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Curmudgeon Notes 10.2.2013

Media musings from Cincinnati and beyond

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 4th, 2013 · Curmudgeon Notes
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• I was covering federal courts and agencies for the Enquirer 17 years ago during the previous lockout. One impression remains unshakable: most federal employees told to stay home were offended by the “non-essential” designation. That wasn’t how they viewed their careers. They didn’t think of themselves as bureaucrats, but more as civil service; apolitical and doing the best job they could with the resources provided by Congress.

• “Shut down” is a good, short and punchy headline phrase but why do reporters let politicians get away with saying the federal government will “shut down” when it won’t and they know it? It’s a partisan, polemical device that journalists should shun in the pursuit of accuracy. Most federal employees won’t be locked out; they will continue to work. If you don’t believe it, fly somewhere. Control towers will be staffed and TSA will be on duty. If you cross our border, federal officers will handle your passport. In short, some discretionary functions will not function until the lockout ends. 

Or is that too complex for reporters, editors, readers/viewers/listeners? 

Enquirer business reporters can’t do much more to explain Obamacare. Working around uncertainties in the law, they piled on with good results. Whether they can overcome the fears and anxieties promoted by opponents will never be known. Maybe, just maybe, the paper’s online presence will help even more than its print circulation. What these reporters and editors demonstrate, however, is that no other local news medium can do what they do when the commitment is made. 

• BBC World Service interviewed an Al-Shabab leader, Abu Omar, by phone while he was directing the slaughter at Westgate shopping center from Somalia. Both men spoke English. Abu Omar said killers in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi would not surrender. He also said there were no women nor “foreign” jihadis among the shooters; all were Somali Shabab. 

It wasn’t long, however, before senior Kenyan officials and the news media contradicted Abu Omar on the nationalities and gender of the terrorists. Brits and Americans were said to be among the attackers, including the British “white widow” of one of the 7/7 attackers on passengers on London’s subway/bus system. 

• A day after the killings began, BBC World Service interviewed a Brit who did not know the fate of his wife and daughter in the Nairobi shopping center. Later, the man called the reporter, saying his wife and daughter probably were dead, based on images he’d seen from inside the building. Wisely, BBC didn’t delete the man’s angry statement or description of the killers as “animals.”  

• It wasn’t long, however, before listeners and viewers questioned BBC’s decision to call the attackers “militants” rather than “terrorists.” BBC allows “terrorist” only in a quote.

Damian Thompson, blog editor and columnist for London’s conservative Telegraph, said BBC virtually bans the word from reporting, lest it be used "inappropriately." Thompson asserted that “many BBC journalists, who are overwhelmingly on the Left, support the causes for which armed gunmen fight in, say, Palestine . . . But in what universe are Islamists who spray women and children with bullets in a shopping centre not terrorists? The BBC may say: we have a rule and we have to apply it universally. This is nonsense. That's what editors are for” (his emphasis).

• WVXU-FM carries BBC World Service after midnight but bbc.co.uk continued online with live video from Nairobi for days. That reflects the international nature of the dead and wounded and the historic connection of Kenya and its former colonial ruler. Kenya marks 50 years of independence from Britain Dec. 12. Northern neighbor Somalia became independent in 1960. Kenyan-Somali border violence predates independence; nomads raid each other’s cattle herds and fight over limited border grazing and water. The current conflict has more to do with rebel Islamic clans asserting themselves in Somalia and Kenyan troops helping restore the recognized government there. Shabab — which claims to ally itself to Al Qaeda — is the most radical and violent of the Somali Islamists. They claim the shopping center raid is retribution for deaths caused by Kenyan troops in Somalia and violence will continue in Kenya until troops are withdrawn. 

• Another American cop shop is using intimidation against a news photographer doing her job.

Jimromenesko.com says, “Detroit Free Press photographer Mandi Wright was arrested . . . while videotaping an arrest on the street. Police took the 47-year-old journalist’s iPhone, cuffed her and then put her in an interrogation room with the suspect she had been filming. She was released with no charges filed after nearly seven hours in custody. A Detroit police official says if Wright was put into a room with the suspect and left alone, ‘that could be a serious breach of department policy.’ Investigators, he said, are looking into ‘the whole incident, from start to end. What we did, what she did, the whole nine’.”

It’s no surprise that Detroit — a model of fiscal probity — also follows its own rules on Constitutional rights, including First and Fourth Amendments. Wright was taken into custody and her video recording confiscated after Cincinnati’s former chief, James Craig, took over in Detroit. 

Typically, when police take you into custody and lock you up so that a reasonable person would not believe she was free to leave, that’s an arrest. In this case, probably false arrest unless Detroit cops fix up a charge to cover their butts.  

 • Jimromenesko.com has this latest pratfall at Fox News. Announcing the start of The Kelly File, Fox’s press release called attention to its newest “edition” to the line-up. Then there was the Fox News headline, crediting NPR’s “Morning Addition” for a story. As Romenesko noted, “Fox News can’t figure out addition vs. edition.” That’s OK. You usually don’t have to spell when you’re on TV. Just look pretty. 

Crimson White, the University of Alabama student paper, embarrassed that football factory by drawing national attention to racially segregated sororities. Until now, did no one consider segregated sororities at a state university a news story?  Now that Alabama allows blacks to enroll and play football, did no African-American player mention the sorority segregation to a sports reporter? 

Or, how many Crimson White journalists belonged to those segregated sororities but never wrote about it?  How many generations of student journalists co-conspired with campus presidents, deans and professors who supported, sanctioned or remained silent about all-white sororities? If student journalists were unaware, they were terminally stupid. That’s what makes the revelations so shocking.  

And what about the university president who accepted the segregated sororities until the Crimson White embarrassed her and she told white sororities to integrate last month? Or was Gov. George Wallace’s 1963 promise a statement of a culture that the university, its administration and local news media still embraced 50 years later: "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

• College coaches afflicted by hubris sometimes strike at reporters they deem insufficiently deferential to the needs of “the program.”  Typically, they say reporters can’t talk to players anywhere. What puzzles me is reporters who accept those limits. Coaches can tell players and assistant coaches not to talk but telling reporters they can’t talk to players and assistant coaches? No wonder so many scandals take months or years to surface. 

Evidence of this classic passivity appeared in the New York Times recently after Cornell cancelled fall competition for its men’s lacrosse team. The Times wrote, “The university said it had investigated the incident after the team was placed on temporary suspension last week, but a spokesman declined to comment further or make any men’s lacrosse coaches or athletic administrators available.” 

It’s incomprehensible that a reporter would admit in print that the university under fire wouldn’t make coaches or administrators “available.” They don’t have cellphones? Office phones? Home phones? The Times story reflected no effort to interview students/players and no Cornell official was interviewed; everything was in “statements,” news releases or columns in a national paper. 

• A new international commission amplified a 2011 investigation by London’s Guardian into the 1961 death of UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjold in Central Africa. 

The commission wants any NSA records of flights in the area when his UN plane crashed near the mining center of Ndola  on the Congo border in what was then Northern Rhodesia.  It’s now Zambia.

When I arrived in Northern Rhodesia in 1963, there still were almost as many theories about Hammarskjold’s death as copper miners, police and mercenaries in local bars.

It was all “someone told me . . . “ Some claimed pilots were executed at the controls, others said the DC6 was shot down by Belgians, South Africans, Rhodesians or someone else who had an investment in continued white influence in the Congo’s copper-rich Katanga province just across the border. 

No one whom I can recall bought the official reason: engine failure in a four-engine workhorse plane.

The 2011 Guardian investigation  pointed to evidence that someone shot it down. 

The Guardian said its findings in 2011 were followed by a book, Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, written by British academic Susan Williams. She argued that there was substantial evidence blaming hardline Belgian colonialists, outraged at UN support for the newly independent and seemingly pro-Communist Congolese government in Kinshasa. She also said evidence suggested British colonial authorities helped cover up the death of the veteran Swedish diplomat. 

At the time of Hammarskjold’s death in 1961, Northern Rhodesia was a British protectorate and the former Belgian Congo had been independent for about a year.  

The Guardian reported that the new international commission is requesting NSA intercepts, arguing that "an acid test of the aerial attack hypothesis may be feasible . . . It is a near certainty not only that Ndola's radio traffic was being monitored routinely by the NSA from Cyprus or elsewhere, but that one or both of the large USAF aircraft which had been flown in to Ndola on the crucial night and were parked throughout on the tarmac were there for the specific purpose of monitoring the local radio traffic."

National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly (for which I used to write), caught the Jesuit magazine America in a curious deletion from the English version Pope Francis’ now-famous interview. NCR credits its Phyllis Zagano for the catch. The missing sentence said “It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church.” Even weirder is the deletion in light of the Jesuit magazine trimming the comments of a fellow Jesuit, the new pope. 

• Letters to the Editor carry the risk of hoax. Gannett’s Louisville Courier-Journal was stung recently by a partisan political letter from W. McAvoy. Real readers called the paper to account. Jimromenesko.com quoted this one: 

“Here’s a clue, people and Courier editorial staff: Will McAvoy is a fictional character on HBO’s The Newsroom series. The GOP Requirements letter is a direct quote from Sunday night’s episode. As a former Republican I tend to agree with the script.”
Louisville Courier-Journal reader Mike Hammond

And this howler from the New York Times

An obituary on Sept. 20 about Hiroshi Yamauchi, the longtime president of Nintendo, included a quotation from a 1988 New York Times article that inaccurately described the Nintendo video game Super Mario Bros. 2. The brothers Mario and Luigi, who appear in this and other Nintendo games, are plumbers, not janitors.”



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