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Lame Excuses

IN "FEELING THE HEAT" (December), Editor Douglas Clifton of Cleveland's Plain Dealer offers absolutely lame excuses for a classic example of irresponsible journalism. As a former cops and court reporter and then editor, I followed and preached the basic principles of reporting on pending criminal cases: 1. Without a compelling reason, do not publish until someone has been charged or indicted, or at least arrested. 2. When stepping beyond (1), fully assess the potential liability to the newspaper and harm to the individual involved in the event the accusations prove to be false.

Clifton's justification that the victim was a public figure? Yes, but not someone in public office whose moral conduct might be an issue. Then, he argues this was an "odd kind of crime that affected a great number of women." Mailing underwear to "nearly two dozen women" doesn't strike me as a crime wave. DNA testing subsequently strongly indicated the victim didn't mail the packages. Meanwhile, a public personality is held up to ridicule and put under a huge cloud of suspicion.

As journalists, we cannot, in such a cavalier manner, simply wash our hands of the guilt involved in the victim's suicide. We need to learn from such tragic events--or, relearn the basics of our craft.



Bennington Banner

Bennington, Vermont

No Scoop

I JUST FINISHED READING Ted Cohen's First Person article in your December issue titled, "The Greatest Scoop I Never Had."

As editor/reporter/photographer for a hometown weekly newspaper (circulation 5,600), I frequently thank the powers that be that I do not have to deal with the cutthroat competition that daily reporters face.

If Mr. Cohen feels that a 24-year-old drunk driving charge against President-elect George W. Bush is the greatest scoop he has missed in 25 years, maybe he should consider switching to a weekly newspaper.

I would have agreed with his editor and killed the story on the grounds of sheer boredom. Small town or not, our paper has covered murders, rapes, vehicular assaults and local government scandals. We have also investigated a family dispute over pig ownership that turned violent and a bizarre "electrified cows" lawsuit that would have Mr. Cohen's journalistic juices flowing.

By the way, I'm a registered Democrat.



Arcade Herald

Arcade, New York

Travel On

IN MY 25 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE working with travel writers, I've found the lot of them to be serious in their effort to inform their readers as truthfully as they are able. I do not find them biased by freebies (From the Editor, December). If they didn't like particular aspects of your product, they would turn to something they did like and move on.

More disturbing are those writers who are in it solely for the travel and for whom the writing is so secondary that they don't mind turning in garbage that could just as well have been written from brochures. In the case of the Louisiana Office of Tourism, along with many other offices with which I am familiar, a strong effort is made to qualify writers before extending them credits.

So, what am I saying? I submit that the collaborative effort of good writers and thoughtful hosts results in travel writing that reflects the destination fairly.

I think I understand the point of view of publications trying to maintain a style replete with the luxury item, integrity. Amusingly, that effort becomes quaint to behold in publications that feature advertising for the destination on the same page as an article about the destination. Ever wonder how that coincidence occurs?

I do not deny that there's dreck in the business and charlatans, too. How different, however, is travel writing from movie reviews, restaurant critiques and little theater efforts? How often do we read pans in any of these, save in the most serious of publications? And even then, how accurate are negative commentaries?

In the case of publications that fully underwrite articles, I submit one would be hard pressed to distinguish the objectivity and quality of the writing in those publications from freelance work that has been subsidized. After all, travel advertisers are not attracted to publications that slam them unfairly.

Some publications (including substantial papers overseas) to whose writers I have provided assistance do announce their potential bias by telling all. You'd think their readership would decline at some point and that such a decline would lead them to stop the practice if their readers lacked confidence in the information. Not so.


Louisiana Office of Tourism

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Smugly Apparent

Two ELEMENTS OF LUCINDA Fleeson's fine examination of the New York Times' coverage of the Wen Ho Lee case ("Rush to Judgment," November) should suffice in telling anyone still questioning it all they need to know about the disappearance of the public's trust in our profession.

Element Number One is Times reporter Jeff Gerth's smugness in declining to be interviewed. "I don't talk about the Times' business, but as a reporter I'm glad other people talk about theirs." Here's a journalist whose Pulitzer Prize-winning work was later shown not to warrant the conferring of that honor--and whose subsequent coverage of the Lee case was built on that initial work's shaky foundation--apparently convinced that he's attained a status that renders him above answering legitimate questions about what smells like serious conclusion-jumping on his part.

Fortunately, Fleeson's piece did not suffer for Gerth's lack of input, for we also had Element Number Two: The photo that so beautifully captured Notra Trulock's snide expression during his swearing in before the Senate Armed Services Committee. A picture is worth 1,600 not-quite-apologetic words.

The lesson is one Gerth's project partner James Risen understands completely, as evidenced by his candor with Fleeson. Part of being a reporter--whether for the mighty New York Times or the paltry Podunk Press--is being just as accountable for one's actions as we demand of those we cover.

Until this lesson is accepted and we practice our craft accordingly, we will neither regain nor deserve the public's trust.


Macungie, Pennsylvania

Fair Warning

I FEEL I MUST TAKE ISSUE with the opening in Deborah Potter's column (Broadcast Views, November). I am a publisher of two weekly newspapers in northeast Nebraska, and live 15 miles south of Yankton, South Dakota. I know I speak for darn near everyone in the five-state region that surrounds Yankton when I say, when severe weather appears on the horizon, we have no qualms about turning on the radio and listening to one of the many local radio stations that broadcast out of Yankton (two AM and three FM stations).

The AM stations broadcast live at all times. Two of the FM stations use remote programming part of the day. The other FM station simulcasts with one of the AM stations. When severe weather is in the area, all five stations go live with real people on the air. While I can't speak for the regional television stations that broadcast in our area, we feel quite confident in the weather information the Yankton radio stations put out.

I feel Ms. Hollifield's generalization of the radio coverage of that particular storm lacked research. A good reporter would have first checked to see if the local radio stations had been doing their job. I'll bet their broadcast logs would have shown several warnings of potentially harsh storms.


Crofton, Nebraska

Cheney Good, Media Bad

I READ JIM THOMSEN'S LETTER in November's AJR with great interest, thought about it, read it again, and it is my humble opinion that he may need to re-think his last sentence. I am not a journalist and, therefore, I believe I can speak to this issue without prejudice, although I do consider myself a conservative. A politician with a conservative philosophy had better beware most journalists, who cannot help but put their liberal slant on anything political. When the press provides the American public with information that is not distorted or self-serving and eliminates creative slants on political stories, then we can make the best decision about whom to believe and support. Quite frankly, I don't blame Dick Cheney for taking the actions he took ("Collective Amnesia," October).


Circulation Director

Frederick News-Post

Frederick, Maryland

True Obscenity

STEVE COLL OF THE Washington Post needs a dictionary. He is offended by the word "sucks" in his newspaper ("Language Barriers," November), yet finds nothing wrong with printing the word REDSKINS in the paper?


Washington, D.C.
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Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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