IN AN ASTONISHING DISPLAY of "do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do" journalism, Kay McFadden, The Seattle Times' new television critic, blasted television coverage of a 15-year-old's shooting spree in Springfield, Oregon. In "After Tragedy, the Backlash" (5/27), McFadden leads with a creepily blasé statement: "The experience has become as mundane as dropping four quarters in a washing machine. A tragedy occurs somewhere in America. Journalists crowd in, first to explain what happened, then why. A media backlash ensues." She adds that "viewers by now must wonder if the navel-gazing was sincere or an exercise in public relations."
And readers must wonder at the irony inherent in McFadden's piece. Almost every charge she makes against television coverage applies to print journalism as well. She acknowledges that fact only once, when she cites a Times headlinecalling the cafeteria a "war zone." She charges television with other transgressions that she overlooks in the press: "A clip of two grieving students was aired repeatedly before commercial breaks... accompanied by an added snatch of plaintive music.... That sort of sensationalizing was widespread on TV." But the Times' first-day coverage featured a full-color, five-column, above-the-fold photograph of a blood-spattered student, clearly in shock, being led to an ambulance. It was gruesome, sensational, and accompanied by—guess what?—an inset color photo of "two grieving students."
McFadden points to "a vivid example of hypocritical coverage... on NorthWest Cable News." She charges that "dire, odds-defying conclusions were drawn about Kinkel's schoolmates' state of mind ('They go back with the knowledge that it isn't safe at their school.')." Meanwhile, back at the Times, the extensive Sunday coverage and analysis featured this pullquote, from the school's superintendent: "One of the hardest things for these students will be Tuesday morning, when they see the desks that aren't filled."
McFadden saves her sharpest criticism for a Dateline NBC show called "Teen Rage?" which, she says, "perfectly embodied the verbal overstatement, flashy visuals and hysteria-tinged hypothesizing that are ruining TV's credibility." Most insulting, she says, was the show's "central insistence that warning signs had been overlooked or ignored. That premise was at odds with information about the Kinkels' attempts to deal with their son's problems; worse, it implied they were to blame." How did the Times' coverage of Kinkel's parents compare? On Monday (5/25), the paper ran an AP story that told of their sincere, if futile, efforts to deal with their troubled son. But the headline suggested they were negligent: "Bomb Obsession Known to Family."
The Times also undercut the parents' efforts on Sunday (5/24) by citing Kinkel's father in their quote-of-the-day: "You know, we've just kinda given up on Kip. And we're just going to kinda let him grow up."
"By Friday," McFadden continues, "the media had itself become a major topic for both broadcast and print organizations.... But in all this, there was a sense of lip service—of going through the motions without taking the story seriously." In his weekly apologia, "Inside the Times" (5/31), executive editor Mike Fancher explains how his staff agonized over their coverage—proving mainly that the Times craves The Jerry Springer Show ratings but The Jim Lehrer NewsHour's respect. And, in a piece (6/1) quoting readers' anti-TV views, McFadden concedes: "Truthfully, all news organizations—broadcast and print—pursue big stories partly because we want to shine." Candor at last.
Why don't TV stations criticize newspapers the same way newspapers criticize TV? They should.
On the 30th anniversary of the sinking of the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion, Ed Offley, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's military reporter, wrote a riveting account of how the Scorpion went down in the Atlantic Ocean with 99 men aboard. Offley's "Mystery of the Deep" (5/21) reveals that the submarine most likely was sunk by a torpedo—either one of its own, gone awry, or possibly a Soviet weapon—contrary to the Navy's official explanation of a "mechanical malfunction." It reveals that John Walker, the notorious spy now doing life in prison, had given the Soviets codes enabling them to track the Scorpion's movements. Finally, Offley suggests that US and Soviet officials made a secret pact not to divulge what really happened to the Scorpion or to a Russian sub that sank in the Pacific two months earlier. His story proves that the families of Scorpion crew members have never been told the truth. A gripping read by one of the nation's top military journalists.
Why didn't Duff Wilson of The Seattle Times win a Pulitzer Prize for his massive "Fear in the Fields" package on farm fertilizers? Partly because this state's fertilizer industry rightly challenged the accuracy, balance, and fairness of Wilson's stories in a letter to the Pulitzer board. Seymour Topping, the board's administrator at Columbia University, screens all challenges and gives those "with substance" to the prize juries. This year he found five challenges (including this one) credible. Wilson's consolation prize: an endless series of in-house Times ads showing him kneeling in a farmer's field digging for more dirt. Talk about fertilizer.
Tag Mindy's Mercedes!
Times editorial-page editor Mindy Cameron appealed to her co-workers recently: She solicited suggestions for a vanity license plate for her new Mercedes. Do alert Watchdogs readers have any ideas? Write, phone, or e-mail them to us and we may print some in a future column. Woof!
John Hamer and Mariana Parks are president and executive director, respectively, of the CounterPoint Center for ReMEDIAtion, an independent nonprofit media think tank, and co-editors of CounterPoint, a media-critique newsletter. Call them at 1-888-306-DOGS or e-mail email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.