Thousands of Americans, particularly from the University of Michigan, have traveled the world thanks to the Peace Corps. So it comes as no surprise that there was a vigorous reader response to an article that raised questions about the motivations of the Peace Corps (University ranks fifth in grads joining Peace Corps, 01/29/2008). The article questioned whether Peace Corps volunteers were choosing to go abroad for the right reasons. Readers worried that the article unfairly maligned the Peace Corps and that the article’s criticisms weren’t carefully considered.
Basically, I think the Daily could have done more reporting. The article extensively quoted an LSA senior Claudia Williams who raised many of the questions about the Peace Corps, but the Daily never explained to readers why this particular person was talking about the Peace Corps or what her motivation was for talking. While I think she has the right to her point of view, the Daily should have also found more critics to talk about shortcomings that may exist in the Peace Corps. Also, the article could have fleshed out why this particular senior was talking about the program. There have been a number of studies conducted about the Peace Corps and it’s value or lack thereof.
Daily staff Reporter Gabe Rivin, an LSA senior, said he found Williams by walking through Mason Hall and talking to people about their opinion of the program. Rivin said that the woman told him she was from a developing country and had first-hand experience about the Peace Corps, but she didn’t name the country. That fact got edited out of the story.
Knowing more about Williams would have given her criticisms more weight and added to the value of her comments. But the article did allow the speakers to respond to the criticisms leveled. As well, Rivin said he was pressed for time in completing the article. He said the Daily should consider giving more time for articles that aren’t particularly time sensitive, like this one. This would make sure the reporting could be fleshed out more completely.
The criticisms of the Peace Corps expressed in the article have been mentioned for years in one form or another.
Some of the criticisms have been rather comical. The late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) once told The New York Times that he saw funding for the Peace Corps as “more ratfood for the Third World” and called the organization a refuge “for drugged-out losers, leftists and homosexuals.” Even the first director of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, said that the Peace Corps shows Americans that our good will isn’t always welcome. He said: “Peace Corps Volunteers come home to the USA realizing that there are billions-yes, billions-of human beings not enraptured by our pretensions, or our practices, or even our standards of conduct.”
As Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) said in a speech during the 45th anniversary of the Peace Corps criticism is something that the organization embraces. Dodd said: “The Peace Corps is one sustained exercise in self-criticism, and that’s just its strength. For our young men and women, living and serving among poverty is an implicit censure of their relative wealth. Learning to serve and work with our hands is a self-criticism, because it confronts us with our weaknesses.”
So it’s worth talking about the Peace Corps and I think the letters published in the Daily in response had well-crafted objections to the article.
On the flip side is yesterday’s story about Teach for America (‘U’ leads nation in Teach for America applicants, 02/11/2008), which could have used a similar touch. But, in that story, there were not any criticisms leveled against the program. I think any organization that does good would be served well by airing and responding to the criticisms leveled against its mission.
The Daily can’t be afraid to go after institutions, even ones as revered as the Peace Corps and Teach for America, so readers can have all the information available about these programs that affect so many lives.
Paul H. Johnson is the Daily’s public editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.