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Covering Race, Closing a Paper and Photos of Caskets

By Ben L. Kaufman · March 4th, 2009 · On Second Thought
Americans under age 50 probably would notice if a local news story starts off with “the black killer" or “the Jewish scam artist.” It’s a practice that largely died along with such conversational expressions as Paddy wagon, Welshing or Jewing, Polack, Dago, Spic, Coon, Wetback, etc.

With rare exceptions — where race, ethnicity or religion are central to a story — we don’t do that any longer. Such historic racial/ethnic identifications have morphed into code words meant to carry the same message: “An Avondale man…” or “An Amberley Village accountant…”

It would be a rare news outlet that quoted someone saying, “I Jewed him down.” However, “redneck,” “camel jockey,” “hillbilly,” “rag head” and similar stereotypes have gained or retained their place in our speech.

Such underlying biases never vanish. At best, we recognize them in ourselves and try to edit such biases from news judgment, reporting and writing.

Meanwhile, timidity born of ever-changing political correctness can inhibit even appropriate use of racial/ethnic identifications in the news.

Too many news stories — especially on local TV — say police are looking for a suspect, whose height, age, and clothing are described, but not his race/color/ethnicity.

The Los Angeles Times is breaking from the pack on racial identification by looking at its news value. Its weekly online Homicide Report now identifies victims’ race/ethnicity — i.e., “George Glass, a 40-year-old black man” or “Jose Marcias, a 25-year-old Latino man.”

The LA Times says it relies on the county coroner for the racial/ethnic identification, as well as each victim’s name, gender, age and the time, place and manner of death.

“The Homicide Report departs from (self-censorship) in the interest of presenting the most complete and accurate demographic picture of who is at risk of dying from homicide in Los Angeles County. Race and ethnicity, like age and gender, are stark predictors of homicide risk,” the paper explains. “Blacks are vastly more likely to die from homicide than whites, and Latinos somewhat more likely. … The Homicide Report recognizes the peril of dehumanizing victims by reducing their lives and deaths to a few scant facts--particularly racial designations which provide only the roughest markers of ancestry and history. But given the magnitude of difference in homicide risk along racial and ethnic lines — and the extremity of suffering which homicide inflicts on subsets of the population — we opt here to present information which lays bare racial and ethnic contours of the problem so conspicuous in the coroner's data. The goal is to promote understanding, and honor a basic journalistic principle: Tell the truth about who suffers….”

Curmudgeon Notes

• Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps closed The Rocky Mountain News last week, and Columbia Journalism Review was host to comments by fired Rocky journalists. Here’s what a friend and Enquirer alum, sports columnist Dave Krieger, wrote before moving over to join The Denver Post: “Honestly? The corporate suits come in and cry their crocodile tears, then whiz on home to continue collecting their seven-figure salaries, pleased to have rid their shareholders of the albatross that was a helluva newspaper. Scripps is in the best financial shape of any newspaper company in America, save the Washington Post Co.

Dean Singleton, who survives in Denver (and is Krieger’s new boss), is in far worse financial shape, in much deeper debt, but he fought for the market and Scripps didn’t. Scripps turns tail and runs because it is as committed to the public service of journalism as teenagers to this spring’s fashions. It has learned it can make more money in niche cable television channels. It has every right to make that call. It’s a free country.

"But the question is whether everybody left in the journalism business is simply in it to make a buck. Certainly, for a while there, it was a really good buck. Gannett taught everyone how to make margins that were out of sight. But now that it’s a struggle, is there anybody left with the heart of a journalist? Or are they all just profiteers, happy to move on to more profitable schemes when the going gets tough? Journalism has a constitutionally protected role in our Republic. We need people in charge of it who are more than profiteers. Yes, I know. Times are tough. The old model doesn’t work. I get all that. Nevertheless. We need publishers with vision and conviction and courage, and it’s beginning to look like all we have are profiteers born on third base.”

• When American forces left Viet Nam almost 25 years ago, there was a corrosive, widespread belief that we would have won if “the media” hadn’t fatally undermined public support for the war. Many military embraced that view and aggressively blocked news coverage of subsequent 1980s invasions in Panama and Grenada. Keenly aware of these Pentagon feelings, George I banned photos of flag-drapped caskets returning from the Gulf War in 1991. All sides had something to say: He was hiding the cost of war, he was dishonoring the sacrifice, he was respecting families’ desire for privacy. Clinton and George II continued the ban, affecting mainly transport planes landing at Dover Air Force Base, where military honors await the dead. Obama is ending the ban and leaving it to the Pentagon to accommodate the news media and families. The same responses are greeting Obama’s decision.

Here’s my question: How do images of anonymous caskets impinge on a family’s desire for privacy? Those caskets and flags are generic, in the sense that we don’t know whom they or their families are; the families are not in the photos. Those photos remind us in ways that politicians cannot of what war means; in that, the photos inform public debate.

• Gannett, owner of The Enquirer and most suburban weeklies in the Tristate region, is the subject of gannettblog.blogspot.com, run/written by Jim Hopkins, a former reporter and USA Today editor. He tracks the falling stock price, the perks, spending and bonuses of corporate officials as well as buyouts and firings at Gannett’s 85 dailies. Hopkins frequently publishes internal Gannett documents leaked by employees. As an anonymous employee told Dow Jones news wire, “I've been in meetings where upper management will say, ‘We can't say this publicly because it'll end up on the gannettblog.’ ” Hopkins and others are reporting that embattled Gannett is considering starting a company blog. Of course, if it’s closed to outside readers, you know someone will leak the contents to gannettblog.

• With blasphemous necromancy, federal appellate judges in Boston resurrected the 18th Century legal theory “The greater the truth, the greater the libel.” The recent ruling reversed a trial judge’s decision that dismissed a fired exec’s libel suit against Staples over a widely disseminated management email. Now the court says that the admittedly true but defamatory contents might be actionable if Staples emailed it with intent to harm, that is, with malice. That heedless decision ignores three centuries of American law that says truth is an absolute defense.

Defamation is commonplace; we say and write damaging things all of the time. However, it’s been libel only when demonstrably untrue. But forget Staples. Instead, imagine news you’d have if we couldn’t report accurate, true but damaging information of public interest about government (Abu Ghraib), bankers (Lehman Brothers, UBS), other businesses (AIG, GM, Ford) and nonprofits (American Red Cross). I don’t how long it will take to reinter this stinking mess, but too much is at stake to let that appellate decision stand.

• Remember The New York Times’ nonstory that suggested candidate McCain had an affair with younger, blonder lobbyist Vicki Iseman who represented clients before his Senate committee? The story was so thin that The National Enquirer decided it wasn’t worth newsprint. Critics — including The Times’ inhouse ombudsman — say the reporters didn’t make their case and missed the bigger story: McCain, bruised as one of the Keating Five years earlier before he was a virgin, was careless about relations with lobbyists.

Well, Iseman sued The Times for defamation. In an unsual settlement, The Times printed and posted a clarification and published a statement by her lawyers online. The Times says it paid nothing and admits no error. Here’s the printed and online Feb. 20 note to readers: “An article published on February 21, 2008, about Senator John McCain and his record as an ethics reformer who was at times blind to potential conflicts of interest included references to Vicki Iseman, a Washington lobbyist. The article did not state, and The Times did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust.”

• Photojournalist and author Jon C. Hughes, who guided the creation of the University of Cincinnati’s journalism program during the past four decades, wants to turn it over to “a younger person with a working knowledge of the new technology.” He hopes to step down at the end of the 2010 Spring Quarter and return to teaching and unfinished projects; Hughes is a tenured full professor who calls himself “a journalist who happens to teach.” (He was also present at the creation of CityBeat and continues to contribute photos to the paper.)

His letter to arts and sciences dean Valerie Hardcastle and English department chair Russel Durst urges them to select a successor “from outside with a natioinal reputation for excellence and leadership (who) will bring the program the recognition and outside financial support it deserves.” Hughes, who outlived critics and developed the four-year major within the English department where he long had offered writing certificates in aspects of journalism, also urges his bosses to consider this the time to turn the program into an independent department of journalism, “an essential entity for the future success of journalism education at UC.”

• WMUB (88.5 FM) has become a WVXU repeater station as Miami University shifted expenses to Cincinnati Public Radio. Miami retains the license and Cincinnati Public Radio assumes operating costs … except for WMUB staff, who are history. Miami’s station and staff are victims of university cost-cutting. Becoming a WVXU repeater, however, means WMUB remains a public radio station. In a sense, it’s history repeating: When Xavier University owned WVXU, it had repeater stations in Ohio and Michigan.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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