What's wrong with the media

May 9, 2001 at 12:00 am

I’m a professional newspaper journalist. You’re a gutless twit.
—Steve Gravelle, reporter, the
Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Well, there is a certain relief in being exposed at last.

This may be a little confusing, especially given my usually caustic comments on the likes of Boy George, “Blind Ed” McNamara and the rest of the usual ship of slobs. Let me explain.

My critic, who toils for a small daily paper somewhere in cowland, wasn’t reacting to this column at all, but to one I write in the Toledo, Ohio, Blade, where my job is to listen to complaints the readers have about their newspaper.

Last week a 17-year-old kid named Drushaun Humphrey dropped dead — suddenly and horrifyingly — while playing a pickup basketball game. He was, by all accounts, the best high school football player to come out of the Toledo schools in a long, long time.

But his grades were bad, his eligibility to play in question, and while his troubles evidently were milder than some other students I could name, he had gotten into trouble for fighting in school. The newspaper outraged his parents, family and friends by putting his problems into the brief story that appeared when he died. The African-American community was particularly incensed.

I thought the newspaper had been insensitive, and said so in a column that ran in the sports section.

The reaction that followed was enormous — and made me realize something about why there is such a huge disconnection between the press and the public. For years, the press has been charged with being elitist and arrogant. Well, much of it surely is.

Even worse, increasingly, the press makes little distinction between public figures, like politicians and pop stars, who deliberately seek media attention, and regular human beings, whose names may appear in a big-city paper only when they are born, get married or die. Worse still, they are forgetting the distinction between adults and minors.

When journalists are called to account for any of this, they scream “freedom of speech” or “how dare you criticize us for printing the truth?” by which is meant whatever random “facts” were objected to.

Incidentally, the Toledo Blade’s sins were minor indeed, compared to the atrocity the Detroit Free Press committed last month. This once-distinguished paper seems to have made a marketing decision that essentially says, “Why waste our time on news when we can give the mob thinly disguised soft-core porn?” And last month, the idiots on Fort Street made the stunning discovery that some high school kids go to Cancun on spring break to drink and have sex.

They sent a “team” to Mexico and spent thousands of dollars and much space (that otherwise might have been wasted on real news) proving this. This came as a terrible shock to anyone who thought the kids stayed in their hotel rooms reading Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in the original Latin.

But I am indebted to Bob Sherefkin, a reporter at Automotive News, for pointing out the real obscenity. The paper’s photographer caught two Downriver high school kids snuggling in bed together, ran a picture of them and identified them by name, high school and home town. That was the first time in a very long time Ol’ Cynical Pants here actually has been shocked. I cannot imagine anything more contemptible.

“I can only imagine what this has done to the girl. This from a newspaper that has for years promoted a ‘kids first’ effort,” Sherefkin fumed. “Would the Freep had identified the kids if they were minorities, or gay?” he asked me. We both knew the answer.

“No, these were kids from working-class towns. They’re fair game.” So is the subject matter. Sex.

Humans do have sex, nearly all of them, often in ways not sanctioned by the Puritans. Finding sexual peccadilloes is really easy.

From time to time, I have been offered evidence of hanky-panky on the part of various politicians. Never have I been tempted to run any of it, if only because life is more than that, and we also have to find some way of getting the public to focus on why the air and water are polluted, the schools don’t work and we are losing any sense of community. Writing about sex is so much easier.

Heath Meriwether, the Free Press publisher, made his career, in fact, by leading a team that caught Gary Hart, the only man who ever made Bill Clinton look discreet, spending the night with Donna Rice. Of course, being Heath’s team, they forgot to watch one of the doors, so conceivably she really did go home, but, hey. Close is good enough when you are throwing hand grenades and sexual allegations.

Real investigative reporting, the kind that catches serious abuse and things seriously wrong with parts of society, is hard work, costs money, pisses off corporate execs and sometimes results in libel suits. Besides, even Pulitzer Prize winners aren’t read as widely as stories that have pictures of little blond things showing lots of flesh.

Sherefkin suggested the Free Press consider a new slogan, “Comfort the comfortable; afflict the afflicted.” the reverse of what H.L. Mencken said a journalist’s creed should be. Doing it right doesn’t mean covering up but, rather, a sense of common decency.

Would it be appropriate for the Freep to report these kids were out of control without individually destroying them? Sure. And I hope the Toledo paper takes a hard look at student-athlete issues. In that context, it would be right to discuss Drushaun’s problems.

I’m not sure if that makes me a gutless twit, but, hey. When it comes to relevant information, I always have tried very hard to be a sponge.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]