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Murder Coverage: Good Work, and Too Much

By Ben L. Kaufman · March 7th, 2007 · Media, Myself & I
Duct Tape Dad

Pleads Guilty,

Spares Readers.

(I know it was clear packing tape, but it doesn't fit.)

Murder trials bore me. Before opening statements, we know most of what we need to know.

I was jolted out of my ennui by excessive, overheated Enquirer coverage of the Liz Carroll prosecution. No one needs all of those extraneous commentaries, spectator/family interviews or photos of relatives.

It was all Marcus all of the time. Anna Nicole, Diaper Astronaut and the surprising reappearance of potholes couldn't compete.

Headlines were large enough to declare WAR! or proclaim PEACE!

Basta! Enough.

Yes, I applaud efforts to satisfy readers and draw eyes to news and ads on cincinnati.com and enquirer.com, but editors lost any sense of proportion and wasted too many fine reporters' talents at the expense of other stories.

Then The Enquirer inexplicably published jurors' names and personal information without the jurors' permission. That just isn't done.

Granted, the information is public record but editors must have affirmative answers to at least these questions before running such a story: "Is it newsworthy?" and "Is this what we ought to do?"

I've been through shit storms at The Enquirer. I can only imagine this one.

Editor Tom Callinan's apology and explanation for his staff's misjudgment left some critics dissatisfied, but it suffices. We needn't eavesdrop on the promised post-mortem or watch him take names and kick ass. Moreover, pursuing trendy transparency by publicly humiliating the editor(s) involved and their role(s) in the decision is unwarranted.

Meanwhile, the cockup played briefly on local blogs and on widely read national Web sites editorandpublisher.com and poynter.org.

Basta! Enough.

Excess and missteps are not the whole story. Enquirer reporters did a lot of good work. It started with the confusion over Marcus' fate and carried through the arrests, indictments and jailhouse interviews.

I valued every word of the reporters' probe into private and public agencies involved in Marcus' life. Sober, accurate and nuanced reporting of the actual trial overcame my prejudice.

Pretrial coverage also provoked an absurd but judicially assisted prosecutors' demand for two reporters' notes.

I cheered when lawyers -- representing tough-minded reporters and fortified by Gannett/Enquirer resistance to such chilling demands -- sank that fishing expedition.

This isn't Chiquita redivivus. Journalists won't leave and job seekers won't shun The Enquirer again. As Callinan said, publishing the jurors names "was a late-night, deadline decision that simply was wrong."

Curmudgeon notes:
· New cliché to bury: "On the ground."

· Donald Murphy's appointment as CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center drew critical views from two local bloggers. Whistleblower at thecincinnatusstandard.com links to peer.org criticism of Murphy's management at the National Park Service. Murphy's role in posting biblical verses at Grand Canyon was caught by cincinnatiblogspot.com with link to counterpunch.com.

· Freedom Center's Paul Bernish tells Enquirer's Kimball Perry to buzz off when asked about new CEO Donald Murphy's salary, other candidates and payment to a search firm. Advice to Bernish: Don't piss off Kimball. You can't be sure that his editors will let Freedom Center's use of our taxes go unquestioned.

· Credulity must pollute the air at The New York Times. Its reporters and page 1 editors helped get us into the Iraqi war. Now they're carrying Pentagon water again. Unnamed sources say Iran is supplying especially lethal roadside explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) to Iraqi terrorists. Then, in tones once reserved for since-discredited WMD certainties, The Times says Iraqi terrorists are using "chemical bombs." What happened to skepticism that is supposed to be in journalists' DNA?

· Bill Sloat's thebellwetherdaily.blogspot.com sticks a needle into Mitt Romney's GOP presidential announcement. Mitt bragged how his dad pioneered the high-mileage car as president of American Motors. Sloat notes that Cincinnati's Crosley preceded AMC Rambler. Sloat also could have asked why anyone who drove a Rambler would vote for Mitt.

· I love it. Washington Post ombud Deborah Howell calls printed newspapers "the dead tree format."

· Vance Serchuk's prescient Weekly Standard story on U.S. military in the Horn of Africa triggered memories with its mention of the King's African Rifles. I was editing at UPI in London when we received a brief cable from Nairobi printed, as always, in capital letters. It said KARS chased armed Shifta raiders across the border into Somalia. A colleague rewrote this into a short news story for the wire, saying how "ferocious Kar tribesmen" won the day. I said quietly, "KAR refers to the King's African Rifles, a native regiment in the British colonial and now Kenyan army." My colleague looked at me in complete disbelief and changed it to "ferocious Kenyan soldiers . . ."

· Downtowner is changing. Doug Taylor, president of Taylor Communications, wouldn't say whether change involves new investors, but he once did everything and now he isn't sure whether he's general manager or publisher but he is writing only his column. Downtowner has hired an editor and at least one reporter, and the weekly is expanding beyond downtown boosterism and distribution. Changes "will be good for the paper and good for the community," Taylor promises. "Watch the paper."

· Washington Post on-the-record interviews expose miserable outpatient conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. This forces the willfully ignorant Bush administration to begin changes. Army Times says administration retaliates by ordering boot camp inspections at dawn, muzzling patient contacts with reporters and impeding internal complaints about health-threatening conditions. No mention of survivors being awarded Support Our Troops ribbons.

· As of yesterday, it seems that not even the spreading scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center can move Cincinnati reporters to respond to invitations from the VA medical center in Avondale to write about its care for hundreds of Afghan and Iraq vets.

· A Times of London cartoonist recently put this Kipling line on a contemporary soldier's tombstone:

If any question/why we died,

Tell them because/Our fathers lied.

Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.


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