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American Journalism Review
Letters  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   November 1991


Editor Laments 'Knee-Pad Journalism'
To the editor :
How sad it is to see publishers and general managers kowtowing before car dealers unhappy with editorial content ("Auto Dealers Muscle the Newsroom," September).
Pity those nearsighted enough to grab for the short-term advertising dollar at the expense of credibility and reader service. They are victims of knee-pad journalism, a practice advocated by alarmist ad reps who would prostitute the front page to make this week's commission. These news organizations need to be reminded that nobody ever respects a whore, even those who patronize them.

Anthony Bersani
Assistant Sunday Editor
Asbury Park Press
Neptune, New Jersey

Consumer News Killed
To the editor :
Last winter, the TV version of "Consumer Reports" was airing on KTPX in the Midland-Odessa, Texas market, where I was news director. One of the segments heavily criticized the new Chevrolet Caprice. Local dealers went through the roof, claiming that the Caprice had just been named "Car of the Year" by a major automobile publication. It turned out that one model of the Caprice had won the honor, but it wasn't the same model reviewed by "Consumer Reports." I was basically ordered to do a follow-up story highlighting the model with the heavier suspension and bigger engine. Fortunately there was little information available and the story never aired.
Still, less than three months later, I returned from a vacation to find our "Consumer Reports" contract had been cancelled because of a so-called financial disagreement. I didn't have to tell my staff anything about the decision to kill those straightforward and honest segments. They already knew that it had been the victim of the golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. In those cases, a good journalist never has a chance.

Richard W. Howard
Video Image Studios, Inc.
Wilmington, North Carolina

'Gratuitous Husbands'
To the editor :
I'm a fan of WJR and eagerly anticipate each issue. I'm also a fan and supporter of National Public Radio, and found Nicols Fox's article interesting ("NPR Grows Up", September). However, I didn't understand why Fox included "gratuitous spousal data" on three NPR staffers Nina Totenberg, Cokie Roberts and Linda Wertheimer while not including it for others such as William Buzenberg, Noah Adams, and Susan Stamberg. If the marital status and/or character and position of a spouse is important to the article for those three, why not for all NPR staff mentioned? Also, perhaps I misunderstood, but Fox's implication is that their characters reflect those of their husbands, that they are who they married, as it were. Surely it's more likely the three married as they did because of their characters, not the reverse.

Susan Prince
Alta, California

Totenberg And Hiring
To the editor :
In regard to your article on National Public Radio, for the sake of future LEXIS-NEXIS checkers, I guess I ought to set the record straight. I had nothing to do with the hiring of the news vice president in 1987. I was not on the interview committee, I was away when the decision was made, and as far as I know, Matthew Storin, who did not get the job, is a first-rate journalist and editor. Had I been asked, which I was not, I would have been pleased to recommend him highly.
And while I am at it, writer [Nicols] Fox refers to Linda Wertheimer's accent as prep-schoolish. Had he or she asked (I never spoke to reporter Fox), he or she would have learned that Wertheimer is the daughter of a New Mexican grocer, that she went to college on a full scholarship, and never saw the inside of a prep school until she became an adult.
I shan't go on, but it is often disappointing to see one's craft practiced.

Nina Totenberg
National Public Radio
Washington, D.C.

Defends Radio News
To the editor :
The article "NPR Grows Up" quotes a former NPR executive producer as saying that when it comes to news, "commercial radio is crap."
My first reaction, as a commercial radio news professional, was that [Frank] Fitzmaurice was full of shit. Upon reflection, however, I've decided that he's only partially full of shit.
Yes, there's plenty of "crap" masquerading as news floating around the airwaves of America. Some of it here in my own market. It's produced, for the most part, by ex-DJs who rip and read the wires, plagiarize the morning papers and yuck it up as sidekicks to morning zoo jocks.
However, there are those of us who take our craft very seriously. We attend to details, get the news right and do it all within the precious few minutes given to us per hour.
As for the attitude that somehow longer radio news is better radio news, I offer these suggestions:
a. Read Haiku. Japanese poetry, not unlike good news copy, is at its best when succinct and efficient.
b. Listen to Harvey and Osgood, masters of short.
c. Ask yourself, "Would I rather listen to a gripping 45-second 'on-scener' with Loma Prieta quake victims or a 15-minute piece on Botswana's economic problems?"
d. And once you've done all that, Mr. Fitzmaurice, consider singer Maria Muldaur's advice, "It ain't the meat, it's the motion."
While I'm at it, why doesn't WJR assign someone to investigate the current state of commercial radio news? I think you'll find that not all of us deserve to be heaped on the same compost pile.

Ken Hunt
News Director/Morning Anchor
Sacramento, California

NPR Anti-Israel?
To the editor :
Even those of us who consider ourselves progressive are irritated by National Public Radio's knee-jerk political correctness when it comes to Middle East politics. The reporting, analysis, special features, and cultural programming on NPR take on a clear bias against Israel and for the Arab side.
A frequent theme used by NPR is to air a report on the Arab-Israel conflict and reinforce its anti-Israel message by segueing into a commentary piece. For instance, NPR opened on May 23 with Secretary of State James Baker's appearance before the House Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs, where he uttered his gaffe that Israeli settlements were the biggest obstacles to peace in the Middle East. "All Things Considered" followed this news piece with a commentary by a one-time contributor. The commentator ridiculed a childhood friend who made aliyah , lived in the West Bank, and "recast himself as a Zionist pioneer for whom there could be no negotiation, no peace for land, no U.N. conference."
A more recent example is from the September 6 "A.T.C." This time the news was Baker's pronouncement that the U.S. government was delaying loan guarantees for Soviet and Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. What followed was a piece by the NPR stringer in Israel on a Palestinian-Israeli group's critical report on Arab prisoners.
Another theme of NPR news shows is to exploit a Jew's criticism of Israel. A small meeting in Jerusalem sponsored by the leftist Jewish magazine Tikkun was a recent featured story. The most egregious example was the running one Sunday in July of two feature stories (one was on the "Weekend Morning Edition," the other was on "A.T.C.") that compared current Israeli behavior to that of Nazis.
The news producers are children of the 1960s who cling to that generation's political prejudices. "Palestinianism" has become radical chic, even for those of Jewish ancestry.
It may be that NPR has become more establishment in its coverage of domestic politics or Eastern Europe. When it comes to the Middle East, NPR, under the leadership of Bill Buzenberg, is arrogantly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian.

Seth Corey
Newton Centre, Massachusetts

Manshel On Hechler
To the editor :
In David Hechler's September article, "Danger Ahead: Sex Abuse Cases," he criticizes my account of Maplewood, New Jersey's Wee Care sexual abuse case for what he terms "unsupported generalization," "sweeping generalization" and "flamboyance."
In the first passage discussed, I explain that when the children were interviewed, "No diagnosis was to be based on the [anatomically detailed] dolls..." Hechler insinuates that I mean the dolls were ignored. Obviously not. But in no instance did a diagnosis of abuse depend solely on a child's interaction with dolls. Investigators took into account each child's statements and effect, sexual behavior with dolls or people or other objects, and the behavioral information reported by parents. Hechler accuses me of accepting this account at face value from "prosecution sources." However, it is the clear and unrefuted trial testimony.
The other citation presents the prosecutor's concerns about societal denial of abuse and the reluctance of many prosecutors to go to trial with only child eyewitnesses. First, this issue has weather systems, not a "national climate." Second, Hechler complains that I "clearly embraced these perceptions." This is mind reading, and yet the position in question that it's difficult to prosecute without adult witnesses isn't even controversial, regardless of whether I share that opinion (I do). Such is a widely held belief among law enforcement professionals, and for reasons I think should be intuitively obvious.
Thus, Hechler concludes that I just like Dorothy Rabinowitz but in the opposite direction am partisan about Wee Care. The comparison to Rabinowitz unnerves me. Based on the evidence to date, I am partisan for the children. However, my reporting is fair and accurate. By contrast, in July/August's WJR , I gave a sampling of the bias-serving distortions that comprise Rabinowitz's Wee Care work.
Here is a passage not quoted by Hechler that assesses competing claims that children should always versus never be believed: "[The prosecutor] wanted the jury to weigh the children's credibility the same as they would any other witness's: based on how their statements fit with the rest of the evidence in light of the facts, and not in the smear of some spray-paint slogan" (p. 156).
If only in the context of my entire book, "Nap Time," I find it ironic to be used as an example of "broad brush" sloganeering. I can certainly appreciate the convenience of being able to illustrate his paradigm with two writings on the same case, but Hechler's is a shallow comparison.

Lisa Manshel
Lawrenceville, New Jersey

Child Abuse Data
To the editor :
As the author of the only book on the Elizabeth Morgan-Eric Foretich custody case ("Hilary's Trial," Simon & Schuster, 1991), I applaud David Hechler's article on the pitfalls of reporting about sex-abuse charges. As Hechler notes, many of the statistics that exist in this field are unreliable. In writing the book, I struggled with the existing data on how many child-custody battles involve abuse charges and how many of those charges prove substantiated but found nothing useful. I ended up saying only that each year, two million American children become caught up in their parents' divorce and that some 75,000 contested custody battles begin in our nation's courts. These numbers may not be perfect, but they have been cross-checked against more than one source. I used them not to point the finger of blame at anyone but to show how widespread the problem is and how many adults use their children as pawns in their battles against former spouses.

Jonathan Groner
Silver Spring, Maryland

Abused Media Figures
To the editor :
Not the least of WJR 's attractions is the opportunity to read complaints by various media figures about how they were misquoted, misrepresented, misunderstood and otherwise mishandled by WJR . Thus chastened, do they return to their own journalistic labors with heightened sensitivity and compassion, not to mention fairness, objectivity and the other professed virtues of the craft? Just asking.

Mark Yother
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Cheer For Cigarettes
To the editor :
Philip Morris is too modest about its concern for the environment. Its blurb in your special advertising section (September) omitted P.M.'s finest biodegradable of all.
Philip Morris makes cigarettes, cigarettes make corpses, and worms eat corpses. Human compost. Rah, rah, rah!

Marie Shear
Brooklyn, New York



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