Letters to the Editor 

On the record

As a member of the board of directors of the Metro Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, I wish to thank Jack Lessenberry for raising SPJ's profile &emdash; if not notoriety &emdash; with his column entitled "Journalists in disgrace" (MT, Oct. 21-27).

Unfortunately, he violated a clearly stated rule that the session was to be "off the record." Presumably he knows that, as a journalist confronted with an "off-the-record" request, one can either argue about it, accept it or walk away. But no objection was heard from Lessenberry until his column. As a newly elected SPJ board member, Lessenberry also could have attended board meetings and argued against the Patricia Smith program. But he failed to do so, choosing instead to snipe at us from afar.

Smith was one of several journalists disgraced by their actions in 1998, and the only one willing to come to Detroit to tell her side of the story.

SPJ does not condone what Smith did. But, as journalists, we should listen to all sides of any controversy that brings disrepute to our profession.

Lessenberry's cavalier dismissal of the "off-the-record" format without challenging it then and there shows him to be an untrustworthy person. Trust and fairness &emdash; as well as truth &emdash; are essential ingredients of professional journalism. I fear that the cynical form of ethics being taught to Lessenberry's Wayne State journalism students will further erode the trust the public has in American journalism. --Jack Kresnak, Society of Professional Journalists


Holier than Jack?

As a journalist, Jack Lessenberry is not in the same class as Jack Kresnak.

Lessenberry's holier-than-thou attack implies Kresnak is ethically incorrect because three years ago he crossed the union picket line to return to work during the newspaper strike. As a striker, I wish Jack had stayed out. But anyone who knows Kresnak knows he is one of the state's most ethical and best reporters.

Lessenberry is hardly ethically pure. As a stringer covering assisted suicide in Michigan for the New York Times he committed one of journalism's mortal sins. He combined reporting with moonlighting as chief propagandist for suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian and lawyer Geoffrey Fieger. The New Republic magazine exposed Lessenberry's dual roles. Result: Lessenberry no longer covers assisted suicide for the Times.

Lessenberry has every right to be a blowhard. But he should choose his targets more carefully. When it comes to journalism, he can only dream about having Kresnak's stellar record. --Bill McGraw, Detroit Free Press

Lessenberry responds

What is most interesting about the letters from the Free Pressers is their avoidance of the real issue: They made fools of themselves by celebrating this contemptible liar without one word condemning her actions.

Again, I do not accept that any one can have their surrogate declare a public meeting "off the record" as some kind of holy incantation; this sort of insider garbage is a lot of what is wrong with journalism today.

Mr. McGraw is even less able to come to grips with the fact that his buddy embarrassed himself; instead, he makes an ad hominem attack on me. While my contrary nature sorely tempts me to reveal that Geoffrey Fieger pays me weekly with 30 pieces of silver and Jack Kevorkian kills my enemies in return for my doing propaganda for him, I sadly must say it is not so.

The New Republic, a magazine in recent years mainly known for plagiarism or just plain making things up, did indeed publish an article that was mainly an attack on me last year.

The writer, a former Free Press reporter, is a man who did some early interesting work on Kevorkian, but who became a bitter anti-Kevorkian partisan after the good doctor stopped talking to him when he learned of the reporter's interesting police record and felt that in writing an article revealing the criminal past of a patient, he was guilty of the worst kind of hypocrisy. Dean Baquet, the national editor of the Times, has assured me that the paper never felt that my coverage was biased, although they were uncomfortable that I had done columns in this paper expressing opinions about Kevorkian and the suicide issue.

However, even if I murder puppies late at night, that does not justify a group calling itself a journalists' society choosing to celebrate someone who stands for anti-journalism, paying her, and allowing her to determine the rules. I have accordingly resigned from the SPJ board, which is, like the boards that run the Detroit monopoly newspapers, largely composed of non-journalists anyway. --Jack Lessenberry

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