Pushing Deggans: How to Respond When the Media Critic Gets Critiqued?
So it was a little odd to stumble on this criticism of my work, posted on the local blog Pushing Rope. Starting with an offhand comment I posted on the Creative Loafing blog disputing use of the term censorship to describe blacking out a few four-letter words in a police report displayed online of Jessica Sierra's arrest, Rope blogmaster Michael Hussey goes on to accuse me of going soft on the newspaper's initial decision to pass on publishing a rumor about Mark Foley.
He wrote: "Deggans is a media critic that never sees fault with his employer. Case in point is the Times handling of sitting on the Mark Foley story."
What I wrote then: "It's enough of a judgment call that I don't blame our reporters for deciding not to run the story -- though I wish we had gotten to the bottom of this before other media outlets did.
The Times' government and politics editor filed a long-ish blog post Saturday explaining why we never wrote a story on Foley's milder emails to a page last year, even though we learned of them back then. Of course, it's easy to second-guess such judgments in hindsight, but if a similar flap earlier this year involving allegations against Charlie Crist proves anything, it's that we move carefully when it comes to explosive allegations which might be a disguised political attack, especially close to an election."
What Hussey doesn't point out, for some reason, is that the Times was among a host of Florida and national media outlets which got the same tip -- an ambiguously uncomfortable email exchange between Foley and a former Congressional page. But because the tipster didn't have concrete proof of wrongdoing and was hesitant to go on the record, no news outlet published the story.
According to Poynter Online, "At least seven news organizations had the e-mails...The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and The Miami Herald got them a year (before the story broke). Harper's Magazine and Roll Call had the messages in the spring (of 2006). And AmericaBlog, The New Republic and Time magazine got them (in summer 2006)."
ABC News reporter Brian Ross published a 356-word story on the network's investigative news blog, days after another blogger published the story in September 2006. Fortunately for Ross, the small story prompted other pages to step forward with much more damaging instant messages which ended Foley's career.
But what bothered me, then and now, was that Ross didn't know those emails existed or that Foley had done anything beyond a weird email exchange when he published his story. And since then, both Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz and the New York Observer have published material wondering if Ross' scoops are all they seem to be.
So, much as it bothers Pushing Rope, I was standing up for the idea that journalists need to make sure they have a fair and accurate story before they publish something that, if it turns out to be untrue, could still wreck a Congressman's career.
I have taken issue with some of my employer's actions, especially regarding the coverage of WFLA weather forecaster John Winter's death. I also disagreed with a rosy New York Times story on my employer here. But given that my main job isn't even covering newspapers, I've tried, especially on the blog, to weigh in when it makes sense.
More than anything, I'm wondering if i'm victim of a slow news day in Rope-land. (And here too, apparently.)