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It Doesn't Take a Censor to 'Hide' the News

By Ben L. Kaufman · July 7th, 2004 · Media, Myself & I
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If you have to face bad news, pray it's on a Saturday.

Skeleton reporting staffs are struggling with early deadlines and by Monday, you're last week's news. It helps when the nation is grieving for a president and Smarty Jones is supposed to (but doesn't) win the Belmont.

Friday's almost as good.

Ask University of Cincinnati basketball coach Bob Huggins. It was a Friday, almost 60 hours after his June 8 DUI arrest, that WCPO (Channel 9) broke the news. As it developed, coverage was restrained rather than a feeding frenzy on Huggins' recruiting and coaching, lifestyle, home, family, heart problems, beer drinking, etc.

And sometimes what you see is all you get. When Huggins said he'd been drinking after lunch with a recruit, no one found that he'd been drinking with a recruit. When reporters pursued an arresting officer's taped remark that Huggins was stopped before, Fairfax police records said he'd been taken home "ill" last year.

In short, he was contrite, pleaded no contest and accepted his sentence and UC discipline with grace.

End of the DUI story.

Unless, of course, you wonder why it took so long for reporters to catch on. Rather than posit a vast paleo-con conspiracy to kill the story, here is an imperfect reconstruction of that delayed coverage.

Tuesday: Huggins was arrested late that night.

Typical of small police departments, calls are answered by the Hamilton County Communications Center. In the same way, officers routinely call the center when they initiate a traffic stop. It would be unusual for an officer to know or broadcast a driver's name or license number because both can be checked by computers in police vehicles. The center says dispatchers didn't know Fairfax had arrested Huggins and there was nothing to tell reporters who called.

Huggins got another break because he wasn't booked into the Hamilton County Justice Center, where a night police reporter would have seen his arrest slip. Similarly, routine discovery of his arrest was frustrated by the Fairfax decision to keep the case for mayor's court instead of Hamilton County Municipal Court, which reporters check daily.

Wednesday and Thursday: No news. Fairfax Police and mayor's court produce so little news that they justifiably get minimal routine attention from reporters.

Moreover, nothing requires clerks or officers to tell anything to reporters asking, "Anything going on?"

It was that situation and/or that calls were forwarded to the communications center that combined to create the 60-hour delay between Huggins' arrest and the first report about it, according to Barry Horstman, Metro editor at The Cincinnati Post, and Chris Graves, an assistant metro editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer, who reviewed their delayed coverage for CityBeat. Everyone's standard operating procedures contributed to missing the story.

Friday: Horstman said a Post sports reporter heard about the DUI out of town and called the newsroom early enough for that afternoon's paper.

Channel 9 reported Huggins' DUI on its Web site and newscast before 9 a.m.

"We had a source that called us," says news director Bob Morford.

· · ·

You can have a newsworthy, accurate and timely story and be wrong. Or put another way, compassion sometimes trumps competitiveness.

At 5:15 a.m. June 28, Channel 9 reported accurately that Al-Jazeera satellite network was broadcasting what it said was a tape of the execution of Army Spec. Keith "Matt" Maupin of Batavia.

WCPO also posted the news on its Web page, relying solely on "background" from a trustworthy source it promised anonymity.

"We made a mistake," Morford said the next day. "We regret doing it."

WCPO first should have checked it out, seeking official confirmation (or denial) of the existence of the tape and/or death, he explained, and should have asked the Army liaison whether the Maupin family knew of the tape.

No official confirmation or denial would have been available. Americans did not know if Maupin were the victim. That needn't have kept the news off the air.

However, Morford rightly said compassion should have delayed the story until WCPO knew that Maupin's family were aware of the report.

Channel 9 pulled the unconfirmed story from its newscasts and Web page by 7 a.m. Morford said everyone had it by noon and Channel 9 resumed its coverage. The 20-year-old reservist was captured April 9 and last seen alive April 16 on Al-Jazeera, which indicated its tapes came from Maupin's Islamist Iraqi captors.

· · ·

Break out magnums of fine vintage praise for two memorable efforts:

· Enquirer Metro reporter Dan Horn -- with support from arts reporter Marilyn Bauer in Tempo -- abandoned Enquirer boosterism and told us the emperor has no clothes in his closet at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. If their reporting means that community "icons" will get deserved scrutiny, those institutions and readers will be served well. National Public Radio also had a recent report on financial problems of other African-American museums and how many are seeking public money when troubled cities are losing income and cutting spending.

· ABC and Channel 9 broke from sanitized American war coverage to show photos of U.S. marines killed in Iraq. Most American TV and dailies still have not done that or shown the Islamist slaughter or severed heads of two Jews, Danny Pearl and Nicholas Berg, and Paul Johnson or Korean Kim Sun Il.

· · ·

Curmudgeon notes:

· Vice President Dick Cheney told Sen. Patrick Leahy to "fuck yourself" or "go fuck yourself." Some papers printed it, most didn't. In 1975 the now-defunct Dayton Journal Herald quoted federal agent Caspar Gibson, who said a colleague complained, "Gibson, God damn it, you are fucking with my family. You are fucking with my future." Gibson shot and killed the man. Editor Charles Alexander said management called the quote "indefensible" and he quit. Reader and newsroom reactions were mixed.

· Would we have the uproar over Iraqi prisoner abuse without those photos? News media had the story months earlier without visuals. Is lack of photos the reason there is almost no coverage of the almost 1 percent of Americans who face stabbings, forced sex, HIV infection, etc., in our prisons? An exception to this silence is Anne-Marie Cusac in the July Progressive.

· Scott Peterson is on trial for the murder of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner, in California. Why do Tristate news media follow the story when local killers and victims often get brief coverage before being consigned to the annual score?



Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University. He is a retired reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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