Every month, a group of 20 or so members of the community meet at 8 a.m. in the second-floor conference room of The News & Observer as part of a community panel, a rotating group of residents selected by the newspaper to hear their thoughts about the newspaper. But a brouhaha broke out recently among some panel members regarding the paper's coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
It started back in March when Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty and a member of the panel, pulled out his laptop computer and read a statement to the group--and some of the newspaper's top editors, including Executive Editor Melanie Sill--condemning the newspaper's coverage of the runup to the invasion. It continued months later when members of the panel got wind of the newspaper's internal report on the meeting, written by reporter Lorenzo Perez. That report is designed to let the news staff know what the panel's members are saying.
Following is Dear's statement and the e-mail correspondence that followed, obtained by The Independent. Lewis Pitts is the senior managing attorney of Advocates for Children's Services at N.C. Legal Services, a longtime activist, and a member of the panel. Sami Halaby is a retired researcher with Corning Glassworks who lived in the Triangle years ago and returned to retire here about five years ago. He is a Christian Palestinian born in Jerusalem who has been a critic of news coverage of the Middle East, which he says is pro-Israeli.
In interviews last week, Pitts and Halaby said they enjoyed being on the community panel, but thought editors did not take their criticism of war coverage to heart.
"The point of a community panel is to have it," Pitts said, "and resist a bureaucratic, knee-jerk response and, in fact, just hold still a moment and absorb the critique."
Said Halaby: "They really believe their own propaganda, that they're allowing themselves to sample the readership. I think they really believe that. Now whether they're really doing that, I don't think so. They're certainly not listening to the readership that they don't agree with that's a minority on the panel."
Sill says the newspaper does indeed listen to the panel on a broad range of topics, and has made changes to satisfy panel members, such as making sure they receive the staff's report on the meeting.
"What happened on the community panel is not really about our response to critics of war coverage," she said. "We had a reporter and a photographer who were in Iraq to try to tell people in the region what was going on there... When someone attacks them for being there to play soldier, it hit a nerve with me."
Statement read by Stephen Dear at the March 19, 2003 meeting of The News & Observer's community panel:
Throughout the past month the front page of The News & Observer continued the paper's happy coverage of the troops in Kuwait preparing for war. Let's be clear, the N&O has not been covering a potential war. It has been promoting it.
Yesterday's headline screams "Saddam has 48 hours." Contrast that with The New York Times headline of the same day: "Bush Gives Hussein 48 Hours, and Vows to Act." The latter headline reports what the president said. The N&O's headline tacitly approves of what the president said.
It's been like that the past month, usually through puff pieces. On Feb. 26, 2003 we learned that some soldiers got baptized so they could "affirm or renew their relationship with Jesus" before they kill, or as reporter Jay Price calls it, before each could "do his job." In that same issue, in his "Bridge to the Front" column on page 14A, Mr. Price, whom I respect--pictured wearing a combat helmet, as if playing a toy soldier--also reveals the depth of the paper's investigative reporting on the troop deployment: There are soldiers with funny names! And they have them right on their uniforms! "Specialist Love!" "Specialist Hurter!" "Specialist Sergeant!" "Sergeant Major!" "A sergeant major is... almost invariably a much feared and respected figure," Mr. Price informs his readers.
The N&O's war reporting is like something out of Dr. Strangelove. It's so bad, such over-the-top cheerleading, on something so grave that it's sickly funny. But in the end it is tragic. For its role in the war on Iraq, the N&O already has the blood of Iraqi children on its hands. The children of Iraq are real. Our bombs we are going to drop are real. When these children are blown apart in the next few days the editors and reporters responsible for amplifying the administration's drum beat should hang their heads in shame. What's the point of being in journalism if this is what you end up doing?
There is no reason The News & Observer could not be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for war reporting if it wanted to. But there is no way the paper will win any award for its current war reporting except perhaps from some veterans group in Fayetteville. This seems to be journalism by fear--fear of being seen as criticizing a right-wing government. Or it's journalism by polls, catering to what the military families want to hear. The editors have invested a lot of money in sending their crews to the Middle East, and they are determined to sell papers and not let the war get in the way of a good puff piece or two every day.
Perhaps the paper is in over its head. If it can't provide balanced reportage and won't print articles questioning the Bush administration's line (articles available elsewhere everyday) then it has no business sending reporters overseas to ostensibly cover the war.
I hope that there is some internal dissent within the paper about its failure to go beyond jingoism. If there is, it is not reflected in the stories the paper prints about the war.
As Robert Fisk's article below questions, I dare the N&O to report on the use of depleted uranium shells which will have been used to get to Basra. When the paper prints the photos of the U.S. soldiers being cheered as liberators in Basra will there be any reporting on the use of DU munitions? On the long-term implications for our own troops? Is anyone at the N&O asking questions?
A note by Stephen Dear to community panel members after the meeting:
A post-community-panel-meeting note: While they may have been difficult to hear, it was also difficult to read these words at the meeting this morning, difficult because they come from a deep concern for the civilian victims of war and everyone involved, but also because I care about this newspaper, and I respect it and appreciate its staff and editors. I look forward to reading the N&O every day, and talk it up all the time. As I said at the meeting, while below is about the stuff I "loathed," as we are asked to report, there is plenty to love, and I will focus on the positive next month. I also listened to Melanie's reply and have taken it to heart and would have rephrased some things so as not to appear insulting to anyone, as that is not my intent. One other thing, my comments, of course, are my own and have nothing to do with and should not be taken to represent the views of any organization I work for or am affiliated with. Thanks for listening.
The write-up on the statement sent to The News & Observer staff by reporter Lorenzo Perez.
Fear and Loathing with the Community Panel
Usually I bury the lede in my Community Panel summaries and just write up a chronological account of what happened. But when a panelist flips open a laptop at 8:30 a.m. and reads from a statement charging that "the N&O already has the blood of Iraqi children on its hands," some old-school inverted pyramids are in order.
Metro editor Linda Williams came in early Wednesday morning to share with panelists our City/State coverage strategies, but as you might have guessed already, panelists came loaded with war questions.
Panelists took the 30 minutes they were supposed to spend sharing their general thoughts about what they liked and loathed about last month's papers and stretched it into a one-hour debate on the war and the media's role as warmongering cheerleader. (Haven't we done this already?)
That brings us to panelist Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. Some of his colleagues came armed with raggedy newspaper clips to share for show-and-tell, Dear brought the laptop he had used to compose his thoughts. The N&O has not been covering the potential war, Dear read, it has been promoting it. Our headlines ("Saddam has 48 Hours") offer tacit approval to W., and Jay looks like he's off playing "toy soldier" when he's photographed wearing a combat helmet. Our war reporting is so over-the-top in its cheerleading, Dear continued, it's like something out of Dr. Strangelove. When Iraqi children are blown apart the next few days, we editors and reporters responsible for amplifying the administration's drum beat should hang our heads in shame, and so on.
Maybe he thought all that would go unchallenged, but our executive editor told him where he could plug his laptop in the next time he comes unarmed with facts. (OK, all that Melanie really told Dear was that what he said was "patently insulting," but it's my note, my story.)
Melanie chided him for making fun of Jay and Chuck's story about soldiers getting baptized on the eve of battle and for accusing us of being a White House mouthpiece. And Jay wore a combat helmet when they first got to Kuwait because everyone there was wearing them as a safety precaution, not to look cool, Melanie continued.
Melanie scored enough points to leave Dear slumped in his seat with his arms folded across his chest. I've included at the end of this rambling essay the post-meeting concessions he made in an e-mail to community panel members.
A few panelists echoed Dear (though not as stridently) in their comments. Ekram Haque, a WorldCom software engineer, said we should include more coverage of the impending war's impact on Iraqi people, especially the death toll.
Lewis Pitts, an advocate for children services, said he's alarmed about all the stuff he doesn't find included in our coverage. If people read what he did from the Internet, maybe public opinion on the war would be completely different. (And if people read what I did on the Internet, maybe we could all come to "agreeance," as Limp Bizkit linguist Fred Durst would say, that nobody should care what the Dixie Chicks think about Bush.)
But Melanie wasn't the only one to jump all over Dear. Some of his fellow panelists also cracked back on him. Dr. David Hardman, a Duke University anesthesiologist, said it was obvious that some panelists would prefer if The N&O served as a megaphone for their own personal beliefs.
And Wake County Planning Director Melanie Wilson told Dear to leave his laptop at home next time. "I didn't come here to be read to," she said.
Now let's move on to the rest of Wednesday's community panel insights.
Dr. Hardman and several others enjoyed our Q section on France, especially the excerpts from editorials from non-U.S. newspapers. Copyright issues prevent us from including a wider range of international papers in that feature, but Hardman said he'd like to see editorials from newspapers from Arab countries included.
Substitute teacher Mary Edwards said she loves Jay's stories and Chuck's photos from Kuwait. And speaking of photos, she loved Scott Lewis' photo from the ACC Tournament of UNC coach Matt Doherty and freshman point guard Raymond Felton whispering sweet nothings to each other on the sideline...
[The note continued with comments on sports and other topics.]
E-mail on Aug. 15, 2003, from Stephen Dear to N&O editors and community panelists, responding to Perez's memo.
Dear Ms. Sill, N&O Community Panel staff, and Community Panel Members,
During the course of the community panel's meetings from January through June reports, including the one below, were made by the N&O. From beyond the environs of the N&O I was made aware of these reports. The paper invited readers to provide honest feedback and everyone who participated in this panel made a sincere effort to do so. The reports that followed the panel meetings tend to be inaccurate and also contain inappropriate comments about community panel members.
There is an inherent conflict of interest for a newspaper to ask one of its reporters to report on meetings of its community panel. For that reason, other large newspapers have a secretary from their business or other non-news and non-editorial department take professional minutes of the meetings. In the spirit of open communication that the community panels are asked to provide, the minutes are then distributed to all members of the panels as well as newspaper staff. I would suggest the N&O consider such an approach.
E-mail on Aug. 15 from Melanie Sill to N&O editors and community panel members:
Thanks for the comments, which we'll take under consideration. The internal communication wasn't intended for broad circulation, but it also wasn't an effort to belittle anyone. Lorenzo's reports to our staff regularly shared criticisms and suggestions from the panel--some of the bottom portions of this note you shared are typical, simply reporting what various panelists said. That said, we'll take more care with humor that might be misunderstood--I think your comments indicate that this is the case.
Thanks too for the suggestions going forward. I'm interested in which large newspapers you've heard about, and would be glad to check with them on how they run their programs. We'll also share reports with the panel from here on out.
We're sorry that you missed the farewell breakfast yesterday, and hope you'll keep in touch with suggestions and story tips going forward. As I told the panelists yesterday, we greatly appreciated the time and concern offered by people who participated, and hope that you benefited from the experience as well.
With best regards,
E-mail on Aug. 18, 2003, from community panel member Lewis Pitts to N&O editors and the community panel.
I felt quite sad and betrayed to read the "notes" taken of one of our Community Panel meetings. Citizens taking the time and courage to share honestly their viewpoints should not be subjected to such belittling. To have those subjective "notes" distributed among N&O staff and reporters is insulting to us all and raises questions in my mind about the whether the entire process is a ruse. Why someone at the N&O, including editors, managers, etc., did not put a stop to such subjectivity in the notetaking indicates a systemic problem.
I would like Ms. Sill to tell us why she didn't properly respond as she now has well before Stephen Dear released to us the below information.
E-mail on Aug. 18 from panel member Sami Halaby to N&O editors and his colleagues on the panel.
I think Lorenzo's minutes about that day's proceedings are just as biased as the N&O's coverage of the period leading up to the war or for that matter your general coverage of issues dealing with the Middle East.
My sympathies are entirely with Stephen Dear; I did not notice the reported "slump in the chair" either literally or figuratively. At the expense of violating the Hungarian adage of the inadvisability of p...ing against the wind, I do think Lorenzo could benefit from being fitted with a pair of non-rosy eyeglasses and perhaps a hearing aid. At the very least good manners would indicate a different sort of write up private or otherwise and certainly a more considered less emotional reaction to Stephen Dear's justifiable comments.
I did enjoy the breakfast. The N&O staff were all very gracious!
Sami A. Halaby