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


More on Mo
To the editor:
Good grief, not again! Yet another WJR piece in which my close friend Jim Bellows gets the plaudits where the honor is mine! I'm tired of it.
This time it's the cover story on Timesperson Maureen Dowd, an otherwise first-rate piece in which we read that Mo was "groomed" by Bellows ("Mo Knows," October).
It didn't happen. I did all the grooming. In fact, I did the hiring. I found her — touted by her brother Kevin, a pal — dispensing tennis balls at the Washington Hilton.
I interviewed her at Poor Robert's on Connecticut Avenue, where she and her brother hung out. She knocked me out with wit, charm and smarts. She made me laugh out loud.
At the time I was metropolitan editor of the Washington Star. This was before Bellows arrived. Maureen took to journalism instantly, not having pondered it at all as a profession while she was attending Catholic University.
I remember preaching to her in those early days, "Detail, detail, detail." Now, every time I read one of her pieces I blush and dimple that my message got through.
As for Bellows, back then I literally begged him to make Maureen a star, but he was busy helping Diana McClellan and other stars. Jim's terrific and I love him. And he has a long list of great discoveries in journalism. But he can't have Maureen. She's all mine. I proudly claim other discoveries who made it on the Washington scene — Steve Daley, Andy Beyer, Gloria Borger, Lynn Rosellini, Joan Ryan, Tom Dowling, Sheilah Kast, Kathy Maxa, to name a few — but Mo is my favorite. She doesn't call or write anymore, but that's okay.
David Burgin
Editor in Chief
Alameda Newspaper Group
Oakland, California
To the editor:
When I'm reading a New York Times feature story and think, "This is good writing," and look up to check the byline, more often than not I see "By Maureen Dowd." Her metaphors are absolutely the best around. If I had written like that, perhaps I'd still be a reporter.
Hank Roden
Washington, D.C.
Bias Against the Wires' Coverage of the U.N.
To the editor:
The October issue of WJR was a blockbuster! Particularly fine were articles by Roger Fidler, Jon Franklin and William Triplett, as well as Reese Cleghorn's consistently excellent "Top of the Review." And I enjoyed Michael J. Berlin's report on coverage of the United Nations, although I have some questions about his own coverage of the subject ("The U.N. — Impact Grows, Coverage Lags").
Ostensibly, Berlin set out to answer his own rhetorical question: "Who is covering the United Nations for the American media?" As could be expected, his answer was that for the great mass of newspapers the Associated Press and a few other wire services were providing that coverage. But having conceded that point, he quickly dropped it and went on to tell of the exceptions — the wealthy papers that can afford U.N. beat reporters. He even cited many of these reporters by name — but none from the AP. For many years an overwhelming number of U.N. stories came off the AP wire. Yet Berlin's message is this: "Editors say they know they're missing things by relying on wires for United Nations coverage..."
What is being missed? What analysis can a beat reporter write that could not just as well have been written by an AP correspondent on the same beat?
Berlin sums up: "Covering the United Nations with a beat reporter is the obvious way to do it." He may be right, but he has not analyzed AP and other wire services' coverage to justify his conclusion. With this big hole in his documentation, what comes across is a suspicion of bias — especially when the reader learns that Berlin's own experience has not been with the wires but with a couple of newspapers wealthy enough to support their own U.N. correspondents.
Richard Patrick Wilson
Mobile, Alabama
U.S. News Still Sleeping
To the editor:
Forgive me for not being as excited as William Triplett about U.S. News and World Report ("U.S. Snooze Wakes Up," October).
After several years of reading Newsweek, I decided to try U.S. News. But after only four months, I found I missed Newsweek. And I didn't like Publisher Mortimer Zuckerman's negative advertising attacks on Newsweek and Time. In my opinion, U.S. News can't hold a candle to either one.
David Merves
Associate Professor of Journalism
Miami-Dade Community College
Conroy Loves Kovach
To the editor:
WJR still doesn't understand the magnitude and importance of Bill Kovach's tenure as the editor of the Atlanta Constitution ("Life After Kovach," September). Why do you consistently assign lightweight reporters with bouillon-like prose styles to write about the two extraordinary years that Kovach spent in Atlanta? Richard Shumate, staff writer for Atlanta magazine, wrote a lazy, incompetent article on the Kovach years. Hacks have difficulty describing greatness, as WJR has now twice proven.
The coming of Ron Martin has been a disaster to the Atlanta newspapers and to the city itself. It's not that he's changing the papers that matters, but that he's in the process of ruining them. He's undoing the very good work of not just Kovach, but the editors who came before him — Jim Minter, Hal Fulliver and Reg Murphy.
Martin says he's uncomfortable with people dwelling on the gulf between his style and Kovach's. That gulf is vast and unbridgeable. Kovach is a blue whale to Martin's floating plankton.
One reason I agreed to write a screenplay with Wendell Rawls about the Kovach years is because magazines like WJR don't seem to have a clue about what was lost when Kovach resigned. Bill Kovach proved to me that he's the best editor in the country, bar none. The New York Times made a serious mistake when it chose Max Frankel as editor instead of Kovach.
I saw the extraordinary work that Kovach coaxed out of B-list reporters. What he would have done with the best reporters in the world is now only conjecture. But his reporters and editors in Atlanta were on fire and that fire was not about to go out. Reading that newspaper as it grew in stature and confidence made Atlanta one of the most exciting places in the world to read the morning news. I was there and I was reading. Bill Kovach was fabulous, ladies and gentlemen, and he was doing exactly what the Cox Corporation had hired him to do — making the Atlanta Constitution one of the best in the world.
The publisher, Jay Smith, says that our screenplay pivots on the idea that the Cox Corporation caved in to pressure from the business community and forced the Kovach resignation. It certainly does and that's exactly what happened. I'm an Atlanta novelist and I know many people in the banking community and people at Coca-Cola and people at Delta Airlines and people all through the business community. I'm also extremely nice to secretaries. It is from secretaries that one learns how decisions are made in the back rooms of cities like Atlanta.
The business community rejoiced when the Kovach resignation was announced. That's another reason I agreed to write "Above the Fold."
Smith and a couple of lawyers flew out to Warner Brothers in Los Angeles to point out what they thought to be factual errors in the screenplay. Meanwhile, the feckless heir to the Cox throne, James Cox Kennedy, met with Robert Redford to plead his case. Atlanta trembles at the mention of the Bill Kovach story, as well it should.
If this movie is made and made right, it will be the most exciting movie about the newspaper business ever filmed. Students will flock to journalism schools around the country. Americans will understand the difference between great journalism and the sad gruel offered up by men like Ron Martin. It will even teach WJR about great journalism because, so far, you boys don't have a hint about what happened in Atlanta.
Shumate quotes CB Hackworth (he with the apt Dickensian name) about the deficiencies of the screenplay that Rawls and I wrote. Hackworth is described as an Atlanta journalist. That does not quite plumb the depth of Hackworth's considerable mediocrity. When he criticizes a stolen copy of a first draft of our screenplay, it's not as if Shumate went to Susan Sontag or Pauline Kael for an assessment of our work. Hackworth is the editor of a paper called by the uneuphonious name of Creative Loafing, a freebie sans distinction. He once applied for a job in Rawls' newsroom, and after reviewing Hackworth's clips, Rawls didn't even grant the poor man an interview.
Bill Kovach was a man who stood for something in a city that stood for much less. What Kovach could do was inspire reporters to be better than they had any right to believe they could be. Ron Martin could not lead a gaggle of geese to drinking water. What he can do is ruin all the great work and drive off all the great reporters and editors who shared the Kovach dream of creating the greatest newspaper in the American South.
If Ann Cox Chambers shot and killed Ron Martin tomorrow, no jury of good journalists in this country would vote for conviction. They would stand and applaud when she was led handcuffed into the courtroom. I would personally nominate her for the Pulitzer Prize.
Pat Conroy
San Francisco
"Malice" Should Have Been Absent
To the editor:
Chip Rowe's "Hacks on Film" feature (November) was wonderful except for one flaw: The list of "Journalism's Best Films" included "Absence of Malice." This seemed a strange choice considering how sharply Rowe criticized it.
I think the criticism was on target. "Malice" stinks.
The ethical lapses of Sally Field's character seem born of stupidity and carelessness, and not of the runaway ambition that motivated Kirk Douglas' character in the classic "Ace in the Hole."
If Field's character acted the way a real reporter would, the plot would fall apart. I'm not saying all great journalism films must be believable. "Deadline USA" sure isn't, and neither is "His Girl Friday," but that doesn't keep them from being entertaining. At least those older movies didn't pretend to be realistic explorations of serious ethical issues. "Malice" does pretend to be realistic, and fails for that reason.
"Malice" is not anybody's best film, with the possible exception of Wilford Brimley — and he doesn't play a journalist, just a folksy deus ex machina who swoops in from the Justice Department to clean up the mess.
Instead of "Malice," your panel of experts would have done better to include Billy Wilder's version of "The Front Page," starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (who are a lot funnier than Pat O'Brien and Adolphe Menjou were in the original version). I have often thought that all J-schools should show it and "All the President's Men" to their incoming freshmen as the proper double-bill introduction to our profession.
Craig Pittman
St. Petersburg, Florida
A Filmmaker Who's
Grounded in Journalism
To the editor:
I would not like to have the impression left that my work in journalism has been in any way a quick and casual run on the way to screenwriting and filmmaking ("Go West, Young Scribe," November). My writing on staff for the Norfolk-based Virginian Pilot, Crain's New York Business and Channels magazine, and my freelance contributions over the years to the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Village Voice and other publications represent the solid foundation — concentrated, disciplined, honest work — that any good filmmaker can benefit from.
Lucky for me I made the treacherous climb into the film business after earning my spurs in journalism.
Steven Beschloss
Laughing Man Films
New York
Traditional Reporting: There's No Other Way
To the editor:
In October we published an article relating the conflict in the Balkans to our college campus. Thus we read with interest Sherry Ricchiardi's article, "Covering Carnage in the Balkans" (November).
As an independent college daily staffed and edited by students, we were struck by a comment made by veteran foreign correspondent Roy Gutman about the difficulties of obtaining accurate, fair accounts of events taking place in the former Yugoslavia. Ricchiardi paraphrases: "To penetrate the lies, Gutman says, reporters have had to go back to traditional reporting methods, such as developing a network of credible sources and documenting events..."
We've been taught that there is no other way.
Kandice McDonald, Interim Editor
Elizabeth Barnett, Managing Editor
New Mexico Daily Lobo
University of New Mexico
Death on the Hudson
To the editor:
I read with interest, and a deep sense of empathy, your October story about the unfortunate passing of the Gwinnett Daily News in suburban Atlanta ("New York Times Co. Gives Up in Gwinnett," Free Press).
It is truly regrettable and painful when a newspaper is closed down. Readers lose a source of information, advertisers a medium to attract customers, the community suffers an identity crisis and an important voice for causes popular and unpopular is lost forever.
Due to a similar set of financial, economic and competitive circumstances, another daily newspaper has ceased publication, unable to bear this enormous weight. I'd like to note the passing of the Hudson Valley News in Newburgh, New York, on August 26. The front page headline that morning read "OUR FINAL EDITION."
I worked there for eight years, covering a number of different assignments. It's where I learned the art and craft of journalism.
The 107-year-old newspaper was an institution in the Hudson Valley, a grouping of small cities, suburbs and rural communities about 60 miles north of Manhattan. The newspaper was owned by the Toronto-based Thomson newspapers.
The Hudson Valley News had been steadily losing circulation for the last two decades, going from a mid-1960s high of 30,000 to just about 10,000.
There was increased competition from two much larger daily newspapers in the area — the Times Herald-Record, which is part of Ottaway Newspapers and based in Middletown, New York, and the Poughkeepsie Journal, which is owned by Gannett. At the end, the Record's circulation was about 10 times as large and the Journal's circulation was almost five times as large as ours.
During the last three years, the News did make a valiant attempt to fight back. We made layout, design and style changes. Our writing became crisper and we made circulation forays into areas long forgotten. But it wasn't enough.
All I can say at this point is that it was an honor and privilege to have worked there.
David Noack
Beacon, New York
A Desperate Need for Copy-editing 101
To the editor:
Have I missed something? Did I miss what made spelling errors, word abuse, constipated writing, headline mistakes, clichés, redundancies, and overall sloppiness and laziness appropriate for journalism today? Only top quality daily newspapers and national magazines seem to be immune to the new practices.
I must have been out of the country when something made it proper to misspell names frequently, to print pictures without identifying very identifiable persons in the photo, and to use an apostrophe for the plural of surnames.
But there's a bright side. What's printed isn't nearly as bad as what's being broadcast. Not only do celebrities and sensationalism reign, but the spelling in graphics is awful and language abuse is rampant. How often have we heard the redundancy "current conditions right now" from TV weather reporters? And how long have we been (and will we be) subjected to butchered language by former athletes and coaches on sportscasts?
Perhaps I missed whatever makes these things proper because I've been listening too much to "I'm gonna tell you what" and "you know" on those sportscasts. Perhaps that's why I'm not a "happy camper."
Ray Mueller
Chilton, Wisconsin



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