In his weekly “Stories I’d Like to See” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. The Times hits a home run in the Bronx:
This item comes under the category of stories I loved seeing. On Sunday, The New York Times did a front pager (continued on two full pages inside) by veteran reporter William Glaberson on the collapse of the criminal courts in the Bronx that was about as close to perfection in execution and impact as journalism can get.
Glaberson’s chronicle of epic incompetence and sheer laziness among the judges, prosecutors, and just about everyone else mixed mountains of impressive data (endless delays, startlingly low conviction rates) with the kind of personal stories that give the data indelible meaning: A murder defendant who was held in jail for nearly four years before being acquitted recounts how court officers, lawyers, and prosecutors would be “laughing and giggling” while they scheduled postponement after postponement, ignoring him so completely that he “felt almost invisible inside the courtroom.” There’s a running narrative, artfully sprinkled in italics throughout the piece, of the agony of the family of a murdered bodega proprietor that is forced to wait five years for the accused killer to come to trial, only to have to face a new trial later this year because stale evidence and the witnesses’ foggy memories resulted in a hung jury.
When a reporter uncovers almost unbelievable data about a system failing, he’s doing a terrific job. When he then ties it this way to real people, he creates a reading experience that is unforgettable. Imagine igniting water cooler conversation about the Bronx criminal justice system rather than Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy. Glaberson did that.
Everything about the piece shows the Times running on all cylinders. The front page photo—of crowds of frustrated witnesses, family members, and prospective jurors waiting to go through under-manned security checkpoints at the entrance to the courthouse—is emblematic of what goes on inside. The chart on the jump page that uses Glaberson’s stopwatch record of how long court was actually in session versus how much time was lost to the judge or lawyers being late or taking breaks or going to lunch or leaving early was a home run, too. The sub-headlines—“Routine Lateness,” “Delay As A Strategy,” “Trouble On The Bench”—all pack the right punch.
The only element missing was how Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, whose multi-dimensional incompetence is demonstrated in almost every other paragraph, has kept getting reelected to the point where, at 24 years, he’s the longest serving of New York’s five county prosecutors. I hope Glaberson will get to that. His Sunday story was introduced as the first in a series; yesterday’s second part zeroed in on another key player—a defense lawyer—who has perfected the art of delaying trials while the judges and the prosecutors DA Johnson supervises do nothing to stop him.
2. Keeping score on derivative journalism:
The Times’s Bronx story was quickly picked up and parroted by New York’s local television news stations, which reminds me of a story I’ve wanted to see for a while: It seems that on almost any day one could take the enterprise stories (that is, stories not naturally emanating from obvious news events such as presidential announcements) in the Times and just a few other top news gathering organizations, such as the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, and pretty much come up with the list of most of what passes for enterprise news stories that we see on television later that day. (A program like 60 Minutes would be an obvious exception.) Similarly, it seems that local television news organizations, to the extent they continue to report on anything other than the weather, sports, and crime, increasingly crib off their local newspapers.