2003: James Smith, Record-Journal, Meriden, Conn.
Award for Passion for Journalism
Thursday, July 31, 2003
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Passion for Journalism

James Smith

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Little white lies erode credibility

March 10, 2002

Some readers are after us for writing the truth. I am always dumbfounded when people can't bear the truth. A newspaper deserves criticism when it errs. When we get it right, I don't completely understand the condemnations.

The American public expects the truth from its newspapers, but last month several subscribers told us that we ought to be ashamed for writing in his obituary that former Wallingford Police Chief Carl A. Grasser pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and resigned his position in 1969. He tried to cover up the arrest of a man accused of assaulting one of his own officers.

Mr. Grasser was a high public official in Wallingford and the career of a public official is just that - public. If he had retired with laurels instead of being forced to resign, we would have reported the laurels. But he didn't. Can you imagine leaving out of Richard Nixon's obituary that he resigned from the presidency? Can you imagine when Sen. Ted Kennedy dies, ignoring the bridge at Chappaquiddick?

Those who called or wrote asked why we couldn't concentrate on the good in Chief Grasser's life. We did. We wrote that he was "an innovative chief," a "devoted family man," a "devoted husband," an "active parishioner" in his church. We quoted a former town attorney who said he was "a good police officer," "very kind," and "led a very exemplary life" after he left the department. We quoted former Mayor William Bertini that he regretted having to take action against the police chief.

This is one disconnect between the press and the public that is difficult to resolve. There seems to be a feeling that we should not speak ill of the dead. Certainly, not every misdeed in a person's life has to be recorded in the last story written about him or her. Minor blemishes are not newsworthy. If a police chief, for example, had been suspended for a day only once back when he was a sergeant over a small departmental violation, it probably shouldn't be included in a story about his whole life.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, a highly regarded reference work in the industry, gives this guidance for obituaries: "If a crime or indiscretion was the subject's main claim to fame, it should of course figure in the lead (first paragraph). But an early indiscretion should be kept in proportion - subordinated or omitted, depending on its ultimate significance in a life."

I sympathize with family and friends who do not want to read about Chief Grasser's resignation, but it was a wholly significant event in his life and my responsibility is to the tens of thousands of readers of this newspaper who expect the Record-Journal to present truthful accounts. If we receive 10 complaints, it means some 65,000 other readers did not complain, so perhaps this is a sermon to the choir.

Someone's life is not black and white. To trot out only platitudes, to pretend that unpleasant things never happen in a life, to deny the complexity of life is almost an insult to a human being.

I should mention that this newspaper has a paid obituary policy whereby a family submits an obituary through a funeral home that includes information they choose and leaves out information they do not want. These notices appear on the obituary page for a fee which allow a family to virtually dictate what will and will not be in the obit.

The Record-Journal also assigns news obituaries on prominent people. It is in these news articles that we are duty bound to follow the dictates and judgments of sound journalism. We simply would not be upholding our responsibility to our readers if we started withholding significant information about prominent public officials. That kind of editing leads to erosion of trust with our readers.

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Everything offends somebody

May 5, 2002

Here's an idea. Let's take all the accountants and have them do the judging and take all the judges to do all the accounting. The accountants will decide what justice is and the judges will decide what is good financial practice.

We could take all the political operatives and have them do the journalism and have journalists do all the politicking. The politicians will decide what news is and the journalists will run our governments.

Farmers could do the engineering and engineers do all the farming. Teachers could do the policing and cops do the teaching. Diplomats could do all the fighting and soldiers do all the diplomacy. Probably wouldn't work, though. For sure, editors could not run our town, state or federal governments.

You may have noticed that a political operative, and others, wrote to us last week that a state senator's divorce is not news and how dare we print it. It is hard enough finding good people to fill the ranks of politics and government without them having to worry if their divorce shows up in the paper, says he. David Fordiani is a skillful political operative and was a key player in the Democrats' loss of the Meriden mayorship. But I would suggest he stick to politics and we'll stick to what is news.

Since 1776, in this country it has been a given that if you become a public official or public figure what you do and say will become news. That is our system. That is our democracy. Anyone who wants to get involved should understand that. America stands for journalists deciding what is published - not anybody else deciding, certainly not the government.

Inside a newspaper, we have deep and long discussions about what to print and what not to print. Often that gets into how much of a public person's private life should the voting public know about. We have been told that a president having sex in the Oval Office is nobody's business. We disagree. We have been told that a governor's divorce is nobody's business. We disagree. And we disagree that a state senator's divorce is not news. It is.

Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, has said his divorce has held up thousands of dollars in reimbursements for his personal expenses to his employer, the scandal-wracked CRRA. Sen. Gaffey himself did not object to the Record-Journal reporting his divorce.

Because a state senator makes the laws under which we all live, because a state senator has power over you and me, because a state senator, like a governor or a president or a city councilor decides policy - his or her character, his or her thinking, his or her makeup is important for the public to know.

Marital status is part of a person's make up. Divorce is not good or bad, it can be both. I was divorced. I have written that my four daughters are a melded family. I do not make policy, but I make decisions on how much you will know about the policymakers. If the policymakers don't like that, they are living in the wrong country.

If you don't like a certain story, turn the page. I guarantee you will find something you like. It is sort of like listening to the radio. If a song comes on you don't like, change the station. Every day a newspaper prints things that are upsetting to someone. And every day a newspaper prints things that are satisfying, even uplifting to someone.

Life on this planet is troubling, exciting, uplifting, sad, happy, horrifying, beautiful. If a newspaper is supposed to reflect life and if you are reading a newspaper that does not portray horror, beauty, happiness, sadness, excitement or trouble - if it doesn't uplift you and make you laugh or make you cry - what kind of newspaper is that? It is an irrelevancy at your doorstep every morning. It is not worth your time. It is bland and blank and missing the parade of life as it goes by.

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Don't tread on my freedom

September 8, 2002

Last Sunday we published nearly 5,000 words on a dispute this newspaper is having with the Meriden Police Department. We retained a respected freelance writer to research and write the piece and arranged for Associated Press editors in Hartford to edit the story. We could have written and edited it ourselves, but chose to engage outside journalists to scrutinize the issue in order to present the most objective account we could.

Freelancer Alan Bisbort of Cheshire, who has written for The Washington Post and The New York Times and has authored 14 books, interviewed city police officers, Record-Journal personnel, and independent experts. The different points of view - that police think they can arrest reporters for harassment; that journalists think covering news cannot lead to harassment charges - were presented fully.

I believe that most of our readers see the value of telling them the story of this dispute and understand the importance of a free press. It troubles me when some readers write letters about how we are "hiding behind the First Amendment" or that we are "veiled in the cloak of First Amendment rights." Such language cheapens the Bill of Rights. It makes me wonder if some Americans don't understand how crucial those rights are to our way of life.

We all need to consider how dangerous it is to let armed police handcuff journalists for asking questions in the pursuit of news. Writing news is no easy task. Minions stand in the way, do everything they can to prevent the truth from coming out. Reporters must ask questions, they must ask tough questions and they often have to ask the questions repeatedly in order to do what our society has appointed the news media to do: inform. You cannot have a democracy without a free press. You cannot have a free press if the police can round up reporters for doing their job.

We hear much lately about the right to privacy. There is no right to privacy listed in the Bill of Rights. You will not find the word privacy anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers enumerated the peoples' rights in the first ten amendments - from freedom of speech to the right to a fair trial - but were silent about privacy.

The modern legal theory of privacy began with an 1890 Harvard Law Review essay co-authored by Louis Brandeis, who later became a Supreme Court justice. He argued that people have the "right to be left alone," but also held "the right to privacy does not prohibit any publication of matter which is of public or general interest."

We should welcome the balancing act of conflicting liberties but we should not let the police make those decisions. It is in the civil courts, not criminal courts, where Constitutional disputes are settled.

We were mindful of the privacy of Fire Chief William Dunn's wife and family after the tragedy of his suicide, offering the opportunity to comment if they chose. But some criticize us even for asking the chief, after he took a leave, why he did. The fire chief is charged with protecting city residents from danger. He manages a $6 million budget and a staff of 114. Of course the public should know why he needed a leave, and the way the public finds out is by the newspaper asking why.

In a 1988 Washington State case where an official sued a reporter (he did not try to have him arrested) on harassment grounds, the judge ruled in favor of the reporter because to find otherwise "would constitute an unwarranted interference in the newsgathering process in violation of the First Amendment."

In Meriden last month, the fact that the state's attorney tossed the warrant out should be proof enough that the police were off base in seeking to arrest our reporter.

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Do the police have a right to censor the news?

September 15, 2002

Meriden Deputy Police Chief Jeffry Cossette asked me for a retraction on the last paragraph of my column last Sunday.

I wrote: "In Meriden last month, the fact that the state's attorney tossed the warrant out should be proof enough that the police were off base in seeking to arrest our reporter."

The arrest warrant wasn't submitted to the state's attorney, the deputy chief wrote to me in an e-mail.

I'm not sure how crucial it is whether the warrant formally went to the prosecutor or not. Clearly the cops went to the prosecutor.

The deputy chief was quite incensed, however. He called it a "fabricated statement," a "cheap shot" with "no factual basis" and said I was unethical and unprofessional for writing it.

I should have been more precise in that last sentence. Instead of writing that it was a fact that the state's attorney threw the warrant out, I should have pointed out what was reported in this paper the week before: "The legal matter is unresolved. It appears the state's attorney's office has rejected a police application for the arrest of (a reporter), but officials refuse to confirm or deny that."

Deputy Chief Cossette is now denying it. "The arrest warrant was never submitted to the state's attorney. Therefore, it was never 'thrown out,' " he wrote.

Free-lance writer Alan Bisbort, in his Sept. 1 story, quoted the deputy chief saying that the police "had sent the matter on to the state's attorney." Mr. Cossette says now that he wasn't referring to the warrant affidavit.

I asked Mr. Bisbort if the deputy chief or the chief, William Abbatematteo, said anything else on the subject. The writer checked his notes. In the hour-long, wide-ranging interview with the two top Meriden cops, one or the other also said: "Legally, it's in the hands of the state's attorney's office, whose job it is to enforce criminal law." Also: "Whether it's a criminal matter is not up to us. We send it on to the state's attorney ..." Also: "Normally we send these matters on to the state's attorney." Also: "The state's attorney suggested that we get the family's attorney to send a letter to the newspaper."

That last point interested me, because it is exactly what I suggested to Deputy Chief Cossette, that if someone is upset with the newspaper, he can always take civil action, which is not a matter for the police. It then goes directly to a judge.

Once more, for the record, here is the crux of the controversy: The police tried to arrest one of our reporters because he contacted Meriden firefighter Ryan Dunn. The reporter called him to offer him the chance to comment on the official police report on the suicide of Fire Chief William Dunn, Ryan's father. The newspaper maintains that out of fairness and sensitivity, reporters must do everything they can to give those involved in news stories the opportunity to comment. The police have called it alleged harassment and say that if they receive a complaint, they can arrest reporters for doing it.

Chief Dunn's widow had told us she preferred not to comment, so we never contacted her. His son Ryan said at various times that he wanted to, and that he didn't want to, comment.

Assistant State's Attorney James Dinnan told Mr. Bisbort that if his office rejects an arrest warrant application, he will not comment. He refused comment except to say there is no legal case pending against a Record-Journal reporter.

The stance Abbatematteo and Cossette are taking should be troubling to everyone. If you follow their logic, anytime someone is upset at being asked questions by a reporter, they can call the cops and get the reporter arrested.

So let's say Monica Lewinsky didn't want reporters asking her questions. Just call the cops and charge harassment. Stop the story in its tracks.

But this case is about a human tragedy. Both police officers and reporters serve essential functions in society, especially in times of tragedy. Police and reporters work in tragic situations often. Tragedies like the deaths of thousands in two towers in New York. Tragedies like the death of one fire chief in Meriden. In order to do their work, police must ask a lot of questions in the midst of tragedy. In order to do our work, reporters must ask a lot of questions in the midst of tragedy.

So consider the Abbatematteo/Cossette stance that if someone is upset in a tragedy over being interviewed by a journalist, all they need do is complain to the cops, who then can go after warrants for the arrest of the journalist. How, then, could reporters write about what happened at the World Trade Center? How can reporters help a community, a nation, comprehend, understand, fathom what is going on, if cops can carry them off and prevent them from telling the stories?

It is difficult to interview grieving people. It is sometimes difficult for grieving people to express their thoughts and feelings. But journalists give them the opportunity to do that. Quite often, grief-stricken people want to; they find it cathartic, they want to say something important about the loved one who is gone. They honor the deceased by sharing with others what was good and meaningful about them. Read the poignant "Portraits of Grief" in the New York Times about the victims at the World Trade Center and you will know the power of good reporting. Or read the compassionate coverage in words and pictures in this newspaper of a courageous fireman, William Dunn.

Our reporters do not harass people who are grieving, they give them a chance to express themselves. In doing that, they allow the public to read a more human story and a more comprehensible story.

In his e-mail to me, the deputy chief wrote, "The complainant did not want to pursue charges at this time ... If you had obtained a copy of the police report, this factual information would have been available to you." And "If you had done the proper research and obtained your information as to how the case was closed, you would have learned the truthful conclusion to the case."

I was gratified that the complainant withdrew his complaint, which Mr. Bisbort reported on Sept. 1. The police provided us their report Friday. It left out an important fact about the "truthful conclusion to the case." It didn't mention that City Manager Roger Kemp told the chief and deputy chief to stop any and all action against Record-Journal reporters until the city attorney (who is different from the state's attorney) looks into it. In other words, until City Attorney Larry Kendzior examines the constitutional - civil, not criminal - case law, the police are to stand down.

Mr. Kemp hired Chief Abbatematteo. The city manager is the police chief's boss and he told him to cease and desist. It is always a good idea in a democracy to have civilians in charge of police.

Deputy Chief Cossette told me that his department is "a professional organization committed to public service." So is this organization.

Anyone who breaks the law, including journalists, should be arrested. But no one here is breaking any laws, and the police should have known that from the very beginning. This newspaper and the police department have served this community together for more than a century, and the relationship has historically been a good one.

Recently, Deputy Chief Cossette organized a media relations seminar for his command staff. Some of our staff participated. That's a good step. I have told him and the chief that we are willing to meet at any time to discuss differences.

Given Mr. Kemp's directive, I am hopeful this dispute is behind us.

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Teaching the wrong lessons

December 15, 2002

Maybe you read the other day that Southington School Superintendent Harvey Polansky kicked a reporter out of his office. Harvey is a big bear of a guy who has told us he runs an open administration. Caroline Porter is a smidgen, but she carries big questions. Too big for the superintendent, apparently.

Meanwhile in Wallingford, a usually reasonable public personage asked a reporter not to talk to any members of the town's Wooding-Caplan study committee. He should limit himself to writing only what is discussed at formal committee meetings, this committee member said. The Town Council appointed the committee to figure out what to do with the uptown property, which has sat dormant since the town bought it in 1991 for $1.5 million.

This disregard by public officials for informing the public is frightening.

Educators especially have a heavy responsibility to teach the American way of life - the importance of a free and unfettered press to Americans. It is a basic freedom, isn't it, that we all stand for and fight for and die for, in how many wars, when our way of life is threatened?

Isn't it the First Amendment - the first! - in our Bill of Rights?

What does it say to our students when our leading educators decide that what happens in the public schools is private, none of the public's business? Dr. Polansky not only kicked a reporter out; he chastised her for interviewing teachers and students about issues in the schools.

Now tell me, who else should reporters talk to about what is happening inside the schools other than teachers and students - and, of course, administrators, if they choose to answer questions? The saddest thing in Southington is that it was merely about why the police officer assigned to the high school was suddenly reassigned. Will somebody tell me why that is such a sensitive topic?

Maybe we all just want the official versions, the spin, the half-truths of officialdom - no need for independent scrutiny by an inquiring press. Never mind that a vigorous and inquiring press is one of the foundations of our free society.

"Freedom of the press belongs to the people. It must be defended against encroachment or assault from any quarter, public or private," states the American Society of Newspaper Editor's "Statement of Principles," which has stood since the 1920s, when it was adopted.

"The American press was made free not just to inform or just to serve as a forum for debate, but also to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government."

If this isn't being taught in Dr. Polansky's schools, it sure ought to be.

Translate the Wallingford official's idea on how to cover the local committee to Henry Kissinger's committee looking into the failures of our national security apparatus. What if the rules were that reporters could not ask Dr. Kissinger any questions, that reporters could not talk to committee members, all they could do was listen at their official meetings?

What kind of media would sit back and publish only the official version? The Iraqi press, for one. The German press in the 1930s and 1940s for another.

The ASNE code also dictates that "journalists must be constantly alert to see that the public's business is conducted in public." We take these principles seriously because so many people who rise to high public office forget so easily that the American system is all about freedom, including the independent scrutiny provided by a free press.

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