Letters from our readers

In recent months, as CJR has done away with online comments and altered its print publication schedule, we’ve lacked a venue in print or on our site for readers to air their views. While we’ve continued to welcome comments on our Facebook and Twitter pages and other social media accounts, this has been a notable gap, as more than a few readers have pointed out. We’re delighted to announce that today, we’re launching a new online letters section, known as Mailbox, which will be updated regularly. To start, here are a selection of the notes we’ve received since our last print edition in September/October. Please send future correspondence to letters@cjr.org.


Paper routes

The Boston Globe bungled its delivery switch. Chaos ensued.

I am going to go out on a limb and say you might not be aware that electricity is generating by digging up and crushing high hydrocarbon rock (formed from long dead trees), shipping the rock to a generating plant, burning the rock as fuel to heat water to a boil, running pressurized steam through a turbine to turn a generator. “Dead tree” is now a dated expression. “Paper” will suffice. 

Roger Wilson
Civic Decisions
Winchester, MA


Follow the leder

“A look at some of sports journalism’s best leads”

“Lede” is not inexplicable.

As with such argot as “hed,” “to kum,” and “CQ,” it hails from the era when common words and terms used in editing and processing copy were intentionally misspelled to avoid confusion for typesetters.

If I might add, no discussion about sparkling sports ledes is complete without mention of Ed Schuyler’s 1991 Kentucky Derby piece on Best Pal, for the Associated Press: “Because he’s a gelding, a Best Pal is all he’ll ever be.”

Chris Lazzarino
Lawrence, KS


Press freedom?

“Why journalists have a right to cover the University of Missouri protests”

I have had debates with my recent Howard Law School grad daughter on the advisability of students appealing to the authority of school administrators (state proxies) to address the racist expressions of fellow students and faculty on college campuses, my point being that such authority will be used in the future to suppress the non-racist speech of students that some other group will find offensive, i.e., the slippery slope argument. But this latest incident with the student photojournalist at Missouri helped me see the issue of free speech in the context of history, particularly the role of the press in covering civil rights issues and protests, as discussed in this piece in the LA Times.

I, like Mr. Peters, have a basically absolutist approach to First Amendment rights. But my views are somewhat tempered by the history of distortion and service to white supremacy played by the press in this country. I also am skeptical of the concept of objective truth and value the multiple subjective truths of various people involved in a story, as I discuss in this essay on new media and photojournalistic ethics. I hope that defense of free speech rights can be made in the context of our evolving history of racism and privilege, and that we embrace the various perspectives that individual stories offer rather than attempt to distill complex events into a single story, told from a single perspective—no matter how well-trained the journalist is who provides that single perspective.

Thank you.

Peter Schafer
Brooklyn, NY


Thank you for your piece on the situation with Tim Tai and [the] events at Mizzou. Your personal insights into Mr. Tai, as well as your insights into Mizzou, are enormously helpful from a contextual perspective, but you are, so far, the only person I’ve seen who nails the basic civil rights issues at work here—the denial (and possible assault) of Tim Tai’s access to a political event held in a public space, the fact that Mmes. Basler and Click are employees of the public university and therefore de facto agents of the government, and the fact that Basler failed to identify herself by name (and thus failed to identify herself as an agent of the government) in her pursuit of the frustration of Tim Tai’s civil rights.

I thought I was the only one who had come to those conclusions!

Andrew Langer
President, Institute for Liberty
Williamsburg, VA


Why did you feel the need to end your article with “I’ll even explain what the big words mean”? That comes across as very juvenile and petty. Otherwise it was a good article. Too bad it ended with that sentence.

When I first saw the video I couldn’t figure out why the photographer was getting right up in the personal space of several of the students. Some of the adults in the video seemed to think the same thing. There was what appeared to be a non-student, adult male that kept telling the photographer to get out of people’s personal space. Was there more to the situation before the video recording started? If he was intentionally in the students’ personal space, then he was wrong (e.g., the students formed a chain and the photographer thought he had every right to go through it). But if the personal space issue was caused by the students moving forward and him refusing to move, then the blame seems to get reversed.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate. It could be argued that the photographer was looking for a confrontation, especially once he noticed it was being recorded on video. Was this coordinated with the videographer? Does the photographer know the videographer? Couldn’t the photographer just have walked around the chain of students? He had a zoom lens on his camera—couldn’t he just look for an elevated position and zoom in on what he wanted to photograph? It just seems to me that this confrontation could have been avoided. But then the photographer doesn’t get on CNN, does he?

Yes. I intentionally ended this [letter] with a juvenile, petty statement.

Tim Potter


Inferiority complex

“Can newsrooms boost traffic without spoiling their brand?”

I happened to come across a piece you wrote where you criticize my piece published on Forbes.com regarding Hobby Lobby.

I have to say I got a kick out of it—not because you criticize the piece, but because you appear to believe that those of us who write as contributors are all unpaid and somehow of lesser quality than staff members. I assure you that this is not the case and that, in most years, I earn more from Forbes than just about anyone on their staff. This is but one of the reasons why I have consistently turned down offers from Forbes to join the staff, not to mention that while I am “some guy” to you, I am far too busy with my radio and television program to join anyone’s staff.

But what truly tickled me was your perspective that someone needs to be “on staff” to be credible yet, when I arrived at the end of the piece, I noticed that you are a “freelance” journalist. I hope you can appreciate the irony. While not on anyone’s staff yourself, you are comfortable suggesting that others who do not want staff jobs are, somehow, inferior.

I don’t think you are inferior … you write rather well. But I do wonder how someone who is freelance can claim that other freelancers are, somehow, rendered inferior by avoiding staff jobs.

Rick Ungar


The man, the moralizer

The transformation of David Brooks

I read with great interest your profile of David Brooks. More than just capturing the man and his role in our public discourse, your piece is an independent contribution to the elevation of that discourse. You accomplished that without engaging in obvious “moralizing.” Through anecdotes, quotes, and subtle asides, you gently encourage Brooks to pair moral assertions with an acknowledgement of moral imperfection. Although not your primary intent, I would not be surprised if your review had as much of an effect on Mr. Brooks’ style and approach as it does on the public’s view of him. If so, your profile is not only a triumph in capturing a preeminent public intellectual, but would have a lasting impact on how our common moral discourse advances from here.

Joshua S. Downer
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
Washington, DC


In response to your David Brooks piece, I’d like to point out that David Brooks is not the only Times columnist who regularly discusses moral and ethical issues. Nicholas Kristof often writes about such issues, but his pieces typically are grounded in real-world reporting and placed in a political, economic, and cultural perspective, unlike Brooks’ pieces. I’ll take Kristof’s “moralizing” over Brooks’ any day.

Harris Meyer


The power of place

“Why the sale of old newspaper buildings isn’t all bad”

The grand old newspaper buildings may not be necessary to the work of journalism—my first reporting job was in the cramped-but-energized newsroom of a newly formed daily one floor up from a suburban supermarket—but the loss of these venerable places is not inconsequential.

Squatters are now camping out in the empty building that once housed The Seattle Times, the place where, as a college freshman, I had my first summer newspaper job. A gigantic, neon-lit globe that was the symbol of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer still glows above the harbor, but atop a nearly-empty building where I spent years working for a print newspaper that no longer exists. Happily, though, my career continues in a new city at one of the most impressive newspaper headquarters of them all.

When I arrive at work now, I get a bit of a thrill each time I enter the splendid art deco fortress that is the Los Angeles Times building. Classic industrial art, proud quotations, historic photos, busts of founding publishers, a bronze eagle, and a big globe decorate the lobby. Arrayed along the hallways are photographs of award-winning Times journalists, front pages drawn from 134 years of publishing history and compelling images of news events shot by the newspaper’s current photographers. I would argue all of this adds up to more than nostalgia and faded glory. It is a reminder to those of us working in this imposing building today that we have a purpose that is greater than amassing pageviews and pleasing corporate stockholders. We are engaged in a service that is essential to a free society. The Times building is a monument to that purpose.

So far, the new demands of digital journalism are being served well by a redesigned newsroom. Yes, we could carry on in other quarters without the daily inspiration of the architecture that now surrounds us, but something greater than mere tradition would be lost.

David Horsey
Political Cartoonists and Columnist, Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles, LA


Not merely an affectionate farewell to old newspaper buildings, but an affectionate farewell to the old newspapers themselves. 

Justin Bieber’s
Romping in the nude—
What today’s newspapers
Consider front page news.

Louis Phillips
New York, NY


Your retrospective on old newspaper buildings and their various transitions and transformations likely brought back a lot of memories for former and current reporters, but it also did for this former college sports information director. Indeed, I began as Calvin’s SID in 1985, when we were still mailing a fair number of news releases to local and state media. On more than one occasion I can remember hand-writing the 615 W. Lafayette Blvd. address on a Calvin envelope. Memories. I should note, too, that your farewell tour neglected to mention another memorable address for me: 155 Michigan NW here in Grand Rapids, the longtime, recently demolished home of the Grand Rapids Press.

Phil de Haan
Senior PR specialist, Calvin College
Grand Rapids, MI


Having faith

“Why the religion beat poses unique challenges for some reporters”

A reporter of religion, who was thinking rather odd,
decided he would get a scoop by interviewing God.
He snuck up into heaven and passed by the pearly gates,
then started asking questions all around (which irritates).
Some angels dragged him off to Deity for discipline,
thinking he would be destroyed for his nosy sin.
When in the holy Presence, this reporter cocked his head.
“Which religion is the best, the one that’s right?” he said.
Instead of giving answer to this question, thunder growled.
A figure dressed in horns and tail gave him a poke and scowled.
“Be off with you!” the devil snarled. “We do not need your views.”
“If you really want to find that out, just read the Deseret News!”

Tim Torkildson
Provo, UT 


Another take on journalism after Katrina

In Katrina’s wake

While parts of the article were on the money, I found other parts startlingly inaccurate—in particular, the writer’s assertion that “the only pivotal role the newspaper [The Times-Picayune] had in the Danziger Bridge case came not from any investigative journalism it conducted but from the ramifications of some anonymous comments left on the paper’s website.”

Pardon my French, but that’s bullshit.

Perhaps I’m sensitive about this, because I had a front-row seat for much of this. I was a reporter at the Times-Picayune when Katrina struck, and I was city editor from 2008-2012, when we published what I considered some fine investigative work on NOPD misconduct after the storm, some of it in a series with ProPublica and Frontline called “Law & Disorder.” That work was a finalist for the Goldsmith award in 2010. All of the reporting can be found here.

I will agree with one part of your premise: The Picayune didn’t do a good job covering the Danziger incident initially. If memory serves, I was the only reporter in the city on the day it happened, and I knew nothing about [it]. I was a City Hall reporter with no police radio and limited ability to communicate with the outside world. I believe whatever the paper published on that day about the incident came from a desultory press release sent out by the NOPD. (In fairness to us, I don’t think any other media outlet was on top of the story either.)

I would also agree that, in the months immediately following the storm, the paper didn’t do a great job digging into the story, and really challenging the official version of events. (In fairness to our staff, there was a lot going on.)

But—and this is important—the first key investigative piece of journalism on the Danziger case was done by us. Laura Maggi wrote this ground-breaking story in February 2007. It highlighted many of the problems with the NOPD’s official account of what happened (for instance, that the two non-police eyewitnesses could not be located after a thorough search, suggesting they might be fictional—which they were). That story was written long before any federal investigation into the bridge incident began.

From that point forward, we exhaustively covered every aspect of the story. The idea that a Times-Picayune reporter would not have been in a position to write a Danziger book is laughable.

I don’t disagree with Jordan Michael Smith’s larger premise, that local journalism is imperiled, and that the Times-Picayune has made some unfortunate and devastating cuts in recent years that have done irreparable damage to a newspaper I used to be very proud to represent. (I myself quit in 2013 and went to work for the upstart Advocate, based in Baton Rouge but now taking on the Picayune in New Orleans.)

But I feel like this story bends the facts to fit that larger premise, when in fact, the record shows The Times-Picayune did exemplary work on the question of police misconduct after Katrina.

Thanks for listening.

Gordon Russell
Managing Editor/Investigations, The Advocate
Baton Rouge, LA

Letters should be sent to letters@cjr.org, along with the writer’s name and address.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.