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


Car Dealer To Press: Resist Ad Pressures
To the editor :
In reference to "Auto Dealers Muscle The Newsroom" in your September issue, I am one veteran of the automobile retail business who is urging the press to stick to its principles and resist the pressure from car dealers. America is in the midst of an ethical crisis. If we can't count on the press to have the courage of its convictions, on whom can we count?
Having been in the car business for 16 years, I understand the frustrations of dealers. But the answer is not to throw their weight around in an attempt to intimidate editors and publishers. By doing so, they are only confirming the public's suspicion of their propensity for unethical behavior. If dealers disagree with the content of a story, they should ask for an opportunity to respond, not threaten to pull their advertising.
The fact of the matter is that there is a lot of room for improvement in the quality of press coverage of the car business. It is rare to see an article that has any depth to it. The stories usually run the same old gamut with accusations of abuse and price gouging. I've never seen a serious attempt to tell a story from the inside.
Furthermore, there is a movement toward an ethical transformation of our business. It is admittedly in its incipient stage, but no less newsworthy. At the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), at a number of manufacturers, at ASTN (the Automotive Satellite Television Network based in Dallas) and at some dealerships around the country, attention is being given to the issues of ethics and competence. In fact, I will be giving a workshop entitled "Selling with Style: Ethics in Today's Dealership" at the 75th annual NADA convention in Dallas next February.
I have not seen one story anywhere about this fledgling movement. Why? The answer is poor journalism, journalism that is content to settle for the obvious easy story. Even the full-page cartoon accompanying your piece goes for the mindless caricature of the big bad car dealer (complete with cigar and pinky ring) hovering over the poor little helpless reporter. Come on, guys. You can do better than that!
Despite my frustration over the poverty of the coverage of my business, however, let me reiterate that it is abhorrent to me to hear of dealers pressuring editors and publishers to "soften" or eliminate stories under the threat of the withdrawal of advertising dollars. Such arm-twisting does all of us a disservice. Dealers who are tempted to engage in such activities should remember that we are Americans before we are "car people."

Robert Kamm
General Sales Manager
Valley Mazda-Hyundai
San Luis Obispo, California

Burning The Source
To the editor :
Bill Salisbury and the St. Paul
Pioneer Press did a great disservice to other reporters and newspapers by violating a promise of anonymity to a source. Salisbury seems to recognize as much, but his mea culpa article in September's WJR does not go nearly far enough.
When an editor told him to name the source, Salisbury wrote, "I got up from my desk...and kicked a steel file cabinet as hard as I could. I yelled a string of profanities. Then I returned to my computer terminal and rewrote my story..."
As for his obligation to his source, Salisbury says only that he "felt terrible" and now realizes that he should have pulled his byline from the story. But Salisbury continues to write for the paper, and he obeyed the order to rewrite the story to reveal the source's identity.
Isn't he ashamed to work for editors who have so little respect for the judgment of their reporters? Salisbury knew what he was doing was wrong, yet he played along once he had been overrruled. At the very least, he could have declined to rewrite the story. Reporters, like soldiers, have an obligation not to follow orders they know are wrong.
I was even more dismayed by the evident breakdown of professionalism among the editors of the Pioneer Press. If editors feel a source is trying to use their newspaper to manipulate the political process, they have a right — and in many cases an obligation — to kill the story. But revealing the identity of a source they considered "sleazy" while failing to mention their own decision to break a promise was cowardly.
The decisions of the Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune feed the perception among both potential sources and the public that jounalists are mercenaries, using the "truth" and the public's "right to know" only when convenient.

Casey Anderson
Arlington, Virginia

L.A. Times Shuffle
To the editor :
It is troubling that a publication that lives to monitor journalistic standards and practices can fail so eloquently, as you did in publishing Charles Rappleye's account of personnel changes at the Los Angeles Times.
Mr. Rappleye uses sweeping, overstated generalities and vagueness when specifics are called for. The transfers were "unprecedented"; people were moved from downtown to "far-flung bureaus"; demoted staff writers have an average age "over 50"; they were replaced by a "crew of young writers." Could we have numbers, please? While this information might not be easy to accumulate, Mr. Rappleye should have the wherewithal to find it. Otherwise, I might infer he is not as familiar with the situation as his story would have him sound.
You have spent column inch after column inch in WJR examining — and, quite rightfully, lamenting — the growing use of unidentified sources. Still, you allow Mr. Rappleye to make several assertions that are not attributed at all. According to Mr. Rappleye, the Times' metro staff is "angry and demoralized"; the transfers came "without notice or explanation"; management held a series of "extraordinary staff meetings...but staff resentment has proved persistent"; "Times managers cite budget pressures in making personnel changes"; under Otis Chandler from 1960 to 1980 "salaries reached peak levels and newsroom conflicts were frequently appealed to the executive suites"; and, Publisher David Laventhol brings an emphasis on "soft features" and maintains a " 'more distant, more corporate' style of management than Otis Chandler..."
Mr. Rappleye might be right in every case, but what evidence does he provide to help me decide? That is not even the most striking shortcoming in the piece. What happened to your sense of fairness? Did Mr. Rappleye give Shelby Coffey or David Laventhol or anyone at the Times a chance to answer the explicit and implicit criticisms? I don't see it here.
Perhaps you will pass my criticism off because the Sporting News is owned by Times-Mirror. I would issue the same criticism if the story were about a Gannett newspaper or an NBC affiliate. I expect you to be a leader in helping us understand our foibles and see our blind spots. I respectfully ask you to uphold the same standards by which you measure us.

John D. Rawlings
The Sporting News

Charles Rappleye replies: I placed calls to Senior Editor Noel Greenwood, Publisher David Laventhol and Editor Shelby Coffey. Greenwood said he had no comment. Laventhol did not call back. Metro Editor Craig Turner, who returned my call to Coffey, confirmed that such transfers had not taken place before at the Times, and suggested that they were not demotions. I omitted Turner's comment on the basis that it added little to the story.
On the matter of unidentified sources, of the 14 metro writers and other Times staffers I spoke with in preparing my story, only one went on the record, and he was named in the WJR piece. The rest were understandably fearful of career consequences if they were quoted in print criticizing the Times. That fear was, in part, the point of the story: It would be a sad irony if that fear were allowed to prevent the story from being told.

Adam Powell on NPR
To the editor :
I read with interest the article in your September issue on National Public Radio and the debate there over accepting grants directed at specific stories. Inasmuch as I was vice president of news during the years that debate reached the board, I was more than slightly surprised that your reporter never contacted me.
From 1987 to 1990, when I was head of NPR's news division, we expanded coverage and programming. Specifically, we
•created a central news desk for the first time;
•assigned an NPR reporter to cover Asia for the first time;
•expanded "Morning Edition";
•introduced a daily national Hispanic news service;
•created the position of managing editor to coordinate coverage among the desks and broadcasts;
•significantly increased reporting from NPR member stations around the country;
•hired NPR's first minority executive producers, only minority host/anchors, only minority correspondents, and the first female executive producer of a daily news program;
•launched a reporting project that won every major award in radio.
Of all of these initiatives, only one attracted underwriting — the last one, supported by the Ford Foundation. The others had to be funded by shifting resources in the division and by increased payments from stations.
Not so coincidentally, during that same time NPR news audience levels increased by 25 percent, so stations attracted more members and membership revenue (yes, public radio stations closely follow ratings).

Adam C. Powell III
Mill Valley, California

Author, Author
The note identifying Karen Rothmyer, writer of "The Quiet Exit of Homer Bigart" (November), mentioned that Bigart is the subject of a forthcoming book, "Forward Positions: The War Correspondence of Homer Bigart." We inadvertently neglected to add that the book will be edited by Betsy Wade.



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