Thursday, December 27, 2012

Shame in Westchester County

In my 40-plus years in the media business, as I suppose it's now and forever to be called, I have come to certain empirical conclusions, among them that there is nowhere to be found any personage quite as sanctimonious in general as the publisher or editor of newspapers owned by the rapacious Gannett organization.

Strong words, but I can back them up through hard-nosed and long observation, though my own experience at a once-good-quality Gannett paper in South Jersey was actually salubrious over 30 years ago. However, it lasted for only exactly one year, as the investigations editor, before the worthies at far-off corporate headquarters realized with an aghast start that we were spending entirely too much money on actual journalism. With stunning speed, they lowered the boom one afternoon in a truly remarkable bloodbath that had the intrepid publisher and editor gone by nightfall, and the new publisher installed, with his name already painted over to replace the old one in the publisher's parking spot, by the start of business the next morning. (They'd grabbed the executive for the job from another Gannett paper and abruptly shipped him out, overnight bag in hand, by company jet, to make their statement. I was mightily impressed by the ruthless efficiency, and began sending out my own resume forthwith.)

Anyway, we have the case now of a publisher and an editor of a Gannett paper in Westchester County, N.Y., the Journal News, who somehow thought it would be a grand idea (inexpensive, too) to ask the authorities for the names and home addresses of every single holder of legally registered handgun-permits in Westchester and two adjacent counties, and to publish that exhaustive database, accompanied by an online interactive map to pinpoint the dangerous gun-owners' homes.

A public service! cried the publisher, one Janet Hasson. The editor, one CynDee Royle (yes, she spells her name that way) defended the move as important journalism, given the current raw emotions over the latest mass shooting massacre in Connecticut. [No explanation was offered, then, of why no attention was been paid to rifles, including the semi-automatic assault weapons that figured in the recent massacres.]

Anyway, lots of handwringing in the industry has ensued over the Journal News initiative, providing those pious journalism ethicists who have infiltrated the profession like Saudi morality police with another brief raison d'etre.

So far, the debate seems to be focused almost entirely on whether the public was served by this, with copious attention paid to those who said it was, given the critical issues involving guns. Equal attention (balance must be served, you know) was given to those who said the publication of the database created public safety concerns for legal gun-permit owners, among them police officers and judges, not to mention battered wives, who might, shall we say, have some cause to ensure defense from enemies lurking within the shadows. True enough, that.

(You might also note that the publication merely posted a database of public records obtained through a Freedom of Information request to public authorities. Beyond that, there was no actual journalism involved; no attempt to report on the wide world of differences between legal handgun permits and assault-weapons permits, not to mention illegal guns and the whole sordid world of assault-weapon gun marketing. That, of course, would require spending money on reporting, and I have already provided personal anecdote on the consequences of that, in a different context.)

Nor was any indication given that causing a great public and media commotion by disseminating the names and home addresses of legal handgun permit-holders, in this context, at this time, might have the very real effect of muddying waters that had recently begun to clear on the debate over gun control in this country. Suddenly, the NRA and its stooges, who had been in deep defensive crouches, have wide-open access to the bully-pulpits again, thanks to the "public service" journalism of the Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y. Suddenly, gun control common sense might have lost the initiative.

Just because you can legally do something, like obtain and publish that database, doesn't mean you should do it.

Editor CynDee Royle (that's really how she spells her name), said the following to her own paper,  safe in the knowledge that her statement would not be uncharitably questioned: "We felt sharing as much information as we could about gun ownership in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.”

It went unremarked-upon in that paper, naturally, that this statement seemed to draw direct a connection between the thousands of legal hand-gun-permit holders (and Journal News readers) in the Lower Hudson Valley and the homicidal maniac who used his gun-nut mother's assault rifle to murder those little children and teachers in Connecticut two weeks ago

Local reaction was sharply negative to the Journal News stunt. "They've put me on the same level as a sex offender," one local woman told the Washington Post. (Link)

Incidentally, no attention that I have seen has been focused on what I regard as probably the real motives of the sanctimonious publisher and editor (and of course the reporters and various sub-editors and graphics specialists) who pulled this stunt, which I regard as execrable, utterly irresponsible journalism.

Given my own position that this is not a public service but rather a base journalistic disgrace, I'm looking for a motive, and the one I see is: Shaming. This, in my opinion, was an outrageous attempt by self-righteous journalists to publicly shame those who have handgun permits. Evidently, someone at the Journal News thought that guns in general were simply bad, with the clear implication that anyone who has a legal handgun permit needs to be carefully watched by neighbors.

There is precedent for this kind of civic thinking, as Mr. Hawthorne noted some time ago.

Internet reaction to this Journal News stunt has been vociferous. One blogger has gotten a lot of mileage by posting the names and addresses of the publisher and editors, as well as the CEO of the Gannett company. Name of blog: For What It's Worth.

Meanwhile, Editor CynDee Royle, startled by the personal attention online, has evidently gone to the mattresses, as they used to say in the mob. Or at least the virtual mattresses.

Here's a link to the original self-righteous News Journal story. It's a reminder, if those of us who toil in the responsible warrens of this beleaguered profession need another one, of why so many people hate the media.


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