U scolds paper for reporting on student who drank himself to death

The next generation of journalists will be a welcomed addition to a free and open society if a story on the Minnesota Daily website is any indication.

The news site, operated by journalism students at the University of Minnesota, told a story that needed be told — excessive drinking at parties run by fraternities and sororities, specifically the February death of Mitchell Hoenig, a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and a College of Biological Sciences Dean’s List honoree, who died two days later of alcohol poisoning. He had attended two parties organized by Gamma Phi Beta.

The Daily ran the story after obtaining Hoenig’s death certificate, which also showed cocaine use was a contributing factor.

This, of course, is a horrible tragedy for the young man’s family and the journalists, no doubt, do not research nor write the story with a sense of glee. Nobody wants their kid remembered for drinking himself to death.

So the need for this editor’s note at the top of the story is understandable. But the Daily made the right call. It takes a lot of courage to tell a story in the face of pressure from a grieving family and a university.

Editor’s note: The family of Mitchell Hoenig and some University of Minnesota officials objected to the publication of this story. It’s the duty of the Minnesota Daily to pursue the truth about important matters within the University community. We are committed to reporting this story with accuracy and fairness.

The local Phi Gamma Delta Gamma Phi Beta leaders didn’t want to talk, preferring to let the national office take the lead. It issued a statement that provided little insight into what happened other than to say the organization’s policies were followed. The organization prohibits underage drinking.

And yet somehow Hoenig ended up dead.

The Daily says the University of Minnesota wanted the editors to spike the story.

“Mitchell was a valued member of our community and we join his family in continuing to mourn his loss. It is disappointing that the Minnesota Daily is choosing to publish a story against the wishes of the Hoenig family, who we continue to support and work with as they grieve,” Maggie Towle, the University interim vice provost for student affairs and dean of students, said in an emailed statement through a University spokesperson.

“Per our standard practice, the University assisted with an inquiry from Gamma Phi Beta International Headquarters. It is common for the Headquarters to take the lead in assessing a situation while the University reserves the right for additional attention if needed. In this case, we have received no information to warrant further exploration at this time,” the statement says.

When asked for further details about the inquiry, University spokesperson Steve Henneberry said in an email that the school “assisted with clarifying institutional policies and procedures regarding student group conduct and options for responding to allegations of misconduct [if] they occurred.”

Additionally, when asked if the University would pursue any policy violations, Henneberry referred the Minnesota Daily to Towle’s statement.

In other words: “no.”

The Daily did nothing to diminish Hoenig in its reporting, particularly noting that he was an organ donor.

… and at the end of the memorial, his sister read out loud who received his organs. A 67-year-old man received his heart, a 66-year-old man received his lungs, a 63-year-old man received his liver, a 44-year-old man received his pancreas and one of his kidneys and an 11-year-old girl received his other kidney.

Unclear — and certainly troubling — is whether anyone other than the student journalists are getting to the bottom of how he ended up dead and why so many people worked so hard to prevent that question from being answered.

What good can come from the darkness?

(h/t: Paul Tosto)

  • MrE85
    • The same year the Daily sued the university to open up the meetings of the presidential search committee. I wonder who the editor was back then?

      • chlost

        Ok, I’ll bite. Who was the editor in 1988?


    Towle’s statement is as cowardly as it is condescending to the victim’s family.

    I worked at a student paper — nowhere near the budget of the Daily, but still a fairly large circulation.

    We covered similar tragedies. Most of the stories were professionally written and treated the victims as people. A few stories were ill-advised and poorly written, leading to some raw emails from grieving family members … rightfully so.

    The student journalists did a fantastic job walking a difficult line, however. They brought light to an issue that continues to plague university students.

  • Rob

    Sounds like yet another sad chapter in Hazings R Us. It’s been posited that fraternities are good and useful organizations, but the evidence seems thin on the ground.

  • Joseph

    I’m guessing the U is afraid of being sued for death by negligence (or something similar — I’m not a lawyer) and is preferring the story would never be told, or would disappear. Same for the frat, since the frat could be sued, and likely the school as well, since they allow the frat to operate on campus.

    • Jim in RF

      I’m no lawyer either, but I don’t see how the U is culpable of anything for a student doing something off-campus. Bad PR, yes.

      • Joseph

        I’m thinking because the U has given permission for the Frat to have their house on possibly university land, and has given them permission to recruit actively on campus for membership and events, the U should be in control of the frats they allow to operate on campus (such as through a Hellenistic Council of Greek Life or something, as well as spot checks and contracts between the frat and school laying down ground rules). Since the school is clearly not in control, as the student died, they may be liable. That’s my theory.

        (At UST where I went to school, I was part of student government my freshmen year. I got to sit in on a committee that voted to ban the final existing frat from campus due to continued instances of underage drinking, even after previous incidences that had resulted in clear warnings to the frat. They were no longer allowed to have a house on university land, and were no longer allowed to actively recruit UST students for membership or events. So no table at the activity fair, no flyers, no t-shirts saying who they are — nothing at all. Basically a death-knell for any frat, since within 3-4 years they will be out of members on campus.)

        • Melinda Matthews

          The fraternities and sororities are not on university land but that is less relevant than the fact this 20yo (less than a year from legal drinking age) likely chose to drink and do cocaine of his own accord.

          Not sure I’d be so proud ofsignaling the death knell of these organizations at UST. For all their flaws, they also provide countless hours of volunteer hours, raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity, provide leadership opportunities and more. It’s too bad you never saw that sororities and fraternities offer more than what you see in Animal House. Maybe then you would have fought for a way to save them if they could tie the line in other aspects instead of straight up vilifying them.

    • D.Robot

      I’m thinking the u is also an organization that basically wants no bad news out there, and wants to smoothe everything over like a politician.

    • Melinda Matthews

      Yet by all accounts this was a very smart kid who also was smart in biology and less than a year from legally being able to drink albeit cocaine is always illegal. I’d say he very well knew the risks of alcohol and cocaine. I’m going to say he 100% knew the laws too. When do we hold people accountable for their own choices? Also, no disrespect to his family. Any parent of a college aged kid sends them off praying they make the right choices or at least they escape the worst-case scenario. Unless he was forced to drink and do coke, this was 100% his choice. And the result was tragic but certainly does not seem to be the fault of the U or the sorority who at least had a protocol designed to mitigate this behavior.

  • A. Monroe

    If the student journalists were truly interested in understanding how this young man died, perhaps they could investigate what happened in the time when he left the event at 11 to when he was transported around 5 in the morning. That gap seems significant.

    • Who says they didn’t try? Such an investigation would still require the cooperation of others who were present with him.

  • Mike Worcester

    //What good can come from the darkness?

    That would be — nothing.

    (And this is not in any way meant to diminish the pain felt by Mr. Hoenig’s family.)

  • D.Robot

    The frats are an easy place for underage drinking to happen. The dorms much less so…. So it happens. When and how the university community will ever get around the difficulty of a bunch of young adults, peers, making their own decisions, some are old enough to drink, others aren’t…. All are old enough to vote, to drive a car, and cars are dangerous, all are old enough to serve in the military, and that’s a serious matter…. But alcohol? Ye gotta be 21. Why don’t we just push adulthood out to age 25 or something?

    • In this particular case, as the article points out, there was a system in place at the locations to prevent underage drinking by arking those who were underage so they couldn’t buy. But he got through it. I would think finding out why he got through it would be an important answer to have.

  • D.Robot

    Side thought, I’ve read that a lot of the accidental gunshot deaths that happen “when someone was cleaning the gun” are really suicides, but reported as accidents to spare the embarrassment of the family. It seems plausible to me, but then where is the line to be drawn in reporting the facts, in the public having good statistics on such issues, but being sensitive to family?

  • JB

    I’m a grad student at the U, and have been involved in student politics a little. The U is *very* sensitive to any kind of criticism, and my sense is that suppressing negative news is treated as a pretty high-level institutional priority. At a University Senate meeting the President actually left the podium and walked across the room to ask the parliamentarian to call time on me when I started to speak about how U staff had discouraged me from bringing attention to the mental health waitlists crisis two years ago.

    The university literally tracks the % of media media mentions that are positive versus negative as a metric, apparently.

    • Melinda Matthews

      Tracking media coverage and it’s measurement of positive or negativeis normal operating procedure in ANY communications department worth its salt.