Darts & Laurels

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Dart to the Lowell, Massachusetts, Sun, for beclouded judgment. For its December 27 issue, the paper produced a special commemorative section celebrating the fiftieth birthday of Marty Meehan, its hometown congressman—fifty-six besotted pages of gushing articles about the “life and legacy” of the saintly lawmaker, illustrated with more than five dozen photos and adorned with some sixty congratulatory ads solicited by The Sun from local businesses, organizations, and politicians. With the cost of those ads running between $750 and $6,000 a pop, of which 10 percent went to the Marty Meehan Educational Foundation, critics like Steve Bailey, a columnist for The Boston Globe, saw the shadow of the Staples Center fiasco that seven years ago fell over the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, however, The Sun was beaming all the way to the bank.

Laurel to the Santa Fe Reporter, for correctional journalism. In a long-running series on the state of the health care system in New Mexico prisons, the reporter Dan Frosch amassed more than enough evidence to give a nasty case of the jitters to both Wexford Health Sources, the private for-profit company (and campaign contributor) that’s been in charge of inmate health for the past two years, and to the New Mexico Corrections Department, which, despite Wexford’s checkered record in Wyoming and Florida, gave the company a $27 million contract. Among the particulars: unattended illnesses, unfilled prescriptions, unkept medical appointments, unclean facilities, unavailable supplies, and unconscionable retaliation against employees who complained. Saving money, in short, at far too high a human cost. By December, the paper was reporting that the search was on for a new health care provider: the cruel and unusual punishment was coming to an end.

Dart to the Herald-Sun, in Durham, North Carolina, for maintaining too thick a wall between the news and—believe it or not—the advertising departments. With just a little communication, the paper might have avoided the confounding contradictions presented to readers on its October 31 business page. Prominently displayed across four columns at the top was an AP story about the accelerating circulation declines at major U.S. newspapers for the six-month period ending in September, the third paragraph of which read as follows: “At the Herald-Sun, Sunday circulation dropped 10.5 percent, to 40,974 from 45,793 a year ago. Weekday circulation fell 8 percent to 38,916 from 42,298 a year ago.” Prominently displayed at the right-hand bottom was a ten-by-five-and-a-half-inch house ad boasting that “the Herald-Sun’s circulation for the past 6 months has increased 4.3%.” Go figure.

Dart to Time, for a missed connection. In a January 15 business story the magazine detailed the rising development all around the country of municipally run wireless networks that could give residents cheap access to the Internet and other information systems—and give the giant cable companies a run for their money. The article also detailed the various factors working against these upstarts’ success: dubious claims of lower cost, obvious challenges in providing content, ominous threats to privacy protections. One detail left unacknowledged was that, considering the relationship between Time and, among its many other siblings, Time Warner Cable, the magazine was not without some family interest in the matter.

Laurel to the New York Daily News, for reminding us of the power of journalistic passion. In a ringing call to conscience, the tabloid last July set forth a stream of editorials on the “Abandoned Heroes” of 9/11—the thousands upon thousands of first responders, construction workers, and volunteers who labored so selflessly at the poisonous “Pile” and who increasingly suffer the aftereffects in ruined health and broken lives. A potent mix of reportage and outrage, the series moved between the calculated lies of trusted leaders that the air was safe to breathe and the personal testimonies of the forgotten and uncompensated victims; between the refusal to accept political platitudes and the demand for concrete action; between economic realities and legal games. As its series went on, the Daily News was able to report on some small but significant signals that, at least in New York State (though not as yet in Congress), its voice was being heard. Signing three welcome bills affecting health care, death benefits, and future claims, Governor George Pataki praised the Daily News for its “tremendous” series. “Today,” the governor said, “we answer that call.”

Dart to the Portland Oregonian, for overstuffing an advertiser’s stocking. Since late 2005, when Federated Department Stores acquired the historic establishment of Meier & Frank and turned it into Macy’s, the paper has been delivering sacks and sacks of stories parading news about Macy’s. To some readers the most clattering of all came on Christmas Eve, when in its lead editorial the paper cheered Macy’s for keeping the store open to eager holiday shoppers amid the chaos of the building’s renovation. The paper titled its editorial “Miracle on Fifth Avenue”— having presumably discarded as too self-serving a more accurate one, to wit: “Yes, Macy’s, There is a Santa Claus.”

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Gloria Cooper is CJR’s deputy executive editor.