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The Message

CU's Phil Mitchell received conservative love and liberal indifference.
James Glader

The majority of media types these days fall into three categories: liberal, conservative, and those who aspire to genuine objectivity (as opposed to the sort of faux objectivity that certain members of the press on both ends of the ideological continuum hide behind). Such differences manifest themselves clearly in the matter of Phil Mitchell, an untenured history instructor with the University of Colorado at Boulder, who feels that his teaching contract was not extended after more than two decades at the institution because of his conservative Christian views. "I got a lot of coverage in the conservative press," he says. "But the liberal media -- or maybe we should call it the mainstream media -- has essentially not touched this."

He's right, in more ways than one. His story was first made public in a March 7 piece by David Harsanyi, a conservative scribe who was hired by the Denver Post to add variety to a collection of columnists (Diane Carman, Jim Spencer and Cindy Rodriguez) that was reliably liberal from stem to stern. Mitchell's plight immediately caught the attention of conservative media powerhouses, many of whom had turned Ward Churchill, another embattled CU professor, into a symbol of leftist academia run amok. Mitchell guested the next day on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor and MSNBC's Scarborough Country, and over the weeks that followed, he was interviewed on a gaggle of right-wing talk-radio programs nationwide. In contrast, he wasn't invited to speak on any left-leaning television or radio shows, or on many centrist ones; a cameo on KOA's Sports Zoo comes the closest to qualifying.

Regarding print, Mitchell generated some ink locally in the Boulder Daily Camera, the Colorado Daily and a Rocky Mountain News column by Dave Kopel, who chided the media for not investigating what he sees as a lack of academic freedom at CU. Additionally, the Associated Press put together a Mitchell brief that ran in late March on the websites of far-flung TV stations, but in precious few newspapers outside Colorado. The Post subsequently included him in a professorial-roundup article that also cited CU environmental-studies instructor Adrienne Anderson, who was spotlighted here in March after learning she wouldn't be reappointed to her position (university spokeswoman Pauline Hale expects Anderson's appeal of this decision to be addressed within the next week or so). And Harsanyi penned an April 18 followup prompted by Mitchell's testimony before a legislative committee the previous week. For most other media organizations, though, Mitchell's been off the radar for over a month.

In Mitchell's opinion, the dropoff in reports about him doesn't prove that large segments of the press are prejudiced against people like him. He has been so overwhelmed by the attention he's received that he can't complain about not getting more. Harsanyi, for his part, thinks Mitchell's tale initially exploded because "the Ward Churchill thing blew it up." Had no Churchill controversy existed, he goes on, "it would have caused a ripple, maybe, in the conservative press, because conservatives have been moaning and bitching about this for a long time. But it's not that big a deal for most other people," despite a demonstrable lack of ideological diversity on many campuses, including CU. Harsanyi points out that in a 2002 survey published by The American Enterprise magazine, 28 out of 29 instructors at CU's history department listed liberal party affiliations when they registered to vote. The sole exception was Mitchell.

Nevertheless, the conservative media stopped beating the drum for Mitchell, too. Some likely reasons relate to the details of his situation, which tend to reduce its drama. For example, Mitchell has a contract to teach at CU throughout the 2005-2006 school year, and in a fact sheet issued by spokeswoman Hale, the university publicly claims that hiring decisions for beyond then won't be made until next spring -- and "we are not aware of any directive or written statement that would exclude Mitchell from consideration for instructor appointments in any academic program." Yet personality and media savvy come into play as well. Noting the recent appearance of conservative pinup Ann Coulter on the cover of Time, Harsanyi says, "The louder you are, the better, but Phil Mitchell isn't that sort of guy at all. He's not a firebrand."

Instead, Mitchell is pleasant, friendly and eminently reasonable -- praiseworthy qualities that aren't generally prized by a media that gravitates to what he calls Churchill's "volcanic rhetoric." Bill O'Reilly's conversation with Mitchell was exceedingly low-key by Factor standards, which may explain why he hasn't been invited back. Still, Mitchell sees no reason to change his persona to get more face time. "I don't believe in trashing anyone," he says. "I don't even have any negative emotion toward Ward Churchill, and if that means I'm not going to be on TV or radio anymore, that's fine. I didn't seek media coverage in the first place." True enough: The Post only found out about Mitchell's quasi-dismissal when an e-mail sent by his wife, who asked church friends to pray for him, made its way to Mike Judson, a sportswriter for the paper, who told Harsanyi.

"I'm such a neophyte about all this," Mitchell concedes. Even so, he's trying to get up to speed. He never hopped onto CU's tenure track because he wasn't interested in taking time away from his huge family -- he has nine kids, three of them adopted, between the ages of seven and 23 -- to pursue publishing scholarly work, but he recently wrote an article that suggests ways to reform the higher-education system. Harsanyi, in a friendly gesture, offered to pass the submission along to someone he knows at the National Review, and although the mag hasn't responded yet, Mitchell remains a newly minted media fan. "I was kind of suspicious of the press before," he allows. "I don't know why, because I'd never talked to them before. But in my case, the press has been great."

Of course, only one segment of the electronic media did much more than acknowledge his existence, and its ardor has cooled. That's what he gets for not being more volcanic.

Full service: For supporters of a continuing U.S. armed presence in Iraq, it wasn't a very amusing April Fools' joke. In the April 1 Post, a New York Times article headlined "Army Service Now a Hard Sell" appeared opposite "Portraits of Valor," which collected obituaries of soldiers killed in the land of Saddam. Suddenly, the sell became that much harder.

Since editorialists at the Post have been more critical of the Iraq war than have their Rocky counterparts, the placement of a recruiting story alongside military obits suggests a not-so-subtle message. Post managing editor Gary Clark, corresponding via e-mail, disputes this interpretation and adds that the paper has received no complaints about the juxtaposition or the portraits in general, which are provided by the AP.

Some hawks have claimed that by concentrating on those who've lost their lives, no matter how respectfully, news organizations undermine the war effort. That was the argument made by execs at Sinclair Broadcasting Group, whose ABC stations were ordered not to air an April 30, 2004, episode of Nightline that consisted entirely of host Ted Koppel reading the names of the 700-plus men and women who'd died since the conflict began. The latest casualty numbers exceed 1,500.

Right-wing condemnation of this concept didn't dissuade the Post from making a similar commitment. The Post printed eight sets of portraits between May 2003, when President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq, and the following November. Occasional military obits ran in the eight months after that, but they tended to concentrate on soldiers with local connections. That changed in July 2004, when Clark "told editors here that we wanted to run a portrait of every serviceman or servicewoman killed in Iraq or Afghanistan." The presidential campaign was heating up then, but according to Clark, the real motivation behind the decision was to serve readers, who "said they appreciated the profiles." The Post spent the second half of 2004 catching up on obits missed prior to the edict, and installments like the one that was published on April 22 show that the broadsheet is trying to "stay as current as possible." In Clark's view, "There may be no other reoccurring feature in the paper that gets the kind of praise and appreciation the portraits receive."

But probably not from recruiters.


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