Setting the record straight

Jul 2, 2003 at 12:00 am

At the risk of sounding peevish, News Hits can’t let a recent column by Free Press public editor John X. Miller pass without comment. As the equivalent of an ombudsman, Miller serves as the paper’s conscience, dealing with reader complaints and pointing out problems in coverage when they arise. But in a piece published June 16, Miller instead chose to toot the Freep’s horn.

He began by noting the plagiarism scandal at the New York Times, and suggested the best way to steady journalism’s “wobbly pedestal” was through producing quality work. As an example of the results that can be achieved, he cited the recent U.S. Justice Department decision to appoint a monitor overseeing reform of the Detroit Police Department.

If Miller is truly interested in the public’s perception of journalists, however, he might start by being a bit more forthright when claiming credit for his paper.

For starters, the Freep was late to the game when it came to covering the problem of Detroit police officers gunning down city residents. The first to take a serious look at the outrage was the Michigan Citizen, whose reporter Diane Bukowski in early 2001 detailed the record of Officer Eugene Brown, who had killed three people during his first seven years on the force. Metro Times' own Ann Mullen pushed the story further with an exposé detailing how the department handled investigations of officers involved in shootings (“Under the Gun,” Metro Times, April 5-11, 2000). Hell, even the Detroit News beat the Freep to the punch. And it took the Freep more than a year to follow up on Mullen’s report about deaths in Detroit jails — another scandal the Justice Department addressed.

That’s not to say the Freep didn’t do outstanding work. It did. It’s just that Miller’s claim strikes us as a bit disingenuous, making it appear his paper is alone in deserving the credit. Miller disagrees, saying he doesn’t believe that’s the impression conveyed.

You can decide for yourself. Here’s exactly what Miller wrote on June 16:

“If not for the dogged investigative reporting by several Free Press journalists, the department’s monumental abuses might well continue, invisible to scrutiny.”

But there is a bigger point. None of the media involved in covering this issue was anywhere near as dogged as the Coalition Against Police Brutality, a group founded by the relatives of police shooting victims. They approached the City Council in 1998 about the problem, held demonstrations, contacted Amnesty International and begged reporters to disclose information that they were digging up. They are the real heroes, people like Arnetta Grable and Herman Vallery, both of whom lost sons to police bullets.

“Mr. Miller is projecting a very narrow perspective,” says Ron Scott, spokesman for the Coalition. “He’s missing the point.”

“I was writing about journalism,” says Miller, adding, “Lots of people were involved. I didn’t include everything everyone else had done, but I didn’t say we were exclusively involved.”

Oh. Pardon our inference.

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