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American Journalism Review
Letters  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   July/August 1993


Gutman A Real Hero
I wanted to tell you how moved I was by Sherry Ricchiardi's interview with Roy Gutman in the June issue ("Exposing Genocide..For What?").
Late last July, I was deeply despondent because of the horror of Bosnia-Herzegovina and before that, Croatia. I watched in sick disbelief as the world accepted the word of obviously lying Serbian leaders and treated criminals like gentlemen.
I had traveled to the region five times to work on my master's thesis for New York University's journalism program, so I was aware of the real situation.
But then Gutman's articles startled the world, and prompted ABC's "Nightline" to air programs about the similarities between the state-sponsored genocide of the Nazis and the state-sponsored genocide (and homicidal expansionist dreams) of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Please do not give up, Mr. Gutman. I admired you last August, and after reading the AJR interview, I think you are a real hero.

Frances A. Toohey
Fairfield, New Jersey

Dioxin's Dangers
I have two fundamental problems with Vicki Monks' "See No Evil," your June cover story on coverage of the dioxin issue.
First, the article seems to be mostly an attack on the veracity of a New York Times reporter rather than a careful look at the problems connected with media coverage of the complex scientific issues of the day.
Having been involved for over two decades in trying to communicate the position of various industries on important issues such as the dangers of dioxin, I've found that there is no such thing as scientific proof. For every group of reputable scientists that say there is a problem, there is another group that says there isn't. Unfortunately, to date, there exists no qualified and objective clearinghouse where studies can be peer-reviewed for the benefit of journalists and public officials.
Secondly, Monks has included some statements about dioxin and its effects that are printed without attribution. For example: "In the laboratory, it had been shown to be more than 11,000 times more potent than sodium cyanide in killing guinea pigs. Moreover, it had induced cancer at levels far below any other known carcinogen." That statement may be true. But are we expected to take Monks' word for it without qualification?

James W. Plumb
Director of Communications
The Aluminum Association
Washington, D.C.

Vicki Monks responds: The unattributed statements about dioxin's potency to which James Plumb refers are in the introduction and are further elaborated upon in the body of my story. Later I paraphrased a scientist at the Centers for Disease Control, who said that dioxin is more than 200 times more powerful than the next most dangerous chemical, chloromethyl ether, and more than 2 million times more potent than benzene, in causing cancer. My comparison with sodium cyanide is drawn from the "Registry of Toxic Effects of Chemical Substances," a standard reference work available in most medical libraries.

Defending Kemp
Andre Shashaty's article, "Jack Kemp's Free Ride" (May), wrongfully blames Kemp for editorial decisions he did not make.
As the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Kemp did not decide what stories would be covered and where they were placed. As Kemp's second-in-command, I can assure you that we frequently sought to publicize the fact that reform and rejuvenation of HUD could not happen overnight. This message was repeated in numerous public speeches, news conferences and congressional hearings. And it was reported in depth by trade publications, such as the Housing Affairs Letter and the Housing Development Reporter. To blame Kemp for the fact that other members of the press corps did not report these stories is ridiculous.
Jack Kemp walked into a mess, he cleaned it up, and made the job a lot easier for his successor. As Kemp often said, "We were running a marathon, not a 100-yard dash."

Alfred A. Delli Bovi
Burke, Virginia

Andre Shashaty's article on Jack Kemp's supposedly "free ride" from the media reads like a personal vendetta, full of judgmental language and opinion with few facts to back it up. The most egregious bit of hysterical name-calling involves Shashaty's use of the word "scandal" to describe something that hasn't even happened and that, if it does happen, would deserve a far less pejorative moniker. A scandal, by definition, involves a violation of standards of morality or propriety. What Shashaty warns of, though, is a financial crunch, not a breach of either laws or ethics.
Space doesn't allow a full cataloguing of each of the instances of bias in the article; but I challenge Shashaty to produce one "mistake" by Kemp that merits the label "mismanagement," as opposed to a mere difference of opinion concerning departmental priorities when dealing with a limited budget.
Shashaty makes a good case that the press coverage of Kemp was, on the whole, decidedly upbeat. But he utterly fails to make the case that there is a "strong possibility of future scandals and mismanagement that could cost taxpayers huge sums of money," much less that that possibility should be blamed on Kemp.

Quin Hillyer
Washington, D.C.

Andre Shashaty responds: I quoted official government watchdogs, such as the General Accounting Office, which stated that another HUD scandal is a distinct possibility. It was not the purpose of the article, however, to analyze the admittedly complex causes of HUD's management problems.
The fact is, Jack Kemp was in charge, and I simply gave a long overdue airing to the widely held criticism that Kemp shut down many HUD programs and showed very little interest in anything but one pet program, HOPE.
Quin Hillyer is correct: I can't cite a Kemp mistake. But that's the point. Critics say Kemp's plan was to do as little as possible so he could not be accused of making any mistakes.

Going Too Far?
After reading Bill Hoffmann's dizzying account of the recent trials and tribulations at the New York Post ("We Win!" May), I was hard-pressed to understand how staffers could even ask, "Did we go too far? Had we crossed the line of journalistic integrity?"
I realize that the imminent threat of losing one's livelihood can lead to desperate measures. Likewise, I sympathize with the position of Post staffers faced with the possibility of life under the thumb of Abe Hirschfeld. Still, how can there be any doubt that the actions taken by the staff in publishing the issue of March 16 did, indeed, cross that magic line?
Out here in the heartland, we were taught in journalism school to strive for objectivity, to publish only verifiable facts and to avoid innuendo. Most important, we were taught that it is our jobs to cover the news, not be the news.
How ironic that the Post staff, in publishing that issue, chose to add a single tear to the drawing of the newspaper's founder, Alexander Hamilton. Judging by the Post's history ("Headless Body in Topless Bar"), I would suspect that Hamilton wherever he is has shed more than a few tears in recent years.

Gary P. Toohey
Jefferson City, Missouri

Curbing the Brit Press
I have a few questions about Juliana Koranteng's "No News, Please, We're British" in your May issue.
Why should any journalist wish to publish the dialogue from the Prince Charles-Camilla Parker Bowles tape? The British Sun, Mirror and Star are no newspapers, they are in the same category as the Weekly World News.
Further, why should AJR propagate the clich that "the press is free in the United States, a little less in Britain, and much less in the rest of Europe?"
Does freedom only mean freedom from government? Can a U.S. newspaper devoting 60 percent to 70 percent of its pages to advertising be considered free?
With the Official Secrets Act, rules of contempt of court and libel laws (not to mention the worst concentration of ownership in Europe), the British press is far less free than any other European Community press.
British broadcasting, until now at least, has done a great job; and British quality dailies are at least as good as any in Germany, France, Italy or Spain. But compared to the British gutter press, even the German Bild Zeitung seems respectable. I cannot think of any civilized nation that would endure such vile and dumb publications. That parliament wants to curb them is merely a sign of old-fashioned decency.

Claude-Jean Bertrand
Institut Francais De Presse

Covering Hostage Stories
As the line producer at WISH in Indianapolis during the 1977 Tony Kiritsis hostage-taking and news conference story, I vividly recall the incident described by Lou Prato in his May column ("No-Win Coverage of Hostage Crises").
Kiritsis demanded air time and got it. Our decision to carry his news conference was made well in advance, and was based in part on the pleas of the Indianapolis Police Department to do so. It feared hostage Robert Hall would otherwise be killed. Kiritsis wanted to tell his story, live, on all three local Indianapolis affiliates.
WTHR's decision to discontinue its coverage of Kiritsis' tirade was, as anchor Paul Udell explained on the air, because of Kiritsis' objectionable language. The switchboards at all three stations were overloaded by viewers calling to protest the foul language on the air. Few seemed concerned there might be a live execution on their television sets.
While we at WISH found that language no less objectionable, the Kiritsis kidnapping story had held the city spellbound for four days. Our obligation as journalists was to cover that story because of the clear public interest in it.
News Director Lee Giles made the difficult but right decision to carry it, and we made the right decision to stay with it.

S. Peter Neumann
News Director
Pensacola, Florida



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