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Investigative Journalist Becomes Wrongfully Accused

FALSELY ACCUSED
As an investigative reporter with the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal Alec spent years investigating wrongful convictions. In 2008, he became a professor at Northwestern University and in 2011 was asked to take over the Medill Justice Project, a national investigative journalism center for the university. Under Alec’s leadership, The Medill Justice Project earned recognition nationally and internationally for its investigations, photography, videos, podcasts and website, including nearly 100 awards in seven years. 

In 2018, Alec suddenly found himself on the other side falsely accused when a former employee who had been let go years earlier wrote an open letter to the media complete with a list of accusations. The letter highlighted accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct which had already been investigated by the university and found to be without merit. It didn’t matter the university did nothing. Most of the former students who also signed the open letter were accusing Alec of being tough or mean when they took his class five or ten years prior. The accusations came about during the Me-Too Movement which was designed to reveal wrongful acts of sexual assaults by men against women in Hollywood. It turned into a movement to remove men from power, even if there was no evidence, even if they were innocent of the charges. The rage of the movement ripped apart families, destroyed reputations, created financial destruction, traumatized kids, and in some cases caused death.

For Alec his life was wrecked by the first public attack of the smear campaign. Friends, professors and business acquaintances chose to believe he was guilty based on what the media reported. He could not defend himself publicly since he was bound to confidentiality by the university (his employer) as they investigated his career. Then the former employee issued another letter to the news media in a second attack citing anonymous attackers accusing him of misconduct. Alec found out later that the former employee spent a good bit of time secretly soliciting his former students of years past to enlist them in the takedown. After the media attacks other former students who had an ax to grind were stirred to file complaints (the pile on effect).

Some students were mad about grades they received, others complained about a chair in his office that offered a power differential (the beanbag was lower to the ground than his chair), and some were upset that their internship was not renewed by Alec at Medill for a variety of reasons. Alec recalls, “I was so shocked by the allegations I felt virtually frozen in sadness.”  He would later learn that when he took over the Medill Project from a popular professor, who had been ousted by the university, he produced a number of enemies. This professor went on to collaborate with the former employee Alec had let go and another former assistant who made false allegations against him. Together these people created a snowball effect by disseminating false allegations to the media. 

In all of his years as a professor Alec was never accused of any misconduct. Even in anonymous evaluations required by the university his students wrote how they loved his class, how much they learned and how much he devoted himself to them.  “All I knew when the media barrage came was what it felt like to be wrongfully accused after spending years investigating cases of wrongful convictions,” shares Alec.

Consumed with the pain the media attack was causing in his life Alec stopped caring about himself. He stopped shaving, didn’t leave the house and turned to alcohol and Xanax to get through the day. He struggled with wanting to die. In the midst of all of this Alec’s father tried to commit suicide.

A few years prior to the media attacks, Alec’s friend gave him a book by Lee Strobel The Case for Christ. Alec believed Jesus was a myth. He chose to read the book because the story was about a journalist investigating a wrongful conviction. Alec could relate so he kept reading which led to his spiritual enlightening. The book did convince him that Jesus did exist so he decided to read the New Testament. He also decided his children would grow up with Jesus in their lives. He still struggled with accepting that Jesus performed miracles and was raised from the dead. However, he would read Bible stories to his children at night, started attending church and even had his children baptized. As he faced the media attacks which unleashed public humiliation with false accusations Alec noticed his suffering was not pulling him away from God, but instead drawing him closer to a deeper sense of faith. “I wouldn’t have found my way to faith – even as I wrestle with it – without the bone-crushing suffering. I was too stubborn, too set in my ways, too comfortable, too much a creature of habit, too much of me. I needed a good swift kick in the pants. It’s brought me closer to my faith, to God.” During this difficult time, many people he began to encounter daily were all followers of Christ. Previously, Alec was self-taught when it came to the Bible. Now he had friend’s interceding for him. Even as a skeptic he was surprised how much comfort prayer from other Christians gave him. He didn’t worry any longer about the negative press. He didn’t feel anger like he used to over the circumstances in his life. He didn’t say things he would regret later. He felt compassion. He felt saved.

Alec resigned from his position as professor at the university. He wanted the suffering to end for his family. “In the end, I wasn’t sanctioned in any way, I wasn’t fired. I didn’t go through the university appeals process. There was no final determination. I walked away,” shares Alec. He felt it was in the best interest of his family, the university (to avoid further negative publicity from his attackers) and even his attackers (to see his career ruined). Part of his spiritual journey has been about forgiveness. He has prayed for forgiveness from his attackers (for whatever they felt towards him) and he also forgave those who had attacked and destroyed him. Alec continues to grow in his faith. He prays daily and reads the Bible and other books about God. Even in the midst of the suffering he is thankful for his renewed relationship with his kids, his improved relationship with his father and his connection to the ultimate father, God.

REBUILDING
In 2018, Alec’s friend Kevin reached out to him during this crisis and asked him to come to Oklahoma to help a friend who wanted to create a justice project. Alec helped to create and launch an Oklahoma nonprofit that assists female prisoners wrongfully convicted and excessively sentenced in regaining their freedom. He devised a system that has helped free dozens of women through parole and commutation, including some who had been sentenced to life in prison. He also helped to create a drug treatment program at a nonprofit in New York to give people a second chance at employment after failed drug screens. Over the past two years, Alec has worked on a pro bono basis to help several other prisoners regain their freedom, while he has consulted on various writing and media projects. He also started Mathew 56 Consulting/Investigations where he and his dad, the former editor-in-chief of the New York Times Magazine work together. The consulting portion of the firm offers writing and editing help while the investigations side of the firm uses ethical investigation techniques to help people with wrongful convictions.  He is also the creator and host of the podcast series, Life On The Other Side: stories from prisoners, their families and those helping them find justice and redemption.

 

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Guest Info

Guests
Credits

Author, latest, Aftermath (2020)

Award-winning Investigative Journalist for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal

Former professor, Northwestern University

 

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