sam Dillon and the Times may not have published a Peabody-worthy piece, but that does not mean that they therefore whipped up a “story” out of nothing, as you assert, therefore enabling a media frenzy. I don’t think your argument is so wrong as it is non-existent.

    First and foremost, I would suggest that if there is no story to be told, then it strikes me as incredulous that so much ado is being made of nothing. That is to say, one need only look at the litany of comments, covering a range of topics within and beyond your post, to assert that there was and is, in fact, a story outside of the media’s handling of it. That alone is manifest proof against the “nothing” argument.

    Further, and perhaps more tellingly, your assertion is that there is no story to be told and yet you went to great lengths to dissect the story per se, and specifically, you did voice selected statements from Delta Zeta, albeit without indication of when those statements were made vis-a-vis the article’s publication date nor without — and this is no less critical — any statement from the publication, editor or author regarding the decision to not include said statements, if they were available at the time. Thus, I can only conclude that your true argument is not that there is no story, but that it was underreported. This disproves your argument as stated, since it does not exist.

    I would also suggest that your argument is: While the story may or may not have not been as balanced as you would have liked, you disagree (as I assume from your profession and the title of your blog) with the way the parties handled the events as they unfolded, principally Delta Zeta’s response to the chapter, university and media coverage. If true, then it also shows that there is indeed a story, if not precisely the one covered by the media.

    To the merit of Mr Dillon and / or the NY Times somehow concocting a media frenzy out of nothing, I would offer this (albeit cursory) analysis: It is intellectually dishonest to suggest that because a) a reporter is covering a story which includes serious questions of exclusionary practices; and b) the reporter / story does not necessarily feature an in-depth reaction on the part of those committing said practices; that therefore c) the reporter is intentionally committing an act of sensationalistic journalism. This is a fallacious argument, a false syllogism. Absent a clear proof of journalistic malfeasance, any argument is but an opinion. To suggest that his article is shoddy is one thing (and perhaps true); to accuse Mr Dillon of creating something out of nothing is another (and still unproven).

    Let us also not forget the subject matter at hand, the “story” of the story. To say nothing else, the National leadership conducted itself in a shameful way, acting to prove that some people will do whatever, whenever to achieve results. This is precisely the “there” there. It might be easy to dismiss such behaviors a la college shenanigans. But that is dishonest at best, and dangerous at worst. To commute guilt upon the media — for picking up this story, no matter how badly they may have conveyed it — is plainly obtuse.

    (Sidebar: As regards story- or subject-matter of interest, and to the point of media conduct, I find it curious to note that this is somehow a sterling example, an indictment of media frenzy while there is an utter lack of comparative analysis, if for no other reason than to highlight the specific charge you make. For example, how would you contrast this non-story with Michael Gordon (of the same newspaper) who recently penned a front-page article on presumptive US war with Iran, while providing no countervailing argument or instances of fact, and relying on solely unattributable sources?)

    So, let me return to the beginning. Your assertion in your first post was that this was “the category of a media-created crisis and not a crisis created by egregious action on the part of the [Delta Zeta] organization.” Hogwash.

    For the record, and outside the scope of responding to your assertion(s), DePauw is characterized not only for being insular (thus its nick-name “the bubble”) and has a long history of antagonism between the University administration and the Greek system. President Bottoms may very well, very plausibly have given the Delta Zeta chapter house the cold shoulder when it first voiced its problems, and that behavior would certainly be less than honorable. That is only to the point of underreporting, and not a conspiracy to concoct.

    We may dislike the coverage, thinking it more sensationalistic than balanced, objective. We may dislike the University, thinking its reactions towards the sorority draconian or cold-hearted. We may dislike the Greek system, thinking it rewards exclusion (higher learning be damned). We may even dislike the once-active members of the DePauw Delta Zeta chapter, thinking their prior commitment to the house lax, somehow allowing the downward spiral to continue. However, none of that alters or affects the actions of the national sorority and its management — the story.

    Class of ’93

  12. Michael Says:

    (Update / Amendment to my earlier comment.)

    After reading some of the other responses here and on the original post which prompted this one, I felt it necessary to point out one critical thing: Even as infomation about the University’s role in the matter comes to light, making them seem not guilt-free as well, my argument still stands.

    That is, if the story here is one of bad behavior on the sorority’s end as well as callous disregard on the university’s end, then it is still a story in which individuals (or the group of them) are mistreated in horrible ways as a result of politicis / “business.” And because that is still a story, one which has an audience quite rightfully demandiing more clarity on the matter, it is most certainly not the invented, fantastical machinations of some random reporter or lede-starved media outlets.

    That the NY Times, then subsequent media outlets, picked up the story is hardly surprising. In fact, it’s hopeful that to shine a spotlight on these issues will inform a broader discussion of this narrow instance and its broader implications, if any.

    Thus, there’s still a “there” there.

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