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Jim Adams and the Death of Religion Reporting

By Ben L. Kaufman · September 1st, 2009 · On Second Thought
Jim Adams set a high standard for religion reporting in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Post was strong in those days, and Jim was one of those strengths. He died recently.

As mutual friends reminded me, he had become a senior editor of The Post before retiring, further recognition of his abilities, but I knew him best as a religion reporter.

At important press conferences and events, Jim would be there, writing with a pencil stub on folded sheets of newsprint. If he ever had a notebook like mine with REPORTER printed on its cover, I never saw it. A pencil stub — useful for editing as well — and the paper on which his words would be printed sufficed.

I came to religion reporting at The Enquirer mainly through contact with mainline churches and Judaism. I always was more familiar with Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and Reform Jews than the independent, especially Appalachian, churches that Jim knew so well. They were his people.

Our differing approaches served Cincinnati well. We had two dailies, and despite confusing financial relationships newsroom competition was real. I always wondered if we were competitors as much as complementary sources for our readers.

Together, Jim and I provided a fair and fairly smart picture of Judaism and Christianity in Greater Cincinnati in the 1970s and later. I moved faster than Jim to appreciate the growth of Islam here, but it might have represented our differing social environments more than any greater reporting talent.

Jim was a tough competitor. I don’t know if he saw us as complementary, although we joked about the kinds of stories each of us tended to do and how those preferences produced a broad coverage that neither of us could alone.

His competitive urge never was clearer than when everyone was anticipating the papal appointment of Archbishop Joseph Bernardin’s successor in Cincinnati. Smart money was on his colleague, Dayton native Daniel Pilarczyk, who gave reporters no hint of whether he knew what the decision would be.

In those days, Vatican appointments came out on Tuesday mornings in this country. Barring divine intervention and a verifiable leak, that meant The Post would get it first; afternoon dailies came together in the morning but could find room for a bulletin even after lunch for final editions and street sales.

Pilarczyk, if he were named, would be too busy on that Tuesday for sit-down interviews and everyone would get the same stuff if he held a press conference. The Post would get it first, and TV and radio would have almost 24 hours before I could report it in The Enquirer on Wednesday. There were no Internet or web outlets then.

Pilarczyk agreed to my request for an interview to be used only if he were named. Otherwise, I promised, it would be as if the interview had never occurred. It was a measure of trust I never forgot and still value.

It was an ethically risky arrangement: My job was and is to tell you what I’ve learned, not to be complicit in secrets. That kind of interview — more commonly called off-the-record or deep background — is one that I counsel against in my ethics classes.

Pilarczyk was a newsmaker. I suspected no deep or dark secrets, nor did I fear he would abuse the opportunity.

But what if I thought his comments were newsworthy and he were not named archbishop? Yes, I could go back and pursue those issues with him, but if he chose silence I was stuck: break my word or censor myself.

In short, my ethics button had a light override.

It was a competitive situation and an acceptable risk.

Nothing was off-limits in the interview. We touched on Pilarczyk’s lack of pastoral/parish experience, his handling of an inner-city parochial school closing, his reputation for certainty once he’d made up his mind and broader church policies and practices that became public controversies. We also talked about his efforts to learn Spanish and the pleasure he drew from ancient literature and cultures. He was then the only U.S. Catholic bishop with an earned PhD (from the University of Cincinnati classics department). As a classmate from those days recalled, “Dan” was the only doctoral candidate with an assured job after graduation.

The pope named Pilarczyk to succeed Bernardin, who succeeded Cardinal Cody as archbishop of Chicago. Jim and The Post got the story first. The following day’s Enquirer carried the entire lengthy and self-revealing interview.

The Post never caught up. Radio and TV news had little more than what the archdiocesan spokesman gave them.

The next time I saw Jim, he was unhappy at being beaten so completely, but he was characteristically complimentary about the Pilarczyk interview, especially when I told him the terms on which it was granted. I loved scooping Jim and The Post.

Jim and I both were fortunate in our successors on the religion beat until editors and publishers decided that religion no longer was important enough in readers’ lives to require the same coverage as politics, banks, high school football and police. Now Cincinnati has no religion reporters, and its surviving daily paper increasingly is a niche publication for Over-50s plodding toward the day we learn whether our religions told us the truth.

Jim Adams was a good man, a fine reporter, a man of faith. Asked if he’d ever heard Jim swear in our profane world, former Post colleagues Al Andry and Dan Andriacco had the same one-word response: “Never.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• NPR is catching on: Its audience reads. BBC has linked its voice to the written word for years. Now npr.org firmly establishes NPR as a news source rather than a radio station. Coincidentally, transcripts for which it has charged now are free ... to read.

Behind NPR’s shift is Vivian Schiller, who was senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com before taking over as CEO at NPR earlier this year.

Whether local public radion stations WVXU and WNKU can do more with their web sites is unclear, given tight finances and tiny news staffs, but Schiller told Newsweek, “One of the major focuses of our digital initiative is to give stations the tools, the resources, the knowledge and the infrastructure, so they can create a great experience in their communities. The [local] station presence is going to be much more visible on the redesign.”

The emphasis on local stations in the web redesign reflects her concern as daily papers die or live on in diminished form.

“That's where a big void is happening in journalism now," Schiller said. "It's the worst at the local level. I'm worried about locals. It's scary. It happens to be where the biggest crisis in journalism is happening. ... It's a travesty. We can go market by market.

"We want to increase the output and platforms on which stations create content in local communities, with a focus on accountability journalism. Some people call it investigative journalism. That just to me means so many things. So I narrow it to accountability journalism — being the watchdog for public institutions and public individuals.”

• I still resist the new conventional wisdom that anoints people with a cell phone/camera “citizen journalist,” but news media increasingly rely on their images and reports.

Dave Lee, writing recently on the BBC World Service web site, says of this phenomenon, “It has been 40 days since Neda Agha-Soltan, a young Iranian woman, was killed during an anti-government protest in Tehran. Within hours, graphic scenes showing her final seconds of life dominated newspapers and bulletins over the world.

“Yet this moment wasn't recorded by a professional journalist working for a big news organisation. Instead, a regular bystander captured the powerful footage and uploaded it online."

The clip of Agha-Soltan's death is just one of hundreds of pieces of citizen journalism to come from Iran in the past few months. With journalists forced to stay in their hotel rooms or even leave the country, these amateur recordings quickly became the only means of getting uncensored news out of Tehran.

“With no correspondents allowed on the ground, the BBC, like almost all major news organisations, is forced to rely on the honesty of citizen journalists to provide details from the protests," Lee said. "Inevitably, with valuable information comes deceptive misinformation, and programme makers have to make difficult decisions about how to harness social networks."

Dr. Azi Khatiri, an interactive producer for the BBC's Persian TV service, added, "On Twitter you see people tweeting on various protests that have happened but, as a news organisation we have to make sure what we report is accurate and correct.

"We look at what's going on on Twitter, and then we follow it up in order to verify. We have various contacts inside of Iran that we call up so they can tell us that, for example, a protest has actually happened."

Since the disputed Iranian election results, BBC Persian has been inundated with content sent in by viewers. Far from being a hindrance, Khatiri says the great flood of information helped the team decipher content and identify reliable information.

"We literally get hundreds on days that massive protests happen inside Iran," Khatiri said. "When somebody tells us that something has happened and then we get 10 or 20 pieces of film coming in from mobile phone footage, it shows the same thing: It actually did happen."

However, Bill Thompson, a technology journalist, said the move to citizen journalism didn't necessarily spell the end of the professional.

"Anybody can now have access to these sources," he said. "But of course there's no validation or verification of the stuff coming out. The role of the journalist is not just to be the person who gets the information, but the person who puts it in context and makes sense of it. When it comes to complex political situations, where people's lives are at risk, the mainstream news organisations come into their own because they have done this before. We know how to check something, we know how to get the balance right."

Thompson said he was also concerned that citizen journalism was only representing the young, web-savvy community of Iran and that the older generation, with perhaps different views, are being drowned out.

Khatiri is adamant this isn't the case. "A lot of the older generation have also been out in the street. This is not just the one-sided, young and youthful and funky sort of a protest. You would think, 'OK, do people in the provinces really give a damn? Is it really their cause as well?' I say that, yes, it is."


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: editor@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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