Guest Commentary: Rosenstein's tragic mistake in pursuing a story

Guest Commentary: Rosenstein's tragic mistake in pursuing a story


Jay Rosenstein is no pervert, no deviant. He's not a stalker. Anyone with an opinion worth hearing will assent to this.

Rosenstein's body of work is honorable. Like any creative artist, his work reflects who he is. His concerns are social justice, human rights and the question of how the University of Illinois can best foster a pedagogical and social environment where, in both aspiration and actuality, difference does not mean division.

For more than 20 years, Rosenstein has been on a moral crusade against the appropriation of Native American imagery and ritual, with an unblinking eye on the character and concept of Chief Illiniwek. His actions Monday night may have ended that quest.

In this country, we are pretty much free to photograph or film anything that happens in or can be easily observed from a public space. We think of this freedom as a First Amendment right, but it really derives from what's not covered by the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court's Katz v. United States ruling confirmed that each of us has a "reasonable expectation of privacy."

In spaces where individuals generally don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy — a public sidewalk, most spaces on a university campus — we (journalists, hobbyists, anyone at all) are generally allowed to photograph or shoot video unencumbered by a person's desire to not be recorded. On the other hand, places like a hospital and your home are private.

When it comes to the State Farm Center, you probably don't have a lot of privacy on the mezzanine. In the restroom, you have plenty.

Did Ivan Dozier make a strategic decision to use the restroom as a staging area for the Chief, knowing that Rosenstein couldn't legally film them there? Possibly. Did Rosenstein follow Dozier into the restroom with prurient interests? Absolutely not.

But since this story broke, I've tried to think of how to justify entering a restroom with the intent of filming anything that anyone in the room might not want to be made public. Except for fantastical situations involving a threat to personal safety, I keep coming up short. As soon as Dozier crossed from the mezzanine into the restroom, nothing he did was fair game for public dissemination, no matter how righteous the cause.

So regardless of his intentions, it appears that Rosenstein made a mistake.

And it was a whopper.

What makes his mistake Shakespearean in scale is not the degree to which it allegedly negatively impacts Dozier or anyone else in his coterie. It's not because of how "unsafe" Rosenstein allegedly made Dozier feel. It's not even the damage the incident will do to Rosenstein's broader cause. In the long term, that will be negligible.

What makes this whole thing so tragic is that no matter which side of the Chief Illiniwek saga you're on, your first reaction to this latest plot twist was probably to ask yourself why Rosenstein decided that the risks associated with entering that restroom were in any way proportional to the potential rewards.

Rosenstein may be asking himself the same thing.

To varying degrees, it's a place we've all found ourselves. It can be a dark place, and dwelling on the question of "why" only makes it darker, because no answer satisfies.

We raise our voice and lash out in the heat of the moment. We cast stones only to immediately realize the fragility of the glass house we inhabit. Our passion sometimes gets the best of us. And suddenly, our best intentions go south.

The weight of Rosenstein's mistake is found in its irony. The irony of the Twitter/Facebook/Reddit chorus publicly calling for Rosenstein's head and shouting "Sexual assault!" while privately whispering "Long live the Chief." The irony that Rosenstein's instincts have taken him as far as they have — Emmys, a Peabody, a full professorship — apparently to fail him, in a heartbeat, when all the chips were down.

Moral crusades are zero-sum games. They're winner-take-all, fought on tightly wound high-wire cables and won where temerity stops just short of hubris. There is no net.

Jay Rosenstein is not a pervert, a deviant or a stalker. He is a respected teacher, a talented documentarian, a devoted father.

He is each of these, and, now, he is Quint, the shark-obsessed fisherman of "Jaws" fame. Monday night, we saw Quint take his obsession with his prey a step too far. Today, the Orca is listing and we watch, transfixed, as the shark tries to chomp Quint to bits.

It's a bloody mess, and the loudest cheers are for the shark. I grieve for Quint.

Charles "Stretch" Ledford is an assistant professor of journalism in the College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He serves on the board of directors of the American Society of Media Photographers.

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Khristine wrote on January 28, 2018 at 3:01 pm
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Well said. 

wayward wrote on January 28, 2018 at 3:01 pm

One of the most sensible takes on the situation that I've read.  Given that Chief Illiniwek is pretty much gone, with the exception of an unofficial group that insists on dressing up like a Native American, I've wondered if Rosenstein might do well to move on to a different topic.  There should still be plenty of material within the NCAA.

Illiniwek222 wrote on January 28, 2018 at 4:01 pm

If you haven't noticed, the Chief may be "officially retired" by the NCAA prodded University, but is obviously still considered the symbol of the U of I by tens of thousands. The "unofficial group" as you call the Honor The Chief Society is only the tip of the iceberg. Rosenstein set the anti-Chief movement back about 8 years. That is not a tragedy.

annabellissimo wrote on January 28, 2018 at 5:01 pm

The writer likens this to tragedy and so, to use his analogy, it can be noted that, just as is true in so much classical tragedy - whether Greek, Shakespearean or Melvillean - this would be tragedy rooted in hubris. noun: hubris excessive pride or self-confidence. synonyms: arrogance, conceit, haughtiness, hauteur, pride, self-importance, egotism, pomposity, superciliousness, superiority; informal big-headedness, cockiness The writer's view of Jay Rosenstein may well be generally accurate, that of the noble warrior against the evils he perceives that he must vanquish, but it is also descriptive of one whose hubris led him to do what Rosenstein reportedly did. In terms of the "Old West," he " took the law into his own hands" because, perhaps, he felt entitled, singularly (and narcissistically) responsible, for the righteous enforcement of the law. That is, in a word, self-righteous. To the best of my knowledge, the law against filming others in public bathrooms does not have addenda such as "you can't film others EXCEPT in circumstances in which you feel you are justified in doing so...." or "EXCEPT when doing so gets you arrested and you then make a public martyr of yourself, thus causing your supporters to form an outraged, loud crowd around you that is then enabled to advance your self-righteous aims, achieved via your martyrdom..." Then, sayeth that non-existent law, it's OK to film others in public restrooms without their permission. Mr. Rosenstein is apparently so convinced of his own righteousness that he has decided to speak for all American Indians, for all on the UIUC (and other) campuses, for all of "us" and, under that assumption, to "take the law into his own hands" and defend all against the offense of seeing another human being dress up in an Indian costume and stand or walk around in a sports arena. He cannot trust the rest of "us" to ignore that, or to endorse it, cannot trust the University to handle it, or ignore it, cannot embrace the concept of free speech - unless his own would be abridged, presumably - and must, absolutely MUST, see that such things be erased from all experience, all consciousness, all imagery. Whether his view of the symbols used that make up the "Chief Illiniwek" persona is correct or not, whether it even corresponds to the views of American Indians who have given their opinions, whether the University has banned the "Chief" making institutionally-sanctioned appearances, none of that matters to Mr. Rosenstein. It is the response of a true dictator, a totalitarian: you WILL do it MY way, or else. What is the "or else" when those impulses are so deeply held and powerful to one so enamored of his own hubris that he cannot, truly CANNOT, let it go? If he will break the law against filming someone in a public restroom - regardless of his "reasons" - what other laws is he willing to break because his own self-righteous "cause," his hubris, is such a driving force in his life? To read the notion that the "Chief" impersonator is to blame because he "led" (misled the innocent, the gullible, the naïve) Rosenstein into the public restroom is interesting: on the one hand, we are supposed to accept that Rosenstein is smart, compassionate, educated, altruistic; on the other hand, he is so easily tricked - camera in hand - as to be led like a fool into the trap of the public restroom, camera in hand. It might be suggested that the real culprit is Julia Rietz who apparently, again and again, picks and chooses which laws her office will honor. Even if one chooses not to "Honor the Chief," as 'his' supporters want you to do, we should all expect our public law enforcement officials to Honor the Law, even if some members of the professoriate choose not to do so. One could ask Ms. Rietz: If the "Chief" impersonator had gone into the public restroom and filmed Rosenstein washing his hands, would he have been deemed to have broken the law?

thinks wrote on January 29, 2018 at 8:01 pm

A good piece that had me until the false dichotomy: you're either a secret chief supporter or a Rosenstein sympathizer. Not so. I'm not in favor of the University's continuing to use the chief as an Illini emblem. I wish Illini fans wouldn't (although that is, ultimately, their choice). But I object strongly to Rosenstein's behavior in this instance. I have no sympathy for what he chose to do. I don't know the man. I don't know his work. I do know what we cannot stand for as a civil society that embraces the rule of law for all citizens, regardless of whether we believe their behavior is righteously motivated or not. And on that point the author of this piece and I find common ground.