Letters  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 1991

Letters   


Debbie Nathan Hits

Child Abuse Story
To the editor :
I was delighted to see Lisa Manshel's anxiety attack against me and other longtime journalists who've suggested that day-care teacher Kelly Michaels was falsely convicted of sex abuse (July/August). But I was mystified about why WJR would bore its readers with Manshel's hectoring.
Contrary to your characterization of Manshel as a "reporter," she has never worked in journalism, nor does she have a degree in the field. As she herself writes in her book Nap Time , Manshel started attending Kelly Michaels' trial at the behest of close family friend Peg Foster. Foster is one of the social workers the Essex County, New Jersey, prosecutor's office originally employed to help construct the case against Michaels. Manshel's acknowledgments page fawningly thanks her friend for ongoing input. Foster returned the favor: When it came time to promote the book, she toured the country solo to hype it on talk shows.
Like her WJR article, Manshel's book coyly omits major data like the transcripts of the hours of horrendously coercive interrogation that state-appointed adults did on the children. Nor does she mention that recent clinical research on children's memories and genitalia debunks both the "medical evidence" in Michaels' case and earlier claims that children's recall was unaffected by suggestive interviewing.
So what is the WJR piece about? Certainly not truth. Angst is more like it. Prominent New York civil liberties attorney Morton Stavis recently filed a pro bono appeal for Kelly Michaels that may well succeed because of the very Supreme Court decision that Manshel's article dismisses. If Michaels' conviction is overturned, not only will Manshel's social worker mentor and her state employers be disappointed, but Nap Time will soon be discredited as well. This bodes ill for Manshel's royalties as well as for any future career she might seek as a "reporter." I'd love to see Kelly Michaels freed; I'd also love for Manshel never to bore me again with a published work. Her WJR article shows that she and the prosecution are running scared. How nice!
Every disinterested journalist who has carefully researched this case has reached conclusions at odds with hers. As for the rest of the Fourth Estate, who among them cares whether Michaels' name was in a letter or not; whether a teacher looking "flustered" is "improper" or not?
Why are you publishing public relations rather than journalism?

Debbie Nathan
El Paso, Texas


Lisa Manshel replies: The only comment I have on Ms. Nathan's shrill letter is a correction. Nap Time contains numerous examples of adult suggestions made during both the investigation and the trial.

Parent Backs Manshel
To the editor:
I would like to thank your publication and author Lisa Manshel for her insightful article, "A Question of Child Abuse." Since I am one of the two parents that Dorothy Rabinowitz interviewed for her article "From the Mouths of Babes to a Jail Cell" in Harper's , I would like to set the record straight.
Over the years since the trial, some of us parents have made ourselves available to the press for interviews. We believe the public needs to be educated about child abuse. Almost always these reporters come to us after already interviewing Kelly Michaels, her family or Ms. Rabinowitz. They (the reporters) are taken by the hand and spoon-fed snippets of trial testimony and audiotapes by the well-versed Michaels family, and/or Ms. Rabinowitz. Having no basis for their facts (they are always reporters who did not attend the 10 1/2-month trial, and as of this date the transcripts and all related material are sealed to protect the identity of the children), they can only rely on the information given to them!
It is sad that after interviewing us, Ms. Rabinowitz was able to make her readers believe that the children only exhibited unusual behavior "after disclosure," and that it never occurred to the parents that this was the result of "exhaustive questioning" by themselves and the investigators. This information cannot be farther from the truth! I sat at that interview and went over the changes that occurred in my daughter that year. Ms. Rabinowitz fails to mention my daughter's severe stuttering that began early that winter and continued unabated until it stopped completely when she was out sick with a cold for a week in January. The stuttering returned when she went back to school, and continued again until four days after Kelly Michaels quit her job at Wee Care in late April. Since Ms. Michaels was not my daughter's teacher, I had no knowledge of the correlation.
Ms. Rabinowitz also failed to mention my daughter's refusal to take her pajamas off in the morning to get ready for school. This strange behavior also started early that winter. I sent her to school almost daily with her pajamas on under her clothing simply because it was the only way she would leave the house on school days. Ms. Rabinowitz further states that "not one of these parents had found the behavior unusual enough at the time to consult a pediatrician or ask a Wee Care teacher about it." That's absolutely false! My daughter was under the care of a speech therapist recommended by my pediatrician. Obviously her Wee Care teacher, Joan, was witness to this behavior and stated so at the trial.
As I spoke about what happened to my daughter, did Ms. Rabinowitz bother to find out that in each of the 19 children and their families who testified at the trial, similar changes had occurred during that school year? And, yes, teachers and doctors were consulted. In the end, the jury heard and evaluated this and the testimony (and cross-examinations) of the children in exhaustive detail to arrive at their guilty verdicts. In my opinion the damage done by the reporters mentioned in Lisa Manshel's article has been devastating to the public in general and child abuse victims in particular!

Karen Steadman


Editor's Note: Karen Steadman is the pseudonym of a Wee Care Nursery parent as it appeared in Lisa Manshel's book.

Writers Incendiary
To the editor :
I am one of the mothers of a Wee Care child who testified at the trial. I want to thank you for the cover story by Lisa Manshel which attempted to correct some of the blatantly false information being disseminated by various media people.
I greatly resent Dorothy Rabinowitz's and Debbie Nathan's incendiary statements labeling this trial a "witch hunt" or something like a "McCarthy era" proceeding.
Rabinowitz states she interviewed "most of the leading participants." To my knowledge she met with two of the 20 mothers (I was one of the two) and spoke over the phone with another.
Ms. Rabinowitz states "not one parent had found the behavior unusual enough to consult a...Wee Care teacher." In fact, the director of the school and my daughter's teacher (Diane Costa) had asked me for a conference in November, 1984, to discuss the behavioral changes in my daughter that they were seeing in the classroom and at nap time. Also never did I, in my interview with Rabinowitz, ever suggest that my child's behavior changes occurred after disclosure. In fact, I was very clear and precise. I remembered changes as early as October 1984. These changes began as nightmares and aggressive behavior and increased to include a wide variety of symptoms including refusal to eat with forks and spoons, fear of the dark, fear of water and excessive masturbation.
I also greatly resent Rabinowitz's assertion that we are actively raising our children to be victims. What a sick suggestion! It is my entire family's fervent desire that my daughter put Kelly Michaels and the Wee Care experience back into the inner recesses of her mind and go on with living an active, normal life.

Beth Anderson


Editor's Note: Beth Anderson is the pseudonym of a Wee Care parent as it appeared in the Manshel book.

Manshel Partisan
To the editor:
Lisa Manshel criticized journalists Debbie Nathan, Dorothy Rabinowitz and Mike Taibbi as being partisan and less than accurate in their defense of convicted day-care worker Kelly Michaels.
Kelly Michaels' sister was a student in a reporting (journalism) class I taught at the University of Pittsburgh two years ago. One of the projects of the class was to study the reporting of the Kelly Michaels case — to study for thoroughness, bias, etc.
I've read the articles Ms. Manshel criticized — those and perhaps 10 others. I've also read Ms. Manshel's book, Nap Time .
I was impressed by Ms. Manshel's book. On the other hand, I was impressed by the investigative work of Nathan and Rabinowitz. Ms. Manshel is as partisan as the three she criticizes — only partisan against Kelly Michaels. Having read them all, it's a tough call for me — I don't know who to believe.
But, regardless, the three should have been given an opportunity to respond to the charges. It was irresponsible on WJR 's part that you published the article without their responses.

L. David Harris
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Reporter: Trial Fair
To the editor:
Bravo to Lisa Manshel, the author of your August cover story. She has once again set a very controversial record straight.
As stated in your article I too covered the Margaret Kelly Michaels child sex abuse case and like author Manshel am also now dismayed at those journalists who've come forward to prove Kelly was "railroaded." I read and listen to their reports with great interest (because after all if Michaels was railroaded that would make a much better story!) but so far I'm not convinced. Their stories are replete with errors of fact, faulty assumptions and defense-planted suggestions. None of their stories is based on firsthand reporting because none of them ever attended the Michaels trial and late-released, heavily edited transcripts could never relate the real story.
But it is the mistakes broadcast on WCBS-TV (my former employer) that cause me the greatest grief. My trial reports are still in the Channel 2 morgue, yet reporter Mike Taibbi obviously never looked at them. Among the mistakes he could have avoided: his claim that there was no medical evidence of abuse presented to the jury. There was such evidence and I reported it on the days it came up in court.
Kelly Michaels has never granted an interview to a journalist who actually covered her trial and I believe there is a reason for that. Those of us who were there will never forget what we saw and heard from the tiny witnesses, from medical experts, police investigators and parents. We have lots of very specific questions we'd like to ask Kelly Michaels about her proclaimed innocence. I'm sure none of us will ever get the chance. In the meantime, I implore other journalists out there to be cautious if she agrees to talk to them. Do your homework!

Diane Dimond
Senior Correspondent, "Hard Copy"
New York, New York

Russert's Role
To the editor:
The article "Victim of Exposù — Chuck Robb? Or NBC?" (July/August) is in error.
I never pressured anyone to "drop the story," and I did not believe "the story would at best 'wing' Robb while hurting NBC's links to vital sources."
My only role in the story is as follows: I was asked by NBC News President Michael Gartner and Tom Brokaw to screen the segment five days before it aired. My reaction was that the report should have focused more on intimidation by public officials and less on sex. That continues to be my view. This conclusion was based on standards of sound journalism and not over concern for sources.
Rather than using anonymous sources to explain my views, why didn't you just ask me?

Timothy J. Russert
Senior Vice President, NBC News
Washington, D.C.


Writer Alicia Mundy replies: I did ask Mr. Russert about his concerns on the fallout of the story on May 21 by telephone, as per my memory and my notes, and he responded that he never discussed decision-making involved in a story.

Uganda: Pike Replies
To the editor:
I have just read the nasty and shallow piece on Uganda by John MacArthur (May). The mix of half-truth and prejudice which makes up this article is disappointing because it comes from a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists which has done so much to advance press freedom around the world.
I wish to correct two errors.
First, I never said, "There is no point in getting upset about just one thing like press freedom [when there are so many other problems]." What I said was that there is no point getting too upset about a single setback when you are fighting a long-term battle to establish press freedom. The setback I was referring to was the trumped-up charge against three journalists of defamation of a foreign dignitary. The government has now dropped the case as a result of domestic and international pressure.
Second, I never fired a reporter "who learned, to the government's embarrassment, that thousands of soldiers suffering from AIDS had been discharged with large pensions." No soldier has been dismissed from the National Resistance Army (NRA) for having AIDS. What I did was to instruct that we should stop using an unreliable freelance reporter who had gone to the army with a list of questions claiming that he was there on behalf of The New Vision .
Finally, MacArthur condemns us for putting details of NRA human rights abuses in the small print of the paper and for saying this is "tactical." It is tactical because the government is more likely to tolerate such stories if they are not given banner headlines. Nevertheless, everyone reads such stories and the more such issues are written about, the more it is taken for granted that they should be exposed. The New Vision has exposed more human rights abuses in its small print than any other Ugandan paper and many of these abuses have been followed up and investigated by Amnesty International.

William Pike
Editor in Chief, The New Vision
Kampala, Uganda

Insulting Uganda
To the editor:
As a Ugandan who hasn't been home in 15 years, I read "Slouching Toward Freedom in Uganda" anxiously, hoping to hear some good news about Uganda for a change. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to come face to face with phrases like "the country's oppressive shabbiness"; "American superiority cultivated to keep out the strangeness of primitive surroundings"; "here at last was someone who could explain things in terms I would understand"; "if you sit long enough, you find yourself flicking off spiders."
How much did WJR spend for the above insults? I have lived on a few continents, and Uganda is one country I would never consider shabby. Are such conditions a Uganda phenomenon or can they be found everywhere there has been strife and suffering? It is extremely easy for the American media to theorize about the shortcomings of the oppressed and displaced of the world. The what is always written about but not the why.
After almost 20 years of war, Uganda could use a little support and encouragement. Life is a cycle, and nothing stays the same. Even the great Roman Empire crumbled, without help from outside. By the way, how many languages does Mr. MacArthur speak?

Sarah T. Nandunga
Mattapan, Massachusetts

Expose Them Pols
To the editor:
I reeled upon reading Bill Monroe's mish-mash June column, "Watching Politicians' Bedroom Doors" (June), with his suggestion that newspapers should back off from reporting the personal trysts of public officials.
Newspapers would be ignorant, as they were 30 years ago, to think that a person's personal life has no effect on his or her public life. As a reporter, I have no way of deciding whether someone's under-the-sheets escapades do or do not affect the person's job. However, I can put it in print, let the person defend it and let the public digest it.
On Gary Hart, Monroe says The Miami Herald decided his pattern of adultery overrode his right to personal privacy. Monroe overlooked the obvious big picture: Hart was a liar and a deceiver. Those aren't exactly the qualities of a good president.
His idea that adulterous editors and politicians are in the same category is gibberish. Although editors are public figures, they don't run for Senate or for president. They run businesses and don't expend public monies.
As a reporter I'd gladly be called a hypocrite after exposing a lying, cheating and adultering politician in print so readers could decide just who they're voting for. That's part of the job. That's why newsfolk have thick skins.
The article does leave me with one question: Does Monroe have a guilty conscience?

Bob Helbig
Staff Writer, The Milwaukee Journal
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Let The Voters Know
To the editor:
Newspapers have been revealing the private indiscretions of politicians in this country ever since press freedoms were new. They failed in John F. Kennedy's case and in others. But these were failures, not shining examples of proper journalism, as Bill Monroe indicated in his June column.
Politicians may seek office after their secrets have been revealed, and voters may vote for them. But the voters deserve to know what they are getting. The need to guard secrets can cause public officials to do things that are not in the public interest.
Mr. Monroe and other critics of the media should brush up on the virtues of openness in our society.

Michael Rouse
Executive Editor
The Fayetteville Observer-Times
Fayetteville, North Carolina

RTNDA Supports KQED
To the editor:
Reading the WJR story about KQED's so far unsuccessful effort to gain access to executions in California (June), one might get the impression that RTNDA was somehow opposed to KQED's lawsuit.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
RTNDA joined an amicus brief in support of KQED's suit, and we steadfastly support equal access for cameras and microphones to anything the government does and anywhere it does it.
The fact that there are likely to be few, if any, instances when video coverage of an execution is deemed appropriate for use in television news programming in no way diminishes the First Amendment right of radio and television reporters to full and equal access.
Whether or not to cover an execution, and how to use the material, is a decision for journalists, not the government.

David Bartlett
President, Radio-Television
News Directors Association
Washington, D.C.

Crane's Plain Wafer
To the editor :
I liked your glossary of editing terms (October) but why did you spoil the most stunning metaphor from "The Red Badge of Courage" with a jarringly inappropriate extra adjective? Stephen Crane did not write, "The red sun was pasted in the sky like a fierce wafer." He, like any good editor or writing coach, would have excised the penultimate word from that sentence.

James Deutsch
Washington, D.C.


Editor's Note: Depending on what edition of "Red Badge" one picks up, Stephen Crane wrote one or more of the following:
"The fierce sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer."
"The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer."
"The sun was pasted in the sky like a red wafer."
"The red sun was pasted in the sky like a fierce wafer."
A 1967 edition of Red Badge edited by Joseph Katz notes the variations and what editions they appeared in. There is no evidence, Mr. Deutsch will be glad to know, that Crane was ever tempted to write it, "The sun was pasted in the sky like a fierce, red wafer."

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