Letters  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   November 1992

Letters   


No Ups in Atlanta
To the editor:
I read with astonishment the piece in WJR on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after Bill Kovach ("Life after Kovach," September). What a piss-poor job Richard Shumate did on a subject that deserved much better and fairer treatment!
There was such a defensive, chip-on-the-shoulder, anti-Kovach slant in the story's phrasing and tone that it's hard to know where to start. But the line that epitomized Shumate's commitment to falsehood was the claim that morale at the newspaper since Kovach left has had its ups and downs. Really? What ups?
I can't keep count of the times I've been collared by Journal-Constitution staffers over the last few years, desperate to tell their sad story. I always feel a little like the Wedding Guest in the Coleridge poem. They all have that same look and sound — the haunted, imploring eyes of the Ancient Mariner, eyes that have witnessed something dreadful and unspeakable, and they speak with tongues obsessed, compelled to bear witness somehow to their beloved newspaper's evisceration.
I've listened to such reports from staffers, from countless other Atlanta journalists, and, saddest of all, from Atlanta readers, for nearly four years and no one, not even the most defensive apologists for the paper, would say morale in the newsroom has been anything but Gulagian since Kovach left. And anyone with any sense who has seen the paper over the last four years has been appalled. Has anyone at WJR actually read the Atlanta papers lately?
Why would WJR assign this story to a reporter whose boss at Atlanta magazine quit the Journal-Constitution after Bill Kovach took his column away? Obviously he steered Shumate to the sources who would provide the anti-Kovach spin he wanted.
Of course, I have heard these whines and sneers and mutters from the same pale voices of mediocrity raised against Kovach from the moment he arrived in Atlanta. I can understand why they would not want their warts and inadequacies enshrined forever on celluloid for all the world to see. But I am surprised that a magazine like WJR that claims to honor journalistic excellence would lend credence to such nonsense.
During the Democratic National Convention in July, I ran into a New York Times reporter and Kovach-era alum. We shared a moment of wistfulness and nostalgia for our time in Atlanta, remembering especially the kick-ass coverage of the convention four years ago that was accomplished under Kovach's leadership. This reporter is one of the legions who, like me, left Atlanta in disgust after Bill's departure. We both now work for two of the greatest newspapers in this country, but we agreed that our time in Atlanta under Kovach was our journalistic "Camelot" and we have resigned ourselves to the fact that we will probably never have it that good again.
I mention this because it is a conversation I have had over and over with Kovach-era alumni at the Washington Post, Boston Globe, L.A. Times and other papers. By the way, I noticed there were no quotes in your story from any of these people.
Newspapers can lead as well as mirror their communities. But in Atlanta, the wet-index-finger-lifted-to-the-breeze marketing mentality that has brought us much of what is wrong with the late 20th century has prevailed. Cox wants a newspaper that does not lead but follows the lead of the polls, studies and focus groups, a paper that only slavishly mirrors and reflects the empty soullessness of the City Too Busy to Think.

Doug Marlette
Editorial Cartoonist
New York Newsday


Shumate responds: I did interview my boss at Atlanta magazine, Lee Washburn, but contrary to Doug Marlette's interesting and inaccurate theory, Washburn didn't "steer" me to a list of sources. I came up with my own list, which included Marlette, who, unfortunately, could not be reached in time for the story's deadline. Here in Atlanta, I come across Journal-Constitution reporters frequently and have never seen the haunted Ancient Mariner eyes Marlette describes. Maybe he just has a better view from up there in New York.

Coleman Defends Himself
To the editor:
The key issues raised by Steven Emerson and WJR in your September cover story ("Pan Am Scam") are these:
• Was I, as claimed, an agent for the Defense Intelligence Agency? Yes. Intelligence agencies invariably disown an agent as soon as his cover is blown. The DIA could have done this but, for some reason, chose not to.
• Was I, as claimed, seconded to the Drug Enforcement Administration to work with its attachω, Micheal Hurley, at the American Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus? Yes. Hurley's sworn declaration in Pan Am vs. U.S.A. at least confirms that I worked with the DEA — and at times when the DIA confirmed I was working for them.
• Were the April 27 Time magazine cover story on Pan Am 103 and the earlier NBC and ABC reports linking the DEA with Lockerbie inspired by me, as WJR suggests? No. Roy Rowan, author of the Time magazine piece, NBC's Brian Ross and ABC's Pierre Salinger all insist that I simply corroborated or expanded upon material they had already assembled.
• Was there collusion, as Emerson suggests, between me and Juval Aviv, author of the "discredited" Interfor Report, in selling the report's conclusions to Time magazine, or collusion between me, Aviv and Pan Am's lawyers in mounting an action against the U.S. government on the eve of the Lockerbie families' suit for damages against Pan Am? No. I met Aviv for the first time, and read his report, when Aviv and Rowan interviewed me in Sweden in November 1991, some 18 months after Pan Am's lawyers had dispensed with Aviv's services and some six months after I had sworn out an affidavit in Pan Am vs. U.S.A.
Again, I disagree with some of the conclusions of the Interfor report, but do not accept that its investigation has been "discredited," as the media insists whenever Aviv is mentioned. Indeed, there is no record of how, why, when or by whom his report was "discredited." There are only government declarations to that effect.
• Did Pan Am pay me "tens of thousands of dollars" as claimed by Emerson? No. Pan Am provided me and my family with travel passes and very limited expense money to depart the United States and seek sanctuary in Europe. Neither Pan Am, its law firm nor its insurance underwriter paid me any money for my services or testimony.
• Is there any substance to the reported charges of financial dishonesty? Again, not much.
• Did Pan Am's attorneys fail to call me as a witness in the trial of the Pan Am families because "they realized that their prize witnesses [Coleman and Aviv?] and their story would be torn to shreds under cross-examination"? No. Emerson and WJR (and New York magazine) got everything wrong here, no doubt intentionally. Before the trial even started, the court ruled that it would entertain no submissions from the defense that sought to show that somebody else's negligence had contributed to the Lockerbie disaster. The issue it had to try was Pan Am's alleged negligence, not the government's. Pan Am vs. U.S.A. was another issue to be tried at another time.
It was never proposed that I or my affidavit would figure in the recent trial. After appealing the verdict against them, Pan Am will proceed with its third-party claim against the United States.
Knowing this, the Justice Department is making increasingly frantic efforts to have Pan Am vs. U.S.A. dismissed.
With the appearance of Emerson's article in WJR, the government is also evidently calling in media favors in a desperate bid to destroy the credibility of Pan Am's witnesses.

Lester Coleman
Trollhattan, Sweden


Editor's note: WJR deleted portions of Coleman's letter that were not applicable to our story.

Emerson Responds: Lester Coleman was never a Defense Intelligence Agency "agent," according to Defense Department and Drug Enforcement Administration officials and records, confirmed and corroborated by congressional intelligence oversight committees. Those records show that he served as a "confidential informant" — one of the thousands of people who "volunteer" information for money.
Coleman was never "seconded" to the DEA. Government documents state that after milking the DIA for whatever he could, Coleman left and began to feed information to the DEA — again as a confidential informant — in exchange for money. Micheal Hurley's sworn declaration, buttressed by scores of internal DEA documents and Cypriot police records, states that Coleman engaged in a pattern of "fabrications" in addition to stealing money given to him for DEA subsources and failing to pay thousands of dollars in bills in Cyprus. As a result, the DEA let him go.
Coleman met Juval Aviv well before November 1991. In fact, Coleman admitted to Lloyd Burchette, an Atlanta-based journalist, that he had collaborated with Aviv in fooling ABC and NBC in late 1990. Moreover, a November 1990 DEA document states that Aviv admitted to a senior DEA official earlier that year that Coleman had contacted Aviv to "sell information" about Pan Am 103 after learning about Aviv's report. Everything in that report, contrary to Coleman's protestations, has been found to be demonstrably false by journalists and judicial officials presiding over the Pan Am case.
Coleman says he did not receive a sizeable payment from Pan Am or its law firm. Sources familiar with Pan Am's defense have stated that the Pan Am defense team paid Coleman and Aviv together more than $30,000 in "consultation fees."
Finally, Coleman claims that he and Aviv were not called as witnesses because of a ruling that excluded testimony relating to anyone else's negligence. In fact, the pretrial legal proceedings show indisputably that Coleman and Aviv were not called because Pan Am's attorneys never listed them as prospective witnesses. Had they believed that Coleman and Aviv's allegations were true, they would have called them and the judge would have allowed it.

Double Standard?
To the editor:
In his profile of C-SPAN's Brian Lamb ("The Man Behind C-SPAN," September), Lou Prato speaks of the "suspicions" that were aroused in the journalism profession because of "Lamb's Republican background."
The revolving door between journalism and government-politics-academia contains far more liberal Democrats than conservative Republicans. Did the journalistic Richter Scale record any tremors when NBC's Tim Russert moved from Mario Cuomo's office, where he was a top aide, to NBC? Hardly, because Russert is considered "one of us."
A double standard, wouldn't you say?

Cal Thomas
Columnist
Los Angeles Times Syndicate
Washington, D.C.

Endorsing Candidates
To the editor:
Reese Cleghorn left out one of the main reasons we editors and publishers may refrain from endorsing presidential candidates this year ("Top of the Review," September).
Neither candidate is worth a damn. How in hell can any wise and knowledgeable editor ask the voters to cast a ballot for either Bush or Clinton? Both are totally unfit to be president of the United States. Bush is too insensitive. Clinton is too irresponsible. Besides, Congress will screw it all up anyway.
Truth is, I probably will hang my head in shame and endorse one. I always do pass on my invincible wisdom to my lucky readers. But it's a lot harder this year than it's ever been in my 100 years in this business of owning and running a small daily and mid-sized weekly.

J. Leland Gourley
Editor and Publisher
Friday
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


To the editor:
Reese Cleghorn's suggestion that newspapers that don't endorse local candidates are suitable only as fish wrappers is absurd. It's easy to make such a charge when you can sit in judgment from afar and not consider each newspaper's reasoning for not endorsing local candidates. Such a generalization gets newspaper editors in trouble when they write about local issues.
During my years as an editor or publisher at newspapers in Alabama and Mississippi, we have never endorsed a local candidate or a legislative candidate. It's been my experience that readers resent it, that they consider it intrusive and heavy-handed. I don't think any of the papers for which I've worked were any less effective, or any less professional, for not doing so.
There are other considerations, too. Cleghorn seems to say that good newspapers disregard the financial consequences of an endorsement and do what they feel is right. The fact is, on the local level endorsements needlessly risk alienating advertisers and readers. It is more important to publish local candidates' positions on issues and their responses to questions. Endorsements are easy, especially since they're usually done by people who don't report. What's hard is reporting fairly on a local race.
The reason newspapers in greater numbers have not endorsed candidates probably is not because they don't want to take a stand, but because readers don't like it and don't want it.
Cleghorn's suggestion about what to do with newspapers that don't endorse did have some merit, though. Next time I go deep sea fishing, I'll take along back issues of WJR.

Stan Voit
Editor
The Eagle
Auburn, Alabama

Kudos to Mort Z.
To the editor:
Congratulations to Mort Zuckerman on a job well done at U.S. News & World Report — and one he continues to do well ("U.S. Snooze Wakes Up," October).
One comment: I worked for Shelby Coffey and David Gergen. They are brilliant men, great bosses and nice people. I would like to change Mort's comment that "they all had talent" to "they all have talent." They do.

Susie Buffett
Omaha, Nebraska

The Medium Isn't

The Message
To the editor:
Here we go again. Some newspaper-chain technophile with little patience for ink ruboff or stopping at the 7-Eleven for the morning paper is chicken-littling the demise of newspapers because in his computer-assisted world, people can program their VCRs with self-assured ease ("What Are We So Afraid of?" by Roger Fidler, October).
I've read the essays and assorted drum-beating; I've attended the seminars, symposiums, lectures and brain-storming sessions; I've glad-handed at the professional societies' mega-schmooze-fests, where we all chin-stroked and expressed concern about the future of the printed newspaper. Not once did anybody bring up doing what we do better.
Until we realize that the content of the medium, not the delivery of it, is the engine that drives journalism, we ourselves damn newspapers to extinction.
Make good journalism, make your newspaper relevant and indispensable, and it will be around forever.

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

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