A Lie Is Born

by James A. Bacon

It is horrifying to watch in real time how the media generates falsehoods and then spreads them without correction. About two weeks ago The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Virginia, published an article about a 47-year-old controversy in which Bert Ellis, who then was a tri-chairman of the student union and now sits on the UVa Board of Visitors, invited William Shockley, a racist and eugenicist, to speak at the university. The story, shorn of critical context, spread to the Democratic Party of Virginia, then to the Washington Post editorial board, and most recently to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Insinuated but not stated baldly, is that Ellis is a racist. In its latest mutation, the lie is used to build a case that Governor Glenn Youngkin, who appointed Ellis to the board, is, in the Post’s words, “racially obtuse.”

Bert Ellis is a colleague of mine. We serve together in the leadership of The Jefferson Council, which is dedicated to upholding the Jeffersonian legacy at UVa. I don’t know him intimately, but I have gotten to know him pretty well. I have heard him speak candidly on a host of incendiary issues, and I’ve never heard him utter a racist sentiment.

With this column, I’m putting Virginia’s mainstream media on notice: stop it! You’re treading dangerously close to libel. You can no longer claim innocence of the facts. If you persist, you deserve to be sued.

The origins of animus. The falsehood started with The Cavalier Daily.

The CD first took note of Ellis’ appointment to the Board of Visitors on July 1, in a news story that highlighted his disapproval of the University’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) policies and his reaction to the infamous “F— UVa” sign on the door of a Lawn resident. At one point, Ellis had contemplated using a small razor blade to remove the sign, which he believed desecrated a World Heritage Site, but departed when two University ambassadors told him that any action would be considered malicious damage.

On July 26 the Editorial Board ran an editorial denouncing Ellis’s appointment as a “blatant disregard for the University’s core values.” The editorial criticized him for the razor-blade incident, attacked him for his views on a recent student vote to water down the Honor Code, and castigated him for his assertions (well documented, but never acknowledged by the CD) that UVa’s DEI programs amounted to indoctrination. “This is not your University,” the editors proclaimed. “It is ours.”

In a statement whose timing suggests that it was coordinated with the CD editorial, the UVa Student Council the same day denounced Ellis for the razor blade incident and his views on DEI, characterizing his views as the latest expression of White supremacy. “From the bondage and abuse experienced by enslaved people, to the violent occupation by Nazis and KKK members, to Bert Ellis — the Lawn is no stranger to racist violence under the guise of ‘Jeffersonian ideals’ in order to maintain power for the white elite.”

Having proclaimed their animus toward Ellis, the CD editors proceeded to dig up whatever dirt they could find by rummaging through editions of the newspaper in 1974 when he served as tri-chairman and spokesman for the Student Union.

The hit jobs. On August 18, the CD published an article about a 1974 controversy in which William Shockley was invited to the University. Shockley, who won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to inventing the transistor, was making waves at the time for his theory that African-Americans had lower IQs than Whites and for his advocacy of voluntary sterilization for low-IQ individuals. Although his theories were hotly contested, many White Americans found them plausible and he received considerable notoriety.

The CD article detailed Ellis’ role in inviting Shockley, and described how he overruled the protests of the Black Student Union to cancel the event. The CD neglected to inform its reader of critical context, however. The event was a debate. Ellis and his co-chairmen also invited African-American biologist Richard Goldsby to contest Shockley’s views. As Ellis and others recall, Goldsby demolished Shockley, exposing the flaws in his thinking for the world to see. In other words, Ellis created a showcase for debunking a racist theory.

The only hint in the CD article that there might have been a debate was a photo montage that included an image from the Corks & Curls yearbook with the descriptive cutline: “Shockley vs. Goldsby.” The CD provided no explanation of the photo, and the nuance was otherwise ignored.

Correction: Towards the bottom of the story, the CD did run a copy of an ad that appeared in The Cavalier Daily promoting “the controversial debate between William Shockley and Richard Goldsby.” The story also referred frequently to the event as a “debate.” Bacon’s Rebellion regrets the error.

To the contrary, the editorial staff has been relentlessly critical in its portrayal of Ellis, including his decision to not co-sponsor an event featuring gay rights advocate Frank Kameny. Ellis did nothing to block Kameny’s appearance, he simply chose not to co-sponsor an event associated with the Gay Student Union (GSU). The gay rights movement had barely gotten off the ground at the time, Ellis’ view was the majority view among Americans, and his appraisal that the Kameny appearance would not be well received could well have been accurate. But the CD spun the incident in an August 28 editorial as an assault on free speech, quoting Andy Humm, president of the Gay Student Union at the time: “Bert Ellis did not want anybody to hear from Frank Kameny,” said Humm. “That’s his hypocrisy.”

In a subsequent letter to the CD, Humm accused Ellis of having a “history of suppressing LQBTQ+ voices going back to our time at the university.” Aside from the fact that there was no such thing as a “LQBTQ+” movement in 1974, only a gay rights movement, and the fact that no one has alleged any anti-gay sentiment on Ellis’ part since then, Humm’s statement is unsupported by the facts. Ellis did nothing to prevent Kameny from appearing at UVa.

In a Sept. 4 column, Executive Editor Jessica Moore doubled down on the Shockley controversy, criticizing Ellis’ defense in 1974 of the event. “Eugenics had fallen out of popularity several decades earlier after Hitler used it to justify millions of murders by the Nazi Party and that many student groups explicitly told Ellis the invitation was inappropriate and unwanted,” she wrote. “Yet, Ellis still insisted that Shockley’s presence was necessary.”

She neglected to acknowledge that the “event” was a debate with Richard Goldsby.

Outraged by the editorial, alumnus Tom Neale, an officer with The Jefferson Council, emailed the CD editors hitting back with a Nazi comparison of his own. Comparing the critics’ “slanderous accusations” to the tactics of Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, he wrote: “They all neglect to tell the truth about then University Union President Bert Ellis and eugenicist William Shockley. In reality, Ellis and the University Union arranged a debate in 1975 between Shockley and African American biologist Richard Goldsby. Goldsby eviscerated Shockley during the debate and destroyed his credibility. The reality, therefore, is Ellis and the University Union not only didn’t support Shockley and his racist views, they completely debunked them with the debate.”

Editor Eva Surovell yielded no ground. She responded: “I ask that you refrain from using inflammatory verbiage such as ‘slander’ to describe reporting which has been nothing but factual and historically accurate. While we may disagree philosophically on this issue, I must also note that I do not appreciate the tone of your last email.”

Democrats Join In. Through most of August this year, attention focused on Ellis had been limited to the Charlottesville community. Then on August 29, the University Democrats and the Democratic Party of Virginia released a joint statement calling for Ellis’ resignation. The letter repeated the now-familiar razor-blade incident and Ellis’s role in the Shockley event. The Democrats described the event as a “stain” on UVa and demanded that Ellis acknowledge the “irreparable damage” he had done to Virginia race relations. Wrote the Democrats:

He organized student events using University funds. That year, the Union and Ellis held an event entitled The Correlation Between Race and Intelligence, featuring William Shockley, an unabashed racist, white supremecist [sic], and eugenicist.

No mention of a debate. No mention of Goldsby. No mention of the fact that 394 people attended the debate, paying $1.50 per head, making it one of the best- attended speaker events of the year.

The Post piles on. The Shockley pseudo-controversy broke into the mainstream media the next day, August 30. The Post editorial board criticized Governor Youngkin for a series of “racially obtuse appointees,” including Ellis. The Post wrote the following:

The student council at the University of Virginia called for the resignation of Bert Ellis, a Youngkin appointee on U-Va.’s Board of Visitors who had attacked the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives — even traveling there with a razor blade to cut down a sign on a student’s door that he regarded as offensive. That was before a report by the U-Va. student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, that Mr. Ellis, as an undergraduate in the 1970s, fought to bring a noted eugenicist to campus to air his pseudoscientific views that Black people are genetically inferior to Whites.

True, Ellis has criticized DEI policy at the University, but that criticism was not linked to his “traveling there with a razor blade.” That was an entirely different controversy, regarding the “F— UVA” sign on the Lawn door in a World Heritage Site. But the Post’s confusion on that point pales in comparison to its formulation that Ellis “fought tor bringing a noted eugenicist to campus to air his pseudoscientific views.”

No mention of a debate. No mention of Goldsby.

The RTD spreads the calumny. Yesterday the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a column by the dean of Virginia’s Capitol Hill press corps, Jeff Schapiro, airing Democrat criticisms of Youngkin on a range of issues, from Youngkin’s insistence that schools continue to refer to George Washington as the “father of the country,” to his campaign appearance with Trumpist candidate Paul LePage in Maine, to his appointment of Bert Ellis.

Schapiro is honest enough to describe “grouchy, liberal Democrats” as “artfully selective in their representations of the facts.” But he then proceeds to recount those representations about Ellis. Here is how he formulates the Ellis controversy:

Defending his choice of a conservative financier for the University of Virginia governing board who — as a student in the 1970s — organized a campus talk by a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who argued Black people are intellectually inferior, Youngkin wondered if his nominee was being unfairly measured by contemporary woke-ish metrics.

Again, no mention of a debate, no mention of Goldsby, not even of the Student Union. Ellis now is just someone who “organized a campus talk” for a racist.

Lies spread, as Tom Neale wrote in his letter to the Cavalier Daily editors, through constant repetition. I don’t see anyone engaging in sinister, Goebbels-like tactics of concocting deliberate lies. The process is subtler. Rather, crucial context is shorn away, and falsehoods grow, as in the child’s game of telephone, through subtle elaborations and reconfigurations.

As the Ellis-invited-a-racist-to-campus meme propagates, it will drift ever further from the real-world context in which it originated and will be shaped to suit the rhetorical ends of Democrats who are increasingly assertive in portraying Republicans as racists. Sadly, Democrats don’t pay much attention to Bacon’s Rebellion, so the meme will continue to evolve disconnected from reality. However, I will continue to track the meme’s permutations. Politicians and pundits, you’d better watch the libelous insinuations. We’re paying attention.

Update: Inside Higher Education has propagated the Ellis-invited-a-racist-to-campus meme in a Sept. 9 article. Offending quote: “Youngkin has dismissed reporting by the student-run newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, that documented how Ellis helped to bring eugenicist William Shockley to campus in February 1975 for an academic debate while Ellis was a student and a chairman of the University Union… (UVA was the intellectual home of Virginia’s eugenics movement in the early 20th century.)”