News next: a journalism teacher's diary

January 9, 2015

Should news outlets reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons?

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 4:46 pm
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European newspapers reproduced the controversial cartoons in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

European newspapers reproduced the controversial cartoons in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

Twenty-five years ago, I watched flames consume the office of The Riverdale Press, the community newspaper my father had founded and I had edited for a decade.

The issue on the newsstand that week included an editorial that defended our right to read Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. When I wrote it, I never imagined that it would make my newspaper an early victim of terrorism.

The editorial criticized the big bookstore chains—Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton—for pulling the book from their shelves. Its central argument was: “To suppress a book or punish an idea is to express contempt for the people who read the book or consider the idea. In preferring the logic of the executioner to the logic of debate, the book burners and the Ayatollah Khomeini display their distrust for the principle on which self-government rests, the wisdom and virtue of ordinary people.”

The shattered Riverdale Press office: 1989.

The shattered Riverdale Press office: 1989.

I thought that was motherhood and apple pie. We’ve all learned differently since then, most recently in the horrific assassinations at the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

When The Press fought back–by bringing out its next issue on time a day after the bombing, by continuing its tradition of hard-hitting opinion writing, by publishing a defense of Rushdie on the anniversary of the bombing for the next 10 years—it had help.

Residents, elected officials and community leaders, including many who had criticized the paper in the past, rallied behind it. But the most important source of aid came from the state’s other community newspapers. They reprinted the editorial that had provoked the bombing.

Together with its publication by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Congressional Record and its reproduction in New York Newsday, they brought the message of a 13,000-circulation newspaper to a million readers, a stinging defeat for the terrorists who had sought to suppress it.

In letters and conversations, many editors of those little weekly newspapers around the state told me that they were frightened about the consequences of publishing the editorial about The Satanic Verses. Some also said they disagreed with it; they believed that it was wrong to ridicule religion or thought that Rushdie should have known better that to bait devout Muslims. Nevertheless, they published the editorial because they wanted to stand in solidarity with The Press and with the principle that argument, not violence, was the way to express disagreement.

Sadly, most American news outlets, including The New York Times, the Associated Press and the major broadcast and cable news networks, have flinched from publishing the controversial cartoons that incited the bloodbath in Paris. Worse, some have used technology to blur the images, as if they were obscene, or so horrific that readers and viewers needed to be shielded from them.

In justification some have said that they found the cartoons disagreeable or crude or childish or needlessly provocative. Those judgments are condescending toward readers and viewers, who are deprived of the opportunity to judge for themselves. They also miss the point.

The issue is no longer whether Charlie Hebdo’s demonstrated contempt for Islam (and religion generally) is justified. It is certainly not whether its means of expressing that contempt is effective.

The murders call for us to defend the principle that in a free society no doctrine should be exempt from criticism and no criticism should be punished by violence.

The refusal of leading American news outlets to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons declares that in perilous times there are visions that must not be imagined and thoughts that must not be uttered.

It is a victory for the forces of silence.

January 3, 2013

The Times steals a story

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 9:28 am
Tags: , ,

In May, the public editor of The Times published a well-deserved rebuke to the newsroom for using the work of others without acknowledgement. The Times, he wrote,

can take a complex and difficult issue and, with its unmatched reporting resources, pull together in-depth work that tells a complete story to a vast audience.

But what about the other, smaller news organizations and independent journalists who got there ahead of The Times, breaking important elements of the story first, laboring in the face of intense community opposition? No credit went to them in The Times’s series.

Let’s be clear. Copy-cat news isn’t plagiarism. But if you’re guided to a story or to an idea to pursue by someone else’s work, an acknowledgment is common courtesy, especially if your hat-tip can give legitimacy to the embattled reporter who set you on the trail.

On Facebook, I posted about my own experience, saying that “as editor of The Riverdale Press, I grew accustomed to seeing our stories and those of other community papers in the Metro section. More recently, as editor of Voices of NY, I read many of the stories in Jewish news outlets that helped The Times craft its excellent blockbuster series on abuse in the Orthodox community. Good for Arthur Brisbane for raising the issue publicly.”

That post brought a raft of comments from journalists who had been stung to see their work used without acknowledgment. Wrote David Goldiner of the Jewish Daily Forward:

We broke many of the stories….especially charles hynes’ disgraceful (and surely illegal) blanket policy of refusing to identify orthodox jewish sex abuse suspects.

Karyn Miller-Medzon, who started her career at The Press and is now a producer at Boston’s public radio station WBUR added:

I remember this happening so many times during my years at the Press. There was one story in particular, about lead in the water pipes in homes in Riverdale and Kingsbridge that we ran, that lead the Metro section in the times a few days later. At the time I was in disbelief. I got used to it.

That got a sarcastic riposte from a friend of hers:

Of course, no public radio program ever decided what was news based on what was printed in the New York Times.

Commenting on the Times website, a former TV reporter agreed:

If you want to know what is going to be on television news in three days, read the Times and the WSJ today. The reporters are handed a copy of the story and off they go.

And, of course, they’re right. With its still-huge news staff and its commitment to serving as the paper of record, The Times does set the reporting agenda for many.

The Times’ status makes it different, argued former Press managing editor Tom Watson.

There’s a strong disproportionality between the mighty NYT and a feisty community newspaper, which to break a big story, spends a huge % of its reporting resources over a period of time. That’s real commitment and the product shouldn’t be lifted (like we’ve all had it done). And if we’re honest about it, having our exposes picked up by the Times for wider distribution is a big win for a swashbuckling weekly – not just for the attention but because it’s more likely to influence public policy. And getting the proper credit is part of that.

Mary Beth Pfeiffer, the award-winning investigative reporter at The Poughkeepsie Journal added another example:

Been there too. NYT editorial based on a story only I wrote; NYT articles that failed to credit.

But maybe public editors make a difference, she speculated, and word in the newsroom that Brisbane was taking on the subject had led to a change:

That is, until last week, two days before the Brisbane piece. Hmmmm.

Smaller news outlets are guilty of purloining stories too, pointed out Jordan Moss, founder of the Bronx News Network and former editor of the Norwood News, serving neighborhoods in the Northwest Bronx.

It wasn’t just the Times (particularly the City section) but Bronx News 12 that regularly used the Norwood News (and still does I’m sure) as a free AP Wire that refused to credit the publications they got their stories — and sources! — from. In fact News 12 would occasionally call me and ask me for the phone numbers of sources. I would always say they could only have it if they promised to credit us. The reporters were never able to do that.

July 7, 2011

Sex and the New York Post

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 6:04 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Strauss-Kahn's mug shot

When the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn collapsed, the New York Post piled on with a bombshell claiming that the hotel chambermaid who accused the former head of the International Monetary Fund of raping her was a prostitute.

The story begins in textbook fashion:

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser wasn’t just a girl working at a hotel — she was a working girl.
The Sofitel housekeeper who claims the former IMF boss sexually assaulted her in his room was doing double duty as a prostitute, collecting cash on the side from male guests, The Post has learned.

Leads make promises. This one asserts categorically that the housekeeper was a whore. Does it keep the promise? Does the Post really know what it says it knows? (more…)

September 4, 2010

Telling readers how you know what you know

Four or five years ago, while I was still editor of The Riverdale Press and before The Press had a website, I bumped into a reporter from a daily newspaper that shall remain nameless. He complained that The Press was so slow to go on-line. It made it so hard to steal its stories, he said.

When I responded that it didn’t seem to slow him down much, and mentioned several Press stories that had wound up in his paper without any mention of where they had first appeared, he responded smugly and seriously, “Hey, it’s all about serving the reader. As long as we get them the news, right?”

Slowly, times are changing, as news organizations face the fact that readers have so many sources of news, and have the ability to give search engines key words and ask them to push references to them into their mail boxes or rss feeds. Lift a fact, and you’re likely to find that readers will know it, and some may even ridicule you on-line.

What with the profusion of amateur and professional bloggers and newspaper and broadcast websites, editors are confronted with questions about just whom to credit and when. If you as a reporter get a cue from a blog but go on to turn a skeletal or incomplete or even inaccurate story into a rich, complete and meaningful report, do you credit that blogger? If so, where and how?

This fall, the Associated Press tried to answer questions like these with a new set of guidelines for credit and attribution. They’re worth reading and thinking about.

April 17, 2010

Shh! it’s a secret

Whether basing a story on anonymous sources makes the story less credible is a subject of intense debate among news gatherers and news consumers.

People who provide information on condition that they won’t be identified may act out of malice, and may be seeking to mislead reporters or to tarnish the reputation of an enemy. The notorious case in which Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff sought to blunt criticism of the Bush Administration by leaking the identity of a CIA agent is a case in point.

There’s no doubt, though, that in some cases sources risk their livelihood or even their freedom by revealing confidential or secret information they believe the public should know.

A recent case of that kind illustrates both the kinds of agreements reporters make to gain access to information and the risks sources take to provide it.

On April 14, 2010, a federal grand jury indicted Thomas Drake, an employee of the National Security Agency, and accused him of passing classified information to The Baltimore Sun. (Because The Sun was not accused of wrongdoing, the reporter, Siobhan Gorman, was identified by prosecutors only as “Reporter A.”)

The Sun ran a series of articles that raised questions about NSA programs. One began

Two technology programs at the heart of the National Security Agency’s drive to combat 21st-century threats are stumbling badly, hampering the agency’s ability to fight terrorism and other emerging threats, current and former government officials say.

Another raised the likelihood that an electrical outage would paralyze the agency.

Here’s the deal Gorman made with Drake, according to the indictment: (more…)

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