Darts and Laurels

An exercise in humility: fifty years of journalism's lesser angels

An accounting of fifty years’ worth of Darts is hardly a balm for an industry careening through a wrenching transition. It is a concentrated dose of every journalistic sin imaginable, and some that defy imagination: plagiarism, laziness, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, hypocrisy, photo manipulation, staged news, stupidity, bad taste, collaborating with law enforcement, junkets, caving to advertisers, paying to play, protecting sacred cows, cowardice, lying, cheating, exacting revenge, miserliness, endangering sources, fabrication, perpetrating hoaxes—a rather sorry record.

It also is a distorted record. There are five decades of Laurels, too, celebrating journalism’s more noble inclinations. But Darts & Laurels did not become iconic for its gentle caress; and awareness, as they say in recovery literature, is the first step toward improvement. Here then is a sampling of lowlights, as chronicled in this column since 1961.

Lest anyone think D&L has aimed too many of its 1,370 (and counting) Darts at the weak and the small, a dishonor roll of some marquee recipients: Walter Cronkite (twice, for dubious shilling), President Nixon (for failing to reappoint Kenneth A. Cox to the FCC), Spiro Agnew, Jack Anderson (twice), Don Hewitt, Katie Couric, Tim Russert, Otis Chandler, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Ann Landers, Mike Royko, Herb Caen, Maureen Dowd, Morley Safer, Aaron Brown, Al Neuharth, Rex Reed, Steven Brill, Mike Wallace, Linda Ellerbee, and George Will (twice, including one for helping George W. Bush prep for an interview Will was conducting). Most major news outlets—from The New York Times to 60 Minutes—were hit numerous times.

The most common Darts—a combined 36 percent—were for some type of self-dealing: conflicts of interest or crossing the line between business and editorial. Typical was the San Francisco TV reporter who for years heaped glowing coverage on city supervisor Gavin Newsom, who at the time was laying the groundwork for what would be a successful bid for mayor, without letting viewers know that he was a partner in a company headed by Newsom. Less typical was Fortune’s decision in 1976 to publish a ten-page piece, “The Philippines: A New Role In Southeast Asia,” without disclosing that the Marcos government had paid the magazine $183,000 to print the article, unlabeled as an advertisement.

There also were numerous instances of outlets failing to report honestly on themselves when the information was embarrassing or unflattering. For instance, when The New York Times, in coverage of the 1981 Scarsdale Diet Doctor murder trial, edited out references to its managing editor’s wife (Audrey Topping) and its publisher’s mother (Iphigene Sulzberger) when quoting from a letter, written by the accused, that was entered as evidence.

If the foregoing Darts were routine, others were simply outrageous. Like the 1976 editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News that urged the execution of a convicted murderer—“It’s about time for Leonard Edwards to take the Hot Squat”—and concluded with the directive to “Fry him.” Or this headline on a 2002 story in the Trenton, New Jersey, Trentonian about a fire at a psychiatric hospital: “Roasted Nuts.”

More than one Dart went to coverage that diminished the crime of rape, including one to legendary Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko for referring in a 1979 column to an attempted gang rape of a seventeen-year-old girl as a “frolic” in the woods. Then there was the editor in Illinois who in 1966 used the word “coons” in a headline to mean African Americans because, he said later, it fit the space.

There were the creative managers at the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel who, in 1993, assigned two reporters who had been diagnosed with repetitive-stress injuries to security-guard duty at the paper’s printing plant; and the humorless USA Today bosses who fired without severance three newsroom employees in 2002 after they scratched “Kilroy was here” in the layer of dust on a sculpture in the executive suite of the company’s new headquarters; and the geniuses at KMJ, a radio station in Fresno, California, home to Rush Limbaugh’s morning show, who canned their weatherman in 1995 after he refused to improve his rainy forecast for the day of the annual KMJ-sponsored picnic in honor of the conservative commentator (cosmic justice was rendered, however, when it poured on Rush’s barbecue); and the hapless folks at The Detroit News, who in 1976 rushed to print with a story of “a one in a million biological occurrence”: Siamese twin toads, found in the backyard of a local resident, which turned out to be just two ordinary toads “hell-bent on making more toads.”

Finally, what is arguably the strangest Dart bestowed to date: in 2001, the Logan, Utah, Herald Journal published an editorial headlined, “You Just Never Know,” in which the editors revealed “a situation that we think needs to see the light of day, even if only partially.” It involved “a well-paid public employee” who regularly visits “a reclusive woman in a central Logan apartment,” from “beyond the walls” of which “can be heard hours of loud slapping sounds and blood-curdling screams” that can only be interpreted “as some warped, sadomasochistic ritual.” The journalistic rationale? Not gossip or prurient interest, the editors assured their readers, but rather: “At least now you know our community is not immune to such things, and that they don’t always involve people you would immediately suspect of such behavior.”

Here’s hoping journalism won’t top that one in the next fifty years.

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.