The media must wield power wisely

Let me put on my journalism professor’s hat. The topic of the week is rumors and what they can do to a community. Often, these rumors turn out to be true. One thing I respect about this newspaper is that they walk a very careful line. When rumors are afoot, The Eagle is very, very careful in checking out the story which, in the minds of many, has already become fact. They owe that to their readers. This is tricky stuff. Good reporting means getting it right. If many in a community believe that something is true, then in their minds, it is true. If a story about a public official’s wrongdoing turns out to be true, it underlines the fact that no matter where you are in your career (president of the United States or policeman), you can be held responsible for actions long past. Sometimes these stories are about earlier indiscretions — sexual, philosophical or verbal. Once our careers advance, we may be a lifetime away from that original indiscretion. Think back on your life. Do you recall having said something that maybe you shouldn’t have? By this I mean some politically incorrect statement or some fight with another human being. There are a lot of 18-year-olds who have had consensual sexual relationships with their 16-year-old girlfriends and are technically guilty of having committed statutory rape. If the wind is blowing the wrong way, these kids could end up doing time and ending up on some sexual offenders list which will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Now I have no truck with predators. Frankly they make me want to vomit. But I can remember all kinds of allegations against high-ranking members of the Catholic Church that turned out not to be true or not provable. It is terribly important to get it all right. Clearly, The Eagle has been very careful to be fair in their approach to all of this. I notice that when they write about sensitive issues that can hurt someone, they mention the number of opportunities they have invited a response from the person whose behavior is being questioned.

s we all know, rumors can kill you. They can take on a life of their own. Take last week’s report that The New York Times had the sexual goods (or worse) on Gov. Paterson in next door New York. According to the buzz around the Capitol, an article was imminent and Paterson would have to resign. I was sitting in the middle of a media storm in Albany as one after another TV and radio station called to ask me “what I knew.” Papers printed rumors about the rumors.

I knew nothing. Paterson went public and denied the rumors. It didn’t matter. The scurrilous tabloid rags kept up the drum beat. We really don’t know who started the rumors. There were a couple of obvious suspects. Was it the Obama White House who had ordered Paterson not to run? They didn’t want primaries since the appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand looks like she could be defeated by any number of people in a primary. Gillibrand is a favorite of the powerful U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. Perhaps the White House needs Schumer to help with their legislative program so they made it clear that they didn’t want a primary against Gillibrand.

Another suspect who had motive was Andrew Cuomo, the state’s popular attorney general. He has lots of experience in the political wars, having been the muscle behind all of his father’s political campaigns. When Mario Cuomo ran for mayor against Ed Koch in 1977, there was that famous sign over the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, urging one to “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” The slur, of course, was against Ed Koch who denied that he was gay. The Cuomos denied having anything to do with the sign. We’ll never know. Cuomo lost the election. Koch, who blamed the Cuomos, has said that it’s all in the past and now has only good things to say about Andrew Cuomo, who is now running for governor.

Let us take one recent example that may shed some light on the issue. This paper recently ran a piece by Clarence Fanto dealing with the background of a local radio celebrity, Sherman Baldwin. It turns out that Mr. Baldwin served some time for having committed a fraud. Baldwin has done a good job on talk radio. He was frightened enough about the coming story to call a press conference of his own. He explained that all of this is old news, known to a lot of people. Maybe so, but I sure didn’t know it.

This series of events got me thinking about rumors, journalism and redemption. What is the statute of limitations on wrongdoing, be it “sexual fondling” or bad behavior in a campaign? Why is it that some people get away with it and some have to pay? And what about after they have been punished? Will they ever have a second chance? Will the brilliant Eliot Spitzer, who has so much to offer, get another chance? There are those among us who yell at the top of their lungs in voices filled with rectitude, “Absolutely not!”

I think that people deserve another shot. I’m sure that Tiger Woods will get his, as did all those baseball players and their steroid abuses. I just can’t help wondering who among us should throw the first stone.

Originally Published in the Berkshire Eagle, 2/13/2010

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2 Comments on “The media must wield power wisely”

  1. BK Says:

    Thanks for raising the questions you did. Whether we like it or not, there will always be rumors. Some will turn out to be more true than others. What is important is how the target of the rumor, assuming anyone cares, responds. I will leave it to others to decide whether our governor responded in the right way. But I think that if the target was interested in continuing a publicly visible life, he would choose to set the record straight right away in a definitive way. The best he can assume is that truth will set him free, and the sooner the better. I think the public, if treated with respect and honesty, can be fair.

  2. Philip S. Krone Says:

    Alan Chartock is correct in his analysis. However, it is also important to delineate the difference between the public’s right to know and the right to privacy. Caroline Kennedy’s book on this subject is very illuminating.

    Alan Chartock has been a successful journalist (both print and radio) and businessman. He should seriously think of making a transition to public service by seeking public office.

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