Sunday, November 25, 2007

Could H-S Editor Ashley Do Worse?

Under editor Bob Ashley’s directorship the Durham Herald Sun has gone from being a well-respected community newspaper that looked after the public’s interest to cheering on Mike Nifong and certain Durham police officers for months after it was obvious they were engaged in a criminal frame-up.

Any decent newspaper would’ve called foul and cried shame at what Nifong and his crew were doing.

But Ashley and the H-S praised those working the frame-up and said they deserved our support.

That, IMO, is the worst Ashley’s done at the H-S.

But his influence is manifest in every H-S edition.

This morning in a letter to the editor, Steed Rollins Jr, a member of the Durham family which owned the H-S for generations before they sold it to Paxton Media Group which put Ashley in charge, called attention to just how bad Ashley’s H-S now is: It didn't even report the Duke-Marquette basketball score while the Raleigh N&O reported the game and the final score.

You can read Rollins’ letter and some background here.

You’ll quickly see his letter is about a lot more than just reporting a basketball score.

After Rollins’ letter appeared I heard from Bob Wilson who was the H-S’s editorial page editor back when the paper took on Durham’s power brokers.

Bob’s letter, really an editorial of the kind he used to write, follows in full. In a day or two I’ll say more about the H-S.

In the meantime, your comments are welcome.

Now Bob Wilson:

In his stinging Nov. 25 letter to The Herald-Sun, Steed Rollins Jr., son of one of the paper's most revered editors, chastised the paper for failing Nov. 22 to report even the score of the Duke-Marquette basketball game when on the same day the Raleigh N&O reported on the game.

"It is hard to be taken seriously as Durham's newspaper," said Rollins, "if you can't get the Duke score in the paper."
Rollins' criticism is a good example of the broken-window theory at work at the H-S: failures that were excused when editor Bob Ashley first took over the H-S’s news and editorial sides have grown under his leadership to the point where the H-S “missed” a Duke basketball game the Raleigh N&O reported.

Frankly, I thought Ashley would do better when Paxton Media Group brought him in as editor in January 2005. I was a reporter for The News & Observer in the early 1970s, and Ashley was a writer and columnist for the afternoon Raleigh Times. I respected his work then and later, when he went to The Charlotte Observer for 10 years, so I was willing to give him time to put his stamp on the H-S.

He did, and it’s been a disaster.

Anyone who has read KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor's masterly account of the Duke lacrosse hoax, Until Proven Innocent, can cite Ashley's failures chapter and verse. For reasons that can only be ideological, Ashley's editorial policy buoyed renegade district attorney Mike Nifong's attempt to falsely convict the Duke Three almost to the end, justifying Nifong's actions with biased editorials and reporting.

Not since the Dr. Sam Sheppard affair in 1954, when a Cleveland newspaper brazenly convicted the physician in print during his trial for allegedly killing his wife, has an American newspaper failed so miserably to live up to accepted standards of journalistic conduct. Even The New York Times, which also took Nifong's side despite glaring holes in the lacrosse hoax, has to take second place in this race to the bottom.

The H-S had the opportunity of a lifetime, and squandered it. Ashley could have led the paper to national recognition and respect once it became clear, in late March 2006, that something was badly amiss with Crystal Gail Mangum's allegation of gang rape by three Duke lacrosse players at an off-campus team party.

Instead, Ashley chose the politically correct route, joining the chorus of leftist Duke faculty members and Trinity Park liberals in denouncing the Duke Three not only for what they were alleged to have done, but also because of who they were: The privileged scions of affluent, Northeast families.

For them, equal justice under the law did not apply. At least not at Ashley’s H-S.

If Ashley and the HS learned anything from the lacrosse hoax debacle, there’s no public evidence of it.

No one expects Ashley to objectively assess the paper's manifold failures, though that would be the prudent course toward restoring some measure of the paper's credibility.

Meanwhile, H-S circulation continues to fall as longtime Durham subscribers vote with their dollars.

Cozying up to Mike Nifong was a fundamental mistake. At some level, Ashley knows that. Presumably his bosses at Paxton Media Group in Paducah, Ky., know that, too.

Yet, he continues to make errors in editorial judgment. Among his latest: Endorsing political candidates, a move that no doubt delights the left in Durham while alienating moderate and conservative readers.

Despite some inroads by the N&O, Durham remains a one-newspaper town with the most fractious politics in North Carolina.

Ashley should have kept the H-S above Durham's political brawls, reporting and editorializing on all sides without fear or favor. That policy stood firm for decades under the ownership of the Rollins family.

The basic qualities that make a good newspaper, and all great ones, can be summed up in the phrase “without fear or favor.”

Alas for Durham, the day Bob Ashley became editor of The Herald-Sun was the day "without fear or favor" went out the front door with some of the most principled journalists and executives in the news business.

What was left behind speaks for itself.


Anonymous said...

Is there enough interest in Durham to get an opposition newspaper started? Paxton Media seems to be pleased with the journalistic standards of Ashley. A little competition would be welcome.

Alex said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex said...

The N&O started to do that with the Durham News. The original plan, as I heard, was to pour resources into it and grow it into a multi-day publication like the Chapel Hill News towards it being a standalone, self-sustaining newspaper rather than a county-wide insert for N&O subscribers, but with the circulation growth the N&O experienced in Durham County brought on by subscription losses of the H-S (due to both Paxton's mishandling of the takeover and its obvious decline in quality), I think they held off on those plans as it looked like the H-S was doing their work for them. At this point, I think the N&O has garnered enough of the market in Durham that they see it unnecessary to try that hard. The H-S doesn't really qualify as "competition" anymore and when it comes to advertising dollars, there's are easier growth areas to target that will yield better return.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a former H-S employee and current N&O employee (though I have no "inside" knowledge whatsoever of what the N&O leadership's thoughts or intentions, the above speculation is just that).