Looking into the Weird Fox News Defense of Dragas

In what may stand as the sole defense of UVA Rector Helen Dragas published by a major media outlet, Fox News today published an opinion piece by University of Maryland professor Peter Morici. What’s most notable about it is the extent to which Morici parrots the language that Dragas has started using (specifically, describing President Teresa Sullivan as an “incrementalist”). That seems like a funny coincidence. Speculating that there might be a connection, I asked on Twitter if anybody knew of a connection between Morici and Dragas’ PR firm, Hill and Knowlton. It wasn’t long before I got a great response from Thomas Talhelm, pointing out that Accuracy in Media called out Morici in 2005 in an article about astroturfing:

Sheldon Rampton of the liberal Center for Media & Democracy monitors the public relations industry. He says some corporations are trying to smuggle their views into the media as objective news. He cites the case of U.S. Steel company Nucor Corp., which hired Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland, to argue in favor of steel tariffs. Morici was quoted in scores of newspaper articles and wrote two dozen letters to editors. In most cases, his role as a paid consultant was not disclosed.

He says that one of the most common tactics of PR firms is to ghost-write editorials and get experts to sign them, sometimes with embarrassing results.

There’s no easy way to know whether Hill and Knowlton has paid Morici to write this article—though I have asked him—but it does seem like a pretty reasonable explanation.

28 thoughts on “Looking into the Weird Fox News Defense of Dragas”

  1. When I googled “peter morici john ullyot” I found that both of them testified before congress in a series of hearings on global warming, and that ullyot is considered a “republican strategist” and former staffer for john warner.

    I am more interested in any connections between ullyot, dragas, kington and ALEC. Are there any dots to connect there?

  2. Expect a WSJ opinion piece by Monday, unless they decide to steer clear. Fox has a lot of air to fill and I assume is testing a line for George Allen, who probably realizes it’s hard to go anti-U.Va. in Va. Though he might. On another matter…

    There’s a ski-lodge video about Udacity the character named Walker was pushing – supposedly this one: http://www.dailymarkets.com/economy/2012/06/21/the-video-that-led-to-uva-presidents-departure/ Evangelical hotness motivated the billionaire-and-such plotters, as well as think-piece articles in the press, or at least their headlines and first paragraphs. The problem with a post-literate, image-driven society is that those with power are are still super-literate and technically skilled, or at least we thought so until now. I guess we all drink from the same stream.

    One scenario has the plotters passing around these articles and videos and getting themselves hyped up about dumping the president. At the same time they, or some of them, or their pals, could have had more practical and lucrative goals in mind. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, true believers or cynics. They could have been passing around these pieces implicitly saying “these will be our cover,” or “this will get plotter X excited,” or more mundanely, “everybody’s doing it.”

  3. Last disruption of your analyze-Fox thread – the Udacity video is from a conference near Munich this winter called DLD, Digital Life Design. Quoting Wikipedia now, it’s a conference of “creative international leaders, disruptors and thinkers.” You get the idea. Not only are they excited, but somebody was excited about putting together the conference and making some bank. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Life_Design

  4. Does anyone know if the 10 point statement released by Hill and Knowlton is Dragas’s views alone, or does it represent the Board’s views ? I read in the Richmond Times that the statement was released by the PR firm. We all know that political figures have ghost writers, so is the fact that this document had an author from Hill and Knowlton unusual ?

  5. Article makes it plausible that Morici jumped into this one on his own.

  6. This whole affair may be the worst thing to happen in Cville since UVa Rector Thomas Preston personally participated in the surrender of Charlottesville to General Custer of the Army of Occupation in 1865.

  7. Zeithaml just sent an email to the university community saying he is suspending activity as interim president and resuming his focus as Dean of McIntire School. He shouldn’t have cut short that trip to London.

  8. Morici is obviously some sort of shill, probably hired by Dragas’ PR firm.

    The statement Dragas issued last night (and email-bombed to the UVA community) stunk of numerous edits (probably by said PR firm) and careful splicing of the truth (budget problems, faculty workload, faculty compensation) into a call for making UVA into a Phoenix-University-style for-profit online diploma mill with lots of profit centers and few cost centers, but scholarship only if targeted (federal) funding supports it.

    She (or her PR firm) refered to the university as “always rooted firmly in our enduring values of honor, integrity and trust” but somehow left out scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge…

    Notably absent also was any mention of Sullivan’s stated goals of restoring the quality of scholarship and increasing the efficiency and transparency of the budget.

    Well, this is what you get when you hire a land speculator to oversee an academy.

  9. This is a very, very clever piece. It’s a superb example of “reframing” that the extreme right has used to such tremendous effect. It is a defense of Dragas in the sense that the best defense is a good offense, and presents very nuanced, albeit twisted and utterly duplicitous attack on President Sullivan.

    For example, notice how, in spite of your description, Waldo, it never actually mentions Dragas by name, thus laundering the controversy of her involvement without ever arguing in her individual favor. This may be the one of the most clever tactics of the piece.

    Next, there is a the extremely careful selection and shading of minimal details, coupled with a long, generalized argument about class issues and rising college costs which have nothing to do with the particular case in question, but will inflame anyone who does not know the details and is inclined to reflexively hate anything smacking of exclusive elitism.

    Then he sets up a straw man argument about how “Administrators rise from chair to dean and ultimately provost and president by pleasing faculty and sometimes students, who sit on selection committees.” This, of course, could not be more irrelevant or inaccurate with regards to President Sullivan’s selection, but as she is the subject of the piece and the only individual named, it leads the reader to assume that this was how she “rose to power.”

    Then, it strokes the puerile cliche about “those who can’t, teach” by describing academics as those who “chose the academic life to avoid the rigors of the marketplace”, somehow ignoring the fact that he himself is an academic.

    Finally, he provides a completely misleading and duplicitous account of one of the main issues, while referring to President Sullivan for the first time as “Dr.” implying that, as a highly credentialed professional, the entire issue arises from her incompetence.

    Really amazing work. It reminds me of the scene from Lord of the Rings, where Saruman is able to entrance those to whom he is speaking directly through the music of his voice, but whose enchantment fails when his attention is turned towards others. Of course, the informed and thoughtful are not the intended audience here, but rather the reactionary mob who comprise Fox “News” primary following. If only whatsisname, this Morici individual, could use his powers for good, imagine what a better world this could be.

  10. Good investigation, Waldo, and good analysis, @GT Shin. Yet another intriguing twist…

  11. And it is a twist, in that, given his intense dedication to self promotion in the popular media, I don’t believe Morici has any genuine intellectual or ethical investment in the actual issue beyond exploiting it as an opportunity for media exposure. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dragas’ PR firm tapped him, but I think it’s more likely he’s an academic who’s sold himself out as a media jackal trying to rip a bloody chunk off the Rector Dragas feeding frenzy, without looking like he has any gore in his teeth.

  12. After reading the bio on Morici, he could also have just been angling for the opposite side of a split screen if this story made Fox or CNN. Being a troll on national tv can become quite lucrative for some (Ann Colter cough, cough)

  13. I believe that Mr. Ullyot regularly provides comments for Fox News. Part of what firms like Hill & Knowlton do for their clients in addition to crisis communications and preservation of reputation is to arrange placement in the media of items that give positive exposure. I would assume that this “positive” comment on Fox (as well as the WaPo article on Ms. Dragas’ saintly reputation in Virginia Beach) are the results of their work.

  14. “Mastrocco, one of the other Visitors who she left in the dark about her plans for Sullivan is actually partners with Dragas’ husband Lewis Webb III at a law firm in Va beach.”

    You know, the more I learn about the Board of Visitors, the more it reminds me of this plant I have invading my front hedge …

  15. Over on the Hook thread is some evidence of a connection to policy papers by ACTA, a higher ed strong-governing advocacy organization. Apparently it has slid from a Great Books type of bipartisan advocate to a more explicitly anti-liberal group. A distressing number of middle-of-the-road organizations have become politicized lately, so this is not too surprising (Race for the Cure, Chamber of Commerce). The spectral Koch brothers are connected. The comments start with one titled “bhp June 22nd, 2012 | 2:45pm” here: http://www.readthehook.com/104338/zeithaml-suspends-presidency-will-wait-until-bov-votes-sullivan-reinstatement

    The “disruptive” faction of Dragas et. al. may be digging in their heels and it looks quite iffy, with the good Dean Z. positioning himself to resume service at the helm having made a nod to consensus. But we’ll know more today from the governor, abject as that is to say.

    If Paul Tudor Jones is appointed to the BOV…!

  16. Early good sign: Republican Rob Bell is for reinstating Sullivan, says Daily Progress reporter Moomaw. The Gov. might be working the phones.

  17. Haven’t kept up with him since I moved, but in the (mostly pre- tea party) past I thought Bell was a pretty good indication of what local republicans are thinking. Seemed to have a good handle on his base, not that I agreed with him.

  18. Doesn’t surprise me. There are some academics who have swallowed the kool aid and are willing to sell out academe for a song. There is a clear history over the past 10-15 years of some academics being bought by corporations and tuning on academe, especially with medical research and in the sciences.

    The Fox angle isn’t new either, the conservatives have been after public universities as the source of criticism for a while now. Tenure is a dangerous thing to them, especially in cases where there is no hand that feeds to bite.

  19. I think Gov. McDonnell’s letter to the Board of Visitors pushes the board to reject President Sullivan Tuesday.

    The letter gives only a passing nod to voices outside the board, and it suggests instead that the board should decide using its own lights. That approach lead to this mess in the first place, of course. The letter further chides board members for media leaks. The leaks to the Post, however, were what exposed Rector Dragas’s false claims of unanimity and later the eight votes President Sullivan garnered at one point during their second (well, first), protracted deliberation on her fate. It’s chilling, then, to read how much the leaks annoyed McDonnell.

    Finally, the letter decries some board members’ vacillation. But vacillation is a required step in changing one’s mind. If the board doesn’t vacillate, then it won’t reinstate Sullivan. McDonnell’s letter tries to sound above the fray, but a close read — the kind of read a board threatened with forced resignations would likely take — makes him sound more like Lady Macbeth: “. . . screw your courage to the sticking-place, / And we’ll not fail.”

  20. Peter, I would agree with you, except that if Zeithaml wont take the interim spot, they are kind of in a pickle about making a final decision on Tuesday, unless that decision is to reinstate Sullivan.

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