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Over several months, Mississippi Free Press reporter Ashton Pittman digested hundreds of emails a whistleblower obtained through public-records requests. Ashton published a three-part series based on those public documents in early August 2020 revealing disturbing conversations between the journalism dean and a donor he was wooing for millions of dollars in donations, as well as complicating a narrative about the "Ed Meek incident" that was supposedly fully reported in 2018. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Editor’s Note | The Decisions, Process, Motives Behind Ashton Pittman’s Series on UM Emails

Since we launched reporter Ashton Pittman’s series on racist, sexist and homophobic emails, released by the University of Mississippi as public records, the public and private response in the week since publishing has been overwhelmingly positive about the reporting, if shocked at the revelations in the stories. We have heard from students, faculty, professors, administrators, alumni and members of the public about the package of stories, which is built mostly around the correspondence between a major donor to the public university and a now-former dean of the UM School of Journalism and New Media. It included both current and historic context dating back to racist incidents on campus when the donor was a student at UM, details we felt were important to add primarily because he said often in emails that he wanted the university to go back to the way he remembered it.

Since the series “dropped like a bomb” last week, as several people characterized it to us, we are aware of multiple important conversations it has caused so far among administrators, faculty (including discussions inside the journalism school where the emails centered), students, Black student leaders, alumni and donors—and it is spreading to other universities and to conversations inside the world of philanthropy, we’re told. 

On Friday, Provost Noel Wilkin condemned the content of the emails in Ashton’s series publicly on YouTube—an acknowledgement that is long overdue. This can also be a good first step toward solutions to the kinds of behind-the-scenes problems at UM that the series revealed, which includes “coddling” of such behavior by some donors, as UM graduate, Rhodes Scholar and MFP Advisory Board member Arielle Hudson wrote in an MFP Voices piece Sunday.

The series included several vital revelations we believed UM community members deserve to know about before students return this fall, especially students at risk of being photographed and disparaged in ways revealed in the emails:

  1. That the response to the Ed Meek Facebook scandal was inadequate and “contained” for PR reasons or, some would argue, covered up. Multiple people, including the journalism dean, were aware of who likely took and disseminated those photos (the donor had claimed credit for them in some circles), and no one made that fact public nearly two years ago. That included members of the journalism faculty who were present at a meeting discussing racist Facebook posts—after the dean had received emails from the donor claiming responsibility. People in that meeting identified the donor as the probable photographer, but it had never been reported publicly until Ashton’s series last week.
  2. A followup article, using an audio recording of that September 2018 meeting, by a news outlet with strong ties to the University of Mississippi, left out any mention of the donor, despite his being discussed in that meeting and on that recording. The reporter told Ashton through a statement that he knew the donor had been discussed, but could not confirm that information at the time, so he did not include it in his article using the recording, and hasn’t published anything to address it since. Because he declined an interview, Ashton could not ask him the obvious question of whether he had asked the dean if he knew who took the photos. This is important because the answer would reveal whether the dean was forthcoming to the reporter at the time. The dean had condemned Meek publicly, announcing that his name would come off their building, with faculty members behind him, some of whom knew the likely identity of the donor, as did the dean as the emails show.
  3. The UM emails reveal that the university’s ombudsman warned journalism leadership about potential “vindictiveness” because some faculty members, led by the dean, were trying to find out who leaked the recording indicating what was said at the September 2018 meeting where the donor/photographer was named. Norton said in an email to UM counsel that sharing the recording was a “treacherous deed,” and the university ombudsman warned journalism leadership to stop trying to root out who shared the recording.
  4. The dean kept courting the donor for funding for the journalism school even as the donor continued to email him offensive comments about various people, students, “the Lyceum” (the then-chancellor and leadership) and groups. Eventually, administrators outside the journalism school became aware of the emails, especially when anonymous whistleblowers started using public-records requests to obtain emails from UM and as the university fulfilled their requests earlier this year. The whistleblower(s) then started distributing those emails to both media (not just this outlet, apparently), as well as to administrators and faculty members, including in the journalism school.
  5. After sending many email remarks about the need to “change the Lyceum,” the donor was placed on the selection committee for a new chancellor, which itself was a controversial process for faculty and students. Ashton’s series focuses heavily on the university’s handling of the donor over the last two years, as well as alumni who were upset with the treatment of Ed Meek.

There are other revelations and points in the series, but to my thinking, those are the primary ones. When I received the first email alluding to this cover-up—whether the cover-up is purposeful, by unfortunate omission or fear-based, or all three—months ago, I knew it was an important story and one that, if it checked out, could lead to needed systemic change due to the seriousness of what the emails contained and the fact that no one had stopped their flow or reported them, whether due to fear or other reasons. 

The documents Ashton reviewed showed that UM Journalism and New Media Dean Will Norton repeatedly failed to push back against potential donor Blake Tartt’s disparaging comments about Black women.

I also knew that publishing them would draw defensiveness and criticism; that’s why I gave it to Ashton Pittman, a Mississippi native and thorough reporter who respects and protects sources as needed; is good at organizing and combing through documents, I.F. Stone-style; knows the importance of embedding historic and systemic context in his work; and who does not have strong personal ties to the University of Mississippi that could color how he reported and wrote the story.

As I expected, the story has drawn some criticism, defensiveness and a whisper-smear campaign against Ashton and the “process” of his reporting. I also want to address these points with facts. Readers deserve transparency on our decisions on such a complicated story package as well as a way to separate fact from fiction in criticism of the series and Ashton’s work:

1. “The story is designed to hurt the University of Mississippi.” No, not at all. It’s designed to shine a light on problems to be solved that had, so far, been hidden from view—and to help current and future students and faculty study and work in a more welcoming and safer environment. Yes, Ashton went to Southern Miss, and I went to Mississippi State, but either of us would do this story about our alma maters in a second because it’s bigger than school loyalty. And in fact, I co-authored a piece days before this series dropped about serious issues at MSU of honoring horrific racists. I’m not done reporting that issue, yet.

And yes, we know about the many good efforts that so many people have undertaken at UM over the years, but we agree with those who say that what happens behind the scenes when the cameras are off will have the greatest impact—and can negate, constrain and limit the work of good people.

2. The timing of the story is bad during the stress of the pandemic and as UM prepares to open its fall semester. I agree that much of this story—the source of the photos Meek posted—should have come out two years ago, but it didn’t. This happens to be when the story came together for us, and it is also a time when reckonings on race are happening nationwide, and more people are listening and open to learning. Not to mention, both Ashton and I believed this series needed to get out before students come back to perhaps make it harder for older men to take pictures of young women of any race to pass around among their friends. Plus, as a gay man, Ashton would like to know that university administrators and donors are not engaging in homophobia.

3. It’s “bad journalism,” and we didn’t follow a correct “process” in reporting. This insult, of course, strikes directly at Ashton’s decisions, which I was privy to; we worked as a team on this story, which was difficult to report due to the culture of fear that every source described to us. We were very careful not to expose people inside or outside the School of Journalism or the university overall by bringing them into a story that wasn’t directly about them. The phrase “protect your sources” exists for a reason, which was drilled into me in graduate school as a priority in reporting, not an afterthought. Despite the pivotal faculty meeting in 2018 being important to the series, the larger story was not centered on the journalism school itself, but specifically on its dean and the broader fundraising mechanisms and approaches at UM. That dean stepped down in April, and the story of the emails wasn’t about  the j-school today, which is under new leadership. We saw no reason to indicate it was, or imply shared guilt for the emails, by asking every faculty member to comment on it.

We had another interesting insight into the story because we were privy to e-mails over two years including recent ones. As Ashton reported in Part 2 and Part 3, we saw evidence that some journalism faculty members were determined to root out the person who recorded the faculty meeting about Meek (and the donor, it turns out) in 2018, an effort the dean led with legal and the administration. What we did not want to cause with our reporting was a repeat of that effort, perhaps designed to intimidate people out of talking to us  before the reporting was done on this story. It is a different story since Ashton’s series published to talk to faculty now about their plans to get past this incident and grow from it as a teaching team, and we hope they will make themselves available for that solutions reporting.

Put simply: Seeking quotes from people who likely weren’t privy to the conversations between the dean and the donor is an unproductive “he-said-she-said” approach that was superfluous to this investigative series and would cause panic and finger-pointing in advance of the series.

The bottom line is that this series, at its heart, is a public documents story. The University of Mississippi released all of these emails to the whistleblowers as public documents, knowing full well they likely would be shared with the media. Ashton investigated and contextualized the content of those emails for this series, reaching out to the principals and attempting to speak to people directly involved rather than surveying people for what they thought about it in advance. That was not appropriate for this series.

A confidential source helped The Washington Post break the Watergate story, leading to Richard Nixon’s resignation.

4. We should not have used unnamed and confidential sources. We’d always prefer to name sources, as long as we’re not harming those people by doing so. But the truth is that investigative journalism often relies on confidential sources to help reporters get to and prove information. We wouldn’t know about the Watergate break-in without Deep Throat, and Richard Nixon wouldn’t have resigned, to name one prominent example.

What is vital to understand about this series is that the story was not built on what unnamed sources told us. It was built on documents, emails, photos and videos that the University of Mississippi released as public information — without those documents we would not have had a story. The whistleblowers who requested them are unnamed, but the emails are real, as the UM provost clearly knew when he condemned them Friday. The people we spoke with who are still at UM are confidential sources and whistleblowers afraid of retaliation for speaking, and were mostly used to corroborate information others provided to contextualize and explain the public documents. This package decidedly did not rely on a string of quotes from unnamed sources.

We were transparent in the story that we worked with unnamed sources to contextualize and corroborate what named sources told us. To be clear, everything in the story that we cite as coming from anonymous sources literally came from multiple sources. We didn’t report anything that wasn’t backed by several people as well as documents or a recording in many cases.

5. The journalism faculty meeting was not a public meeting, and thus we should not have published what was said. Our take: If public-records laws apply to the emails we received, and UM legal clearly believes it does because they released them, then public-meetings law should apply to UM staff meetings to discuss how to deal with a PR crisis such as the Ed Meek Facebook post and that helped lead to his name being removed from a publicly owned building. We, and some faculty members, believe those meetings should be treated as public meetings, perhaps with the use of an executive session to deal with legal issues. And it is legal in Mississippi for the attendee to record it and give it to us or others.

Someone else expressed that they could see why we used the recording as a matter of public interest, even if the participants didn’t know they were being recorded or “on the record,” but thought we should have explained to the reader why it was so important to use the recording. That’s a fair point. Personally, I thought that would be clear from the series—that the first time a reporter used the recording two years ago, a key revelation (the naming of the donor) was left out, which Ashton’s series now shows, as well as proved that some faculty have known the identity of the donor for a long time.

Put simply, that recording was key to the timeline of the initial incident, and another outlet partially reporting it just weeks after the 2018 meeting appeared like a coda neatly wrapping up the Meek incident and helping everyone move on from it, leaving a key part of the story buried. The recording shows that the journalism dean and faculty members were aware of the name of the donor who took those photos nearly two years ago—which had never been reported until Ashton’s series, allowing all the blame to fall on one person publicly. We can’t know if this was intended, but it was the result of cherry-picking what was on the recording for publication and then never revealing a key revelation on it.

This series uncovers the lack of transparency and the resulting coverup, intentional or not, that systematically allowed other incidents to transpire since then. It is easy to imagine that the chain of emails reported in this series would not have happened had the dean or others made the source of the photos public in 2018. If the journalism school as a whole had been more forthcoming about that very public incident, Ashton would not have had an important story to report to expose systemic problems and coverup of key facts about the Meek incident. 

In one email that caused concern among University of Mississippi officials in the spring, then-journalism Dean Will Norton (right) referred to Shepard Smith (left) as “troubled.” Smith, a former Fox News anchor, is gay. Photo courtesy UM.

I will add that, two years ago, I would not have cleared the partial reporting of the recording that faculty were not aware existed without a full investigation of the donor who was named in it as the likely source of Meek’s photos. I would have told the reporter to take more time to find out for sure because that was an extremely important element. 

And again, it is also true that, even this past week, efforts were underfoot inside the journalism school to figure out who we did and did not talk to for the series; we were even asked to tell them how many we spoke to or reached out to there—which under the circumstances could be a way to identify who did and did not speak to us, a risk of exposure of sources we will not take. That feels like a repeat of similar efforts that took place in 2018 to root out who recorded the faculty meeting and affirms the need to protect sources, which we knew going into this.

6. We should have talked to more Black faculty and students for the series. First of all, we have not revealed the race or gender of our confidential sources, so this is an assumption we cannot confirm or deny. We did include on-the-record comments from a former faculty member, who is Black, that were directly relevant to the reporting. And since then, we’ve had people reach out to us to discredit her, and she has told us that some colleagues upset by our reporting have shared private information about her publicly. This is exactly what we feared would happen to people we pulled into the story, although this named source was explicitly willing to risk it after conversations with Ashton. We had very good sources to corroborate that professor’s comments and those by others and to address the emails directly as appropriate. Some of our sources were afraid of retribution from the department or the university, and it took a great deal of trust-building. (I remember a stressful conversation with one of them, while driving through Mississippi on a Saturday night road trip. Ashton and I know the culture of fear at the public university was real because we heard it in our sources’ voices.)

Ashton did in fact reach out to Black students who said they did not feel comfortable talking about this story, and some Black graduates declined because they were worried about losing their jobs. For this piece, we did not feel it necessary to the story to include Black (or gay, for that matter) voices to read them the awful things that were said outside of the larger context of the story in order to include their shocked responses. We take seriously that white people need to confront racism and bigotry ourselves, and we did not need to cause discomfort among the people the emails were directed at to tell us what was wrong with these emails, photos and videos in order to report these documents. That said, we have heard from a variety of people directly affected by these kinds of remarks since the series published, both for followup solutions pieces and MFP Voices essays, the first of which published Sunday with more ahead. It was vital to reveal this systemic issue at UM, among some faculty and donors—but the conversation and the reporting, including about solutions, do not stop with the series revealing the problems that need those solutions. Please write or to talk about potential solutions and initiatives already under way or to offer your own ideas.

Update: This solutions piece published Aug. 15, 2020: Christian Middleton interviewed students members of the UM Black Caucus as well as faculty/instructors of color for what should happen next, and he and I wrote this piece together. Both UM administration and the journalism school declined the opportunity to discuss solutions, existing and new, for this follow-up story. The interim journalism dean did release a statement about responses she plans, even as she called Ashton’s coverage “recent events” rather than “reporting.” (My sense is that the university does not want to acknowledgement the work of the Mississippi Free Press directly, which seems petty at best.) Ashton wrote a piece about her statement here.

7. We should reveal the exact number of sources we interviewed. As I mentioned above, since the story appeared, we’ve been told we should reveal how many sources, and how many journalism faculty members in particular, that we reached out or talked to for the story. I’m not against that as a matter of policy, but I have declined that request for this series precisely because it could be part of an effort to identify sources by process of elimination and perhaps discredit them. Those attempts have already happened with the recording in 2018 (see part 3) and to the former faculty member last week, who had private information revealed by former colleagues. Editors must take specific circumstances surrounding the protections of sources under consideration when making these kinds of potentially revealing decisions.

One thing I will say definitively is that Ashton and I did not confer with anyone associated with the Mississippi Free Press on the reporting of this story—including members of either of our boards or any donors—about this story. That especially includes anyone associated in any way with the University of Mississippi due to the conflict-of-interest potential. I’m confident in saying the series surprised them as much as anyone else.

8. The series was too long, and we overplayed the investigation’s importance. First, the “too long” thing makes me smile because we know from experience that Mississippians will read long stories if they are compelling enough, and Ashton is good at that. We believe that Mississippians can appreciate history and context, which has been robbed from us for generations, thanks in no small part to the man that Mississippi State’s big-donor club is named after. Plus, we divided it into three parts to make it more digestible. And I’ll let the insult that it was “poorly written” just sit there and be what it is.

As for the investigation’s importance: I said up top that even people who were miffed at us for doing this package are admitting to others that the fact that it happened is causing deeper conversations and stronger focus on solutions. The students we’ve heard from are glad that we did it, even as it reveals deeper work facing the university. Still, some others just want to discredit it as “bad journalism” rather than focus on what it revealed, which is an opinion most simply do not share.

The good news is that no one has, through this writing, challenged a fact in it other than Ashton typing the wrong year of Nixon’s resignation, which he fixed. If we get a fact wrong, we will correct it, as we always do promptly with errors. 

Even if it’s difficult to face, there is great potential for progress to result from this series, and now is as good a time as any for such conversations, which are happening nationwide.

As for our reporting process, I’ll leave you with this: Others might have done it differently, but no one had bothered to do it until Ashton Pittman stepped up to make it happen.

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Correction: This editor’s note originally misspelled Noel Wilkin’s last name, adding an “s” to the end. We apologize for the error.

Also see: From Racist Emails to ‘Witch Hunts’: A UM Emails Timeline

Watch: Reporter Ashton Pittman and Editor Donna Ladd discuss the series during the 2021 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism ceremony (40:00) and read more about the award here.

Read the full UM Emails reporting series to date:

  1. ‘The Fabric Is Torn In Oxford’: UM Officials Decried Racism Publicly, Coddled It Privately
  2. ‘The Ole Miss We Know’: Wealthy Alums Fight To Keep UM’s Past Alive
  3. UM’s ‘Culture Of Secrecy’: Dean Quit As Emails Disparaging To Gay Alum, Black Students Emerged
  4. ‘Appalling’: UM Provost Decries ‘Hurtful’ Emails About Black Women, Gay Alum
  5. Ole Miss’ Coddle Culture: Ole Miss Will Stay ‘Ole Miss’ Without Radical Shift
  6. EDITOR’S NOTE: The Decisions, Process, Motives Behind Ashton Pittman’s Series On UM Emails
  7. Perpetuating Patterns: It’s Time To Build A Better University Of Mississippi
  8. After UM Emails, Dean Plans ‘Anti-Racist’ Training, Donor Changes to ‘Remake Our School’
  9. ‘Ole Miss’ Vs. ‘New Miss’: Black Students, Faculty On How To Reject Racism, Step Forward Together
  10. UM Closely Guards Climate Survey Providing Window Into Social Issues, Sexual Violence
  11. UM Probes Whistleblowers Who Exposed Racist Emails As Ex-Dean Keeps $18,000 Monthly Salary
  12. ‘Our Last Refuge’: UM Faculty ‘Terrified’ As Officials Target Ombuds In Bid To Unmask Whistleblowers
  13. ‘Like He Was Disappeared’: UM Faculty Fear Retaliation After Ombudsman Put On Leave
  14. UM Appoints Acting Ombuds As Weary Faculty See Effort To ‘Stamp Out’ Anti-Racism Voices
  15. UM Retaliating Against Ombudsman for Protecting Visitors’ Privacy, Org Says
  16. UM Accuses Ombudsman of ‘Raising False Alarms’ Over Whistleblower Investigation
  17. A Matter Of Trust: UM Controversy Shows How Ombuds Programs Should, Shouldn’t Function, Expert Argues
  18. UM Pursuing ‘Criminal Investigation’ Into Whistleblowers Who Exposed Racist Emails
  19. Ombuds ‘Exonerated’ As UM Emails Whistleblower Hunt Fails to Identify Sources
  20. Will Norton, Ex-Dean in ‘UM Emails’ Race Saga, Quietly Departs University

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