On Thursday, March 17, Eric Caine was freed from a maximum-security prison after spending twenty-five years behind bars for a double murder he did not commit. Caine’s release was ordered by a Cook County judge after Northwestern University journalism professor David Protess, director of the Medill Innocence Project, and his students uncovered evidence that Caine had been brutally beaten by a now-disgraced Chicago detective into confessing the crime. Caine was the twelfth wrongly convicted prisoner that Protess and his students help free from prison, including five from Death Row.
This month the Supreme Court also ruled in favor of another case the Medill Innocence Project has worked on, arguing that a death row inmate in Texas, Hank Skinner, has the right to sue under federal civil rights law to obtain access to DNA testing. Moreover, two weeks ago Protess’s work on wrongful convictions helped convince the state of Illinois to abolish the death penalty.
Yet when he should have been celebrating, Protess received some very bad news. On the same day Caine was released, John Lavine, dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, curtly informed Protess that he would not be teaching his world-renowned investigative journalism class at Northwestern in the spring quarter. After thirty years of teaching, his career at Northwestern was seemingly over, with no explanation offered for why.
For the last three years, Protess has been locked in a prolonged battle with Chicago prosecutors after Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez unveiled an unprecedented subpoena demanding all the records of Protess and his students concerning the case of Anthony McKinney, who Protess alleges has been behind bars for nearly thirty-five years for a murder he did not commit. For the full backstory, read The Nation’s editorial from last year, “Stalling Justice.” After initially defending Protess, Northwestern abruptly turned against him last fall, siding with prosecutors on the subpoena and culminating in Lavine’s sudden suspension of him last week.
I took Protess’s class my senior year at Northwestern, in the spring of 2004, and worked on the McKinney case. I’ve closely watched this drama unfold and have been deeply disturbed by how prosecutors in Chicago, with a belated assist from my alma mater, have attacked our reporting and attempted to undermine the unbelievable work David has done over his career to reverse terrible instances of injustice. The wrongful imprisonment of McKinney, which nine successive teams of students at Medill worked to uncover, has been tragically ignored amidst the media sideshow.
As I’ve written before, Protess’s class was the highlight of my time at Medill and an unforgettably meaningful experience. My classmates and I were just 21 and 22 at the time, thrust into unfamiliar environs on the South Side of Chicago and elsewhere, trying to ferret out the facts of a murder that occurred before any of us were born. David's class, more than any other, taught me how to be a reporter, how to make difficult decisions in a quick and decisive manner and how to always strive for justice and empathy in my work. His unyielding commitment to this painstaking and often heartbreaking work was absolutely infectious.
Protess’s suspension from Medill raises very disturbing questions about the future of what has long been regarded as one of the country’s foremost journalism schools. “From day one in my conflict with the university, it was apparent there was virtually no appreciation for in-depth investigative reporting that serves a higher social good,” Protess told me. Just last week, Lavine, whose specialty is media marketing, successfully pushed to change the name of the school from the Medill School of Journalism to the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications (really rolls off the tongue). Many alumni, faculty and media critics scoffed at the name change, but it’s no laughing matter. When he became dean, Lavine spoke of “blowing up the whole curriculum” but, as Thomas Frank of Harper’s noted, “the only thing he seems to have blown up is the division between journalism and marketing.” During his time at Medill, Lavine is perhaps best known for allegedly fabricating student quotes in articles he wrote for the alumni magazine praising the school’s new marketing-centric curriculum.
It pains me to say this, as I’m a proud Medill alum, but Protess has become a casualty of a regime that now cares more about integrated marketing than serious investigative journalism. “The direction of the school and the direction of the work I’m doing are moving on opposite tracks,” he says. Techno-gadgetry now trumps hard-hitting reporting.
Over 230 Medill alumni have signed a petition supporting Protess and calling on Lavine to offer a detailed explanation for his abrupt removal. The students who were supposed to take Protess’s class in the spring unanimously asked for him to be immediately reinstated. Students and faculty alike are increasingly of the mind that Lavine, not Protess, should be the one to go.