Wherein We Pass on a $7,500 Sure Thing

It’s a given in the news business that every natural disaster is followed, as darkness follows sunset, by two things: Bogus information, and bogus charities. We were reassured this week that in the wake of Katrina both popped up.

It took until Wednesday for the charity to pop up, and this time it was one directing its appeal specifically to journalists. It’s not every day that we at CJR Daily get a request (a) to help manufacture a news event and (b) to help pay for it. So we were especially intrigued when we received the following email from one Kevin Coonce, an enterprising would-be feature subject from a dubious nonprofit organization in Michigan called B A Lifesaver.

The email read, in part, as follows:

On September 9, 2005, B A Lifesaver, a Michigan non-profit, will be rescuing up to 50 single mothers with children from Baton Rouge LA, and transporting them to the Jackson Michigan area for assistance in getting suitable apartments and jobs.

We are offering a news agency the opportunity to assist in this rescue/relocation via live broadcast on the bus down, on-site, and then on the bus ride back, in exchange for the news agency’s payment of full transportation costs.

This is a time sensitive rescue, so any agencies interested must contact us today.

B A Lifesaver has partnered with several Jackson Michigan area churches. See our website for details.

We need your immediate assistance.

Thank you, and God bless you.

Although we were flattered to be included, we had a couple of nagging questions. Specifically, how much would Coonce charge for a ride on his bus? And had he gotten any takers for his play-for-pay offer?

When reached by telephone on Thursday in Michigan, Coonce said that the rescue effort would make “a great human interest story” — and for a great price! A mere $7,500. Although he dangled the invitation in front of some 600 news organizations, as of yesterday, Coonce said he had received no bites. Since most reputable media organizations are in the business of reporting on the news, rather than helping to stage it or pay for it, we weren’t entirely surprised.

(Perhaps Coonce should have called the editors at the Parkersburg News & Sentinel and the Maui News. Earlier this year, the Ogden Newspaper Group, which owns both papers, paid for Jessica Lynch, of Iraq-invasion fame, and two of her friends to go on holiday in Maui. Afterwards, both papers ran features chronicling Lynch’s vacation. It was a bit of news manufacturing as clumsy as it was crass, and it later received an eloquent smackdown, courtesy of the Maui Time.)

But alas, what’s good for journalism isn’t always good for B A Lifesaver. Today, Kevin Coonce sent out another email announcing the cancellation of the event. “[D]ue to a total lack of any funds being donated, B A Lifesaver has cancelled the bus evacuation,” wrote Coonce. “To date we have failed to raise even 5 cents in cash.”

Coonce should have checked with us first. We could have passed along an old maxim: never count on a journalist for gas money.

Felix Gillette

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.