Burns: Gerlach pics anything but fake news
Sunday, October 6, 2019
Supporters of Dan Gerlach, interim chancellor at East Carolina University, launched a sustained attack against The Daily Reflector last week because of a story we published about photographs of Gerlach bar hopping in Greenville. My response to them and their cries of fake news is that our coverage has been accurate, responsible and all too real.
The story broke a week ago today when an anonymous tipster emailed the photos to me and senior reporter Ginger Livingston at the Reflector, to several other media outlets and some ECU trustees. We published a story online Sunday night and in Monday’s paper.
It reported what was in the photos along with facts we were able to confirm about the night of Wednesday, Sept. 25. We correctly reported Gerlach was photographed drinking, dancing and touching female bar patrons. We published five of the photos with the story online. In print on Monday we published a photo of him chugging a beer and a front-page photo of him standing between a woman’s legs.
The response to the story on social media was swift and overwhelmingly negative. The gist of most comments: Photos of the interim chancellor having a good time with students downtown was not news, and the implication that his behavior was inappropriate was tabloid fodder.
Gerlach and ECU seemed to arrive at the same conclusion when they responded Sunday to our request to interview Gerlach. ECU emailed a statement that said the photos showed him addressing concerns that the chancellor needed to be present and approachable. “I regret that these photos are being perceived as anything more,” he said.
They looked like something more to me, and they looked like something more to officials who placed Gerlach on leave the next day. At the very least they raised questions. Here are a few:
Is it appropriate for the head of a university to be drinking with students at late-night bars when heavy drinking and underage drinking continue to be a pervasive problem on college campuses?
Is it wise for a man in that position in this day and age to put himself in situations with women that could be perceived the wrong way?
Would I want the chancellor to be out taking selfies with my daughters on a Wednesday night, or would I want him to encourage my daughters to be studying or sleeping?
Is this the best look for a college that has worked diligently to shed its image as a party school?
These questions and others raised by Gerlach’s activities are hardly tabloid fodder. They are the type of questions we would have asked the interim chancellor Sunday if we had been given the chance. They are the type questions he has had to answer since we published the very real, front-page news on Monday.
In fact, Gerlach has since admitted publicly on several occasions that he used poor judgment that Wednesday night.
The question going forward is whether he should keep his job as interim chancellor and possibly take on the job in a permanent capacity. The decision to place him on leave and investigate the matter thoroughly should help answer that.
We can only hope rules that allow the state to withhold information in personnel matters don’t cloud the outcome. University officials and Gerlach must understand that the details of this matter need to be aired in full view of the public.
Sometimes, airing the news in the full view of the public is unpleasant, but it’s the only way for us to know the truth.
The truth is I like “Chancellor Dan.” I like his down-to-earth approach and the energy and positive vibe he brought to ECU. The truth is, I dislike this story immensely.
The truth is that people in Gerlach’s position are held to the highest standards, and if his fortunes have changed, it’s because of his decisions alone.
Bobby Burns is editor of The Daily Reflector.