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How the media treat papal visits, whistleblowers, sex workers and foreign elections

By Ben L. Kaufman · April 9th, 2008 · On Second Thought

Religion is hot news because Pope Benedict XVI is coming to the United States next week. He'll be accompanied by a deluge of news media cliches and ignorance about the papacy, his relations with Catholics and non-Catholics and just about anything else that can be attributed to or blamed on the bishop of Rome.

That provoked Peter Steinfels, one of the smartest commentators on institutional religion today. His recent New York Times column anticipates a lot of silliness around Benedict's visit. This is my favorite quote: "Breathlessness is always a problem with papal visits. The trouble with melodrama is that it displaces genuine drama. Caricature replaces character."

Enquirer readers probably will be at the mercy of news services and syndicated columnists. We'll be fortunate if the Associated Press assigns Dick Ostling, the Gold Standard among religion reporters. The Times also has serious, informed reporters who cover religion.

I hope the Enquirer staff remembers that most Tristate residents are not Catholics and that it's advocacy, not reporting, when a secular daily calls the pope "His Holiness" or "Holy Father" when it's not a direct quote.

The Enquirer has chosen not to have a religion reporter in a time when religion often plays a central role in public discourse and policy and private lives. I'm not alone in this lamentation.

Enquirer Business Editor Carolyn Picone produced a smart column on religion on a Sunday business cover page. She rightly identified the lack of religion coverage as an institutional weakness and wisely asked colleague Peter Bronson for why this might be so.

I agree with Picone and Bronson, adding demonstrably wilfull ignorance and dismissive contempt for believers as explanations for this lamentable but easily rectified Enquirer failing.

Curmudgeon Notes:

� A federal False Claims Act suit involves a Cincinnati hospital, some heart surgeons and Medicare/Medicaid payments. In such cases, a whistle-blower sues on behalf of the attorney general, accusing the defendant(s) of defrauding the government. Initial local stories on the hospital suit overlook a some significant points.

First, at least at my deadline, the lawyer filing this whistleblower suit is the only lawyer not named in news stories. His name, Glenn Whitaker, is public record, and his firm's web site boasts of his skills defending against such suits.

Second, if the Justice Department refuses to pursue a false claims suit, the whistleblower can file at his own expense and, if he wins, increases his share of any money recovered plus some stiff penalties.

Finally, modern penalties in this Civil War antiprofiteering law owe a debt to the late Jack Gravitt, a former Marine with two Purple Hearts from Vietnam. Gravitt was a machinist at General Electric Aircraft Engines in Evendale. He sued GE under the False Claims Act in 1984, saying GE ignored his warnings that timecards were altered illegally on B1-B bomber engine contracts.

The Justice Department took over the case and proposed a $234,000 settlement, the then-current $2,000 civil penalty for each of 117 altered time cards. Gravitt and attorney James B. Helmer Jr. argued that it was a "sweetheart" deal, and Judge Carl Rubin refused to approve it.

The Supreme Court eventually refused to hear GE's appeal. That was bad news for GE. Gravitt and attorney Helmer took over the case. Their testimony also helped persuade Congress to raise the penalty to $10,000 for each false claim. President Reagan signed the 1986 False Claims Act Amendments, which also make it easier to sue.

Judge Rubin applied the higher penalties and said each of the 117 time cards could be a separate false claim. Rather than go to trial and risk triple damages on the higher penalties under the False Claims Act, GE settled for at least $3.5 million. Gravitt and Helmer shared it with the government; that's how the False Claims Act encourages whistleblowers.

GE denied any wrongdoing, blaming one supervisor for trying to hide overtime by shifting costs among Air Force contracts.

� Unhappy with AP coverage of state government and Ohio news in general, The Enquirer and some other Ohio dailies are sharing stories directly rather than waiting for the AP to distribute them. That's why you're seeing stories with bylines crediting The Columbus Dispatch and other papers.

After a week, Enquirer Editor Tom Callinan said, "The story sharing seems to be going well. It supplements, not replaces, the Associated Press. ... The collaboration is helping build relationships among line editors who might need a photo, etc., from an event elsewhere in the state. Our view is that if the content serves the public interest, we shouldn't let imagined competitiveness or egos get in the way."

Callinan added, "I do think too much is being made of the AP 'quarrel.' I am not as hawkish on that as some other editors ... although I do think AP needs to be more accountable to its newspapers' needs."

� Another veteran journalist is damaged by credulous reliance on unauthenticated documents and unreliable sources. The Los Angeles Times is apologizing for its defamatory and possibly libelous story about feuding rappers and is trying to figure out how the Pulitzer-winning reporter screwed up. So is the AP. It used the same dubious documents in a story last year. The mea culpa by The LA Times alerted AP, and it sent out a correction. Thesmokinggun.com challenged the documents' authenticity after The LA Times posted them with its story.

� Authenticating documents and determining how far to trust sources is an omnipresent challenge. That's why the recent Sunday page 1 story in The New York Times is fascinating. Recent fiascos might have made Times editors cautious but not timid. Look at the first paragraph (emphases added):

"BOGOT�, Colombia � Files provided by Colombian officials from computers they say were captured in a cross-border raid in Ecuador this month appear to tie Venezuela's government to efforts to secure arms for Colombia's largest insurgency..."

A great story if true, it's still pretty iffy. Someone The Times trusts must have assured them that even if it's not irrefutable it's pretty damn certain.

Consider the reasons for caution. The claim comes from a government dependent on U.S. military aid in the failing war on drugs and Colombia knows Bush would be delighted to tie Venezuela's leftist president to FARC narcoterrorism.

This recalls a principle of rabbinic reasoning, kal v�chomer, or "how much the more so." If a paper document or a source creates doubts, then how much the more so do alleged computer records whose source might be dodgy.

� Speaking of sources and checking it out, this Editor's Note is from the March 30 New York Times: "An article on March 16 profiling three sex workers in the wake of Gov. Eliot Spitzer's resignation after revelations that he patronized prostitutes misconstrued how two of the women, identified by the pseudonyms Faith O'Donnell and Sally Anderson, said they earned a living. The resulting misrepresentation of the two women's work included a headline that referred to them as 'high-priced call girls' and a paragraph that said they practiced 'the 21st-century version of the oldest profession.' The reporter who interviewed them, one of two who worked on the article, never explicitly asked the women whether they traded sex for money or were prostitutes, call girls or escorts; he used the term 'sex workers,' a term they used themselves that describes strippers and lap dancers as well as prostitutes. Though Ms. Anderson advertises herself as a 'dominatrix with a holistic approach,' he did not ask her whether that meant she also performed sex acts for money, nor did he ask Ms. O'Donnell what her work actually was before characterizing it. He and the editors should have explored whether he had determined these things precisely. After the article was published, both women contacted The Times and said they do not perform sex for money; Ms. O'Donnell refused to be specific about what she does. Because of an editing error, the article misstated the political work of the New York chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a group in which Ms. Anderson is active; it advocates the decriminalization of prostitution, not its legalization, arguing that sex work should be regulated through labor law like other jobs but not subject to additional restrictions. Another editing error changed the meaning of Ms. Anderson's observation that 'no one' had come to an event she had helped plan to highlight difficulties faced by prostitutes; Ms. Anderson meant that no journalists had attended."

� Reporters should get on the cintimha.com message list because it appears employees of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority have lots of fun. First it was the email asking everyone to boycott new dollar coins because the coins didn't trust in God. Wrong. They do. Now the CMHA computers are being used to promote a college tailgate party.

� What explains the silence of reporters who accompanied Hillary to Bosnia where she did not dodge bullets as she claimed? They knew. Is it an omerta, a code of silence among reporters who covering the candidate who might be the next president?

The Economist devotes most of a page to changing U.S. Hispanic culture, and Ohio plays an important role in the story.

� It is a measure of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's murderous paranoia that few outside reporters have been allowed into this former British colony, the once-prosperous Southern Rhodesia. The New York Times carried an election story last week from Zimbabwe without a byline. That is a traditional way of protecting reporters who ignore bans on their presence or work. Editorandpublisher.com says The Times added Pulitzer-winner Barry Bearak's byline with his permission after other reporters challenged Mugabe�s authority. A day later, Bearak was arrested and charged with offenses under restrictive media laws.

� Consider the underlying news in election stories from Kenya, Zimbabwe and other sub-saharan Africa nations: the fervor with which so many men and women vote. They often risk assault or death, arson and ethnic cleansing, heat and hunger, to reach polling places and wait generally peacefully in lines that sometimes stretch to the horizon.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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