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American Journalism Review
Bylines  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   July/August 1998


By Debra Puchalla & Lori Robertson
Debra Puchalla is AJR's associate editor and deputy editor of Martha Stewart Living.       Lori Robertson (, a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

Still Seething

The he-said-they-said match between Nate Thayer and ABC continues. In May, Thayer, the only journalist to capture firsthand the show trial of Cambodia's Pol Pot last July (see Free Press, September 1997), became the only one to reject a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcast news' highest honor. Thayer, Southeast Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review who last year made headlines not just for his scoop but for trashing what he calls ABC's unethical handling of his contract with "Nightline" refused the award. He claims he didn't want to be associated with "these egregious violations of basic journalistic ethics and integrity." It seems Thayer had promised a print exclusive to the Far Eastern Economic Review, but "Nightline," before airing the footage, posted video clips and still photos on its Web site and allowed the New York Times to preview it. Thayer's outrage still simmers. "They refused to honor the contract or pay me until after the Peabody was won," he says, adding ABC pressed him to sign something saying the network had done nothing wrong. Eileen Murphy , ABC's director of public relations, says it's standard practice to require such waivers if someone threatens to sue. She maintains that ABC acted properly. In the end Thayer, who says Ted Koppel called him to request his appearance at the awards ceremony and ask that the two "let bygones be bygones," did get his money, all $350,000 of it, without signing a waiver.

Revoked Creative License?

For five years Chris OBrion was quite content with his job as editorial cartoonist for the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star . That is, until the Virginia paper switched its slant. The moderate/liberal paper jumped to the conservative side once Josiah Rowe bought out his brother Charles and became the sole publisher. "I was really hired as an independent voice on the page... I was going to be able to disagree with the editorial philosophies just as a columnist would," says OBrion. The order from Josiah Rowe, he says, was not to print anything that didn't adhere to the new philosophy. OBrion, 34, suggested artistic alternatives for himself but was told "we don't have a place for you, and you're fired," he says. Rowe lateraled questions to Managing Editor Ed Jones , who wouldn't say if the incident was a firing or not. Yes, OBrion was asked to make his political cartoons conform to the "same philosophical universe" of the editorial page, but, says Jones, the paper offered him space in the op-ed section "where he could do his own thing... I was extremely disappointed that it didn't turn out to be acceptable."

Web Feat

More and more news junkies are Web-bound, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. In fact, the percentage of Americans who sign on to the Net at least once a week for news has more than tripled in the past two years, from 11 to 36 million users, the poll said. The phone survey of 3,002 adults found that a growing number of adults modem their way to science, health, finance and technology tidbits. But the Web is still much less a magnet for news consumers than TV, especially when big news hits: 57 percent of those polled regularly watch network newscasts, and 40 percent tune in to one of the cable news networks.

Bullish on Ombudsmen

John V. R. Bull , assistant to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer , who says he's "been the president of every press group known to man," chalks up another one as president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. Bull, who serves as the Inquirer's ombudsman in addition to working with a variety of legal, professional and collegiate organizations, says the "intergalactic" group of 96 members in 14 countries and on six continents is "trying to find ways to let the industry know that an ombudsman position or something close to it can resolve and avoid a lot of problems with readers." An Inquirer veteran of 26 years, he takes over for Lynn Feigenbaum , public editor of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk.

Next Time Try a Dictaphone

Virgin Islands Daily News Editorial Page Editor Penny Feuerzeig resigns after being ordered to run an editorial she says "compromised the integrity of the paper beyond the point which I could stomach." The editorial criticized a consultant to the Virgin Islands' Public Services Commission and a local lawmaker who wanted to investigate rates charged by the local phone company whose majority shareholder is Jeffrey Prosser , who bought the Daily News from Gannett last year (see Free Press, November 1997). Earlier this year Feuerzeig, a 24-year veteran of the paper who led the daily to a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, was demoted from executive editor to head the editorial page, even as staffers and press watchdogs expressed concerns about how Prosser's holdings might affect news coverage. "I thought it was possible to educate Jeff as to how editorial pages should be used," says Feuerzeig, who is considering becoming a consultant for small papers. But the love didn't last. "They were using the editorial pages of the paper to promote Jeff Prosser's financial interests at the expense of the public interest." Daily News Editor Mike Middlesworth could not be reached for comment.

Downsized in D.C.

After 35 years with the Chicago Sun-Times and 10 years in its two-person Washington bureau, Basil Talbott finds himself suddenly out of a job. In an apparent cost-cutting move in late April, the Sun-Times laid off the Washington correspondent, leaving Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet to handle the operation solo. What impact this has on the paper's competition with the Chicago Tribune , which has an editorial staff of 18 in its Washington office, is a good question that nobody seems to want to answer. Talbott and Sweet won't talk. And Editor in Chief Nigel Wade referred all questions to the Sun-Times' labor relations lawyer, Ted Rilea , who offered, "This is not a firing, and that's all I'm going to say." Talbott, 61, did not consider an offer for a reporting position in Chicago because he felt the description was too vague. Ironically, the London Daily Telegraph , also owned by Sun-Times' parent Hollinger International, keeps one Sunday and two daily reporters in its D.C. bureau.

Around and About

USA Today beefs up its campaign coverage by luring Congressional Quarterly political editor Ron Elving to its new political editor position. An 11-year veteran of CQ, Elving, 48, says this was "a chance to get back into daily journalism..and structure the coverage of the 1998 and 2000 election cycles.".. Steve Stecklow , the Wall Street Journal 's national education writer and deputy bureau chief in Boston, switches continents to launch a new investigative beat in the paper's London bureau... New Republic senior editor Hanna Rosin jumps ship for the religion beat at the Washington Post ... Longtime Sacramento Bee Executive Editor Gregory Favre gets kicked upstairs to focus on his role as McClatchy's corporate vice president of news. "As one of the country's great editors, Gregory's unmatched passion and commitment to quality journalism will enhance McClatchy's reputation as a company that cares deeply about news," says Gary Pruitt , the chain's president and CEO. Managing Editor Rick Rodriguez replaces Favre in the Bee's top editorial spot... An unlucky 13 staffers of about 135 employees at WDTN-TV in Dayton, Ohio, including news director Kevin Roach and station manager/program director Steve Fisher , are let go. Reporters and anchors at the station, recently bought by Sunrise Television, were spared. Though for some the changes are unfortunate, says acting General Manager Larry Ryan, "it's a reality in corporate America. The actual bottom line is that the number of people affected was kept to an absolute minimum."



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