Sunday, July 15, 2007

Cross Burnings, Seligmann & The H-S’s Double Standard

Durham Herald Sun editor Bob Ashley’s column today is titled: “Interest in news wanes among young.”

Ashley begins:

I doubt anyone in my line of work is surprised any more(sic) by studies that indicate young people are less likely to read a newspaper than their elders. . . .

Most newspapers, this one included, have struggled mightily to reverse or at least slow that trend, partly out of a sense of survival and partly because most of us in newspapers really do believe we perform an important function in informing citizens.

But a new study out last week not only adds new and, I must confess, discouraging weight to that analysis. It also bodes ill, I think, for civic participation and discourse generally.
Ashley then offered readers the usual MSM “explanations” for the decline in readership among the young while failing to consider why newspaper readership is declining among all age groups.

You can read the rest of Ashley’s column here. I just sent him the following email:

Dear Editor Ashley:

Your column today was a missed opportunity to consider why so many Durhamites, regardless of age, are turning away from the Herald Sun.

Yes, most newspapers are experiencing circulation declines, but some are experiencing increases.

In the last two years few newspapers in America have been more favorably placed to experience a circulation increase than the H-S.

We have rapid population growth, rising personal incomes and a booming economy. And for the last 15 months the Duke Hoax has played out right in the middle of your circulation area. It’s not only one of the most important news stories in Durham’s history; it’s a national and international story as well.

Yet with all of that going for you, the H-S has experienced a sharp circulation decline.


I think a major reason is that you so often spin and suppress news rather than just straight out report it. Another is that you don’t have an even-handed editorial policy.

I’d like to illustrate what I’m talking about.

On May 25, 2005, there were three crosses burned in Durham by persons who’ve never been identified.

The next day your front-page story included many details of the burnings, comments from Mayor Bell, police and others as well as some history of cross burnings in the South.

The following day you editorialized saying the cross burnings should be condemned regardless of whether they “ were the work of ignorant pranksters [or] the work of unrepentant racists stuck in a time warp.”

The cross burnings were an important news story which warranted extensive coverage, including follow-up stories you provided. Your lengthy editorial condemning the cross burnings was also appropriate.

But now consider what you did with another important news story that played out in Durham almost exactly a year later.

On May 18, 2006, Reade Seligmann, his parents and his attorney, the late Kirk Osborn, were forced to walk to the Durham County Courthouse through a gauntlet of racist New Black Panther Party members and other hate-filled people shouting physical threats at Seligmann.

Once inside the courtroom, Seligmann faced an even worse situation from the NBPP members and their fellow racists. One newspaper’s report included this:
From the gallery one onlooker shouted: 'Justice will be served, rapist!' Seligmann largely ignored the taunts, but as he left came the call 'Dead man walking!' and he blanched.
Seligmann later described himself as “terrified.”

The next day in a story headlined “Defense to get accuser’s phone data
Seligmann’s lawyer, Nifong spar; police to preserve notes,”
the H-S reported in the fifth paragraph :
With protesters demonstrating outside the judicial building, Superior Court Judge Ron Stephens admonished those in the packed courtroom to be quiet and respect the proceeding.
Your story made no mention of the New Black Panthers or other racists threatening Seligmann.

The H-S didn’t seek a statement from Mayor Bell or anyone else regarding how they felt about racists shouting death threats at a peaceful citizen who was participating in a Durham court hearing.

And although on May 19 and 21 the H-S editorialized on various aspects of the Duke lacrosse case, you didn’t see fit to mention the ordeal Seligmann endured or condemn the racists.

Why not, Editor Ashley?

Why in your “news columns” did the H-S mislead readers by referring only to “protesters demonstrating outside the judicial building?”

Why did you suppress the news of the NBPP's and other racists' threats?

Why didn’t you tell readers Judge Stephens admonished the courtroom to be silent in response to the threats shouted at Seligmann?

If you want young people to read the H-S, why not develop an even-handed approach to news reporting and editorializing?

Will the H-S really hurt itself if you give up the double-standard that leads to news suppression and spin?

Durham doesn’t benefit from what you’re doing now. That’s why readers of all ages continue to abandon a newspaper many of us once welcomed into our homes.

I published this email at my blog. If you’d like to respond to it, I’ll publish your response in full.


John in Carolina


Anonymous said...

Wonderful letter, John.

Please consider a CC to the publisher Geoff Moser....which is what I do when I send a complaint.



Anonymous said...

Does Mr. Moser respond to complaints about Ashley? And has anyone received responses to complaints to the parent company's owners in Paducah, Ky.: Paxton Media?

Anonymous said...

Paxton media :

CEO: David Paxton
(also newly elected President of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association)

Paxton Media
201 S. 4th St.
Paducah, KY 42003-1524


Paxton Media Group Llc
2828 Pickett Road
Durham, NC 27705-5613

JWM said...

To all three of you,

Thanks for your nice words and the contact info re: Pazton.

I haven't followed up because of time but I hope one or more of you does and lets me know the result.

I'll post on it.