Darts & Laurels

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Dart to the Palo Alto Daily News, for blindly toeing the local line. “Everybody,” as was noted on Slate’s August 11 roundup of “Today’s Papers,” “leads with the big, foiled terror plot in which twenty-four British men, mostly of Pakistani descent, were arrested and are suspected of plotting to bomb multiple airliners with liquid explosives.” Everybody, that is, but the Palo Alto Daily News, whose policy keeps its front page bound to strictly local news, hand and foot. There the lead story on August 11 was not the terrorist plot — which did eventually show up on the paper’s page eleven — but rather on some proposed new rules to strengthen the sanitary standards for pedicures.

Editors’ Note: In taking poetic license to describe the paper’s page-one policy as being bound "hand and foot" to local news, we neglected to note that rare exceptions can be made if and when, in the editor’s judgement, circumstances warrant.

Dart to the Vineyard Gazette, for stealing the fruit of a neighbor’s vine. On August 1, The Martha’s Vineyard Times, the rival weekly that also serves the Massachusetts island, prepared under the byline of its news editor, Nelson Sigelman, a richly flavored, full-bodied obituary of a modest local fisherman, a copy of which it sent to the funeral home, as is routine. The obituary itself, however, was far from routine: as the enterprising Sigelman discovered, the popular fisherman had earlier spent some thirty-eight years as a Secret Service agent whose feats included heroically protecting President Gerald Ford during an assassination attempt. On August 2, the Gazette, having been (routinely) sent a copy of the obituary by the funeral home, e-mailed the Times about its intention to use the “lovely obituary” with only minor changes but without a byline. In an e-mailed reply on August 3 — the day the Times published its “lovely” piece — the Times graciously waived the byline but noted, explicitly, the need for proper credit to the Times. On August 4, the Times’s obituary appeared in the Gazette bearing no label whatsoever as to its vintage. Complaints by the Times to the Gazette about the omission yielded a bunch of surprising responses — among them, a statement that the absence of attribution in an outsider’s work was “a matter of policy” and a claim that the running by two newspapers of the same obituary “happens all the time.” All of which, in their disingenuous variety, were decidedly off.

Laurel to Cox Newspapers, for unearthing still more of the buried shame in America’s racial past. We knew about the lynchings and the bombings; what we didn’t know about was the expulsions. Now, in his exhaustive four-part series “Leave or Die,” Washington editor Elliot Jaspin shows in painstaking, painful detail how, for decades after the Civil War and particularly in the South, terrorized blacks were systematically driven from their homes and run out of town, abandoning their (soon-to-be-appropriated) land and property, by whites hell-bent on keeping their communities pure. The result of a mission begun in 1998 when Jaspin happened upon an all-white county in Arkansas, the series draws on newspaper archives, census data, tax records, and interviews with surviving descendants to document, county by county, even lot by lot, this nation’s experiment in ethnic cleansing.

Dart to The Associated Press, for a delayed reaction due to impaired judgment. When the American Medical Association released the heady findings of a survey that showed an appalling degree of excessive drinking and promiscuous sexual behavior on the part of an astonishing number of college women during their spring break, the AP could not resist, characterizing the survey as “all but confirming what goes on in those ‘Girls Gone Wild’ videos.” Nor could countless outlets the AP serves, from the morning news shows and the daily newspapers to the cable newscasts and those on the Web, most of which flashed and splashed the damned — and damning — statistics with an unmistakable leer. The morning after, however, soon arrived. First came a devastating analysis of the survey’s grossly unscientific methods and deceptive claims — an analysis published on the Mystery Pollster blog and emphatically reinforced by the president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research; then came the AMA’s admission that the study had in fact been a “media advocacy tool.” For its part, though, the AP seemed reluctant to lose the buzz. Indeed, in an e-mail to the AP pressing for a correction, Frank Coleman, senior vice president for the Distilled Spirits Council, took strong exception to what he said had been the AP’s first response — namely, that “a correction would only spread the story further.” As it turned out, however, the AP did eventually take the needed step toward the recovery of accuracy — right after Coleman sent the AP a copy of a Howard Kurtz column in The Washington Post that poured light on the media’s sordid binge. Cheers!

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Gloria Cooper is CJR’s deputy executive editor.