Looking for Media Sin in the Wrong Places

October 2005By James O. Clifford Sr.

James O. Clifford Sr., who retired in 2000 after 40 years as a reporter and editor for the United Press International (UPI) and the Associated Press (AP), writes from Redwood City, California. He was the recipient of the 1973 San Francisco Press Club award and the UPI Broadcast Excellence award in 1980. He is the father of seven and grandfather of ten.

Besieged by news stories about predatory priests, Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law urged God to strike the media, "particularly the Globe."

Someone has to point out that the emperor has no clothes, and by the emperor I don't mean Law. I mean the mass media and its dropping the ball on national coverage of another sex scandal: sex cases and cover-ups involving public school teachers. There's a scandal within a scandal here because the media appear to have engaged in their own cover-up.

I say this after 40 years in the news business. I retired as soon as it was financially feasible, coming away in 2000 with the conviction that if truth-in-labeling laws applied to newspapers, they would bear such names as Double Standard, Daily Conduit, or The Shill. Perhaps, with all the mergers, we could see a Daily Conduit, Double Standard and Shill.

This conviction started forming in 1985 when I switched from the moribund United Press International (UPI) to the Associated Press (AP), which just about had the news-distribution field to itself. I barely had the seat warm at AP's San Francisco bureau when an incident occurred that showed me what to expect in the handling of the Church sex scandals. That year the San Jose Mercury News printed an extensive story about suits filed against the Church from coast to coast.

The Merc story didn't bother me. The Church authorities, I felt, deserved what they were getting. Can't blame the messenger, I told myself. The shock came not long after, when an educational organization held its convention in San Francisco. One of the topics on the group's agenda was sex cases involving public school teachers and the possible legal ramifications. I thought this would be a good story in light of the Mercury's work, particularly because it was the group, not a newspaper, that was making the matter public. The AP didn't cover it, my boss telling me, "Let's see what the locals [meaning the local papers] do with it." Well, the locals didn't touch it, the AP didn't use it, and the rest of the nation didn't learn about it.

Why am I finally writing this? A speech by AP President Tom Curley was featured in my hometown paper, the Daily News, which has been fighting to make the salaries of civil servants public. Curley described the growing threat of government secrecy and called for a legislative lobbying effort to right this wrong. I shot off a letter to the Daily News, suggesting that Curley would be better off trying to convince readers that the media have their interests at heart. "There are just too many examples of at least perceived bias for the public to regard the media as fair, balanced and objective," I wrote. To my surprise, the paper printed my letter.

My friends who read the letter wanted some examples. I ticked off a list that ranged from the terminology of the abortion debate to the media's making "My Lai" and "massacre" synonymous while ignoring even greater Communist bloodlettings in Vietnam.

Nothing, however, summed up the situation better than the Church scandal, or should I say the lack of a school scandal.

Teachers, who have charge of children, seem to have escaped unscathed in the media. The profession had this apparent immunity despite the fact that we all have to pay taxes for public schools. (No one is forced to support a Church.)

When the priest scandal took off like a rocket, I expected the teacher troubles to follow the same path. After all, school dealings are usually a matter of public record and open to press scrutiny. What I saw was a double standard growing and growing, to the point that I started saving stories involving teachers, usually accounts relegated to briefs, given one-day runs, or kept off the AP main wire by being isolated in their dateline states.

Oh, yes, there would be the occasional well-covered titillation story about a woman teacher having an "affair" with a student. In the main, however, the stories were treated as unnoteworthy, even though the respected professional publication Education Week covered the problem.

In March 2002 the Washington Post ran a story of at least 1,000 words on the Church scandal. One of the best I've seen and very fair, the story pointed out how hard it is to come up with valid statistics in the matter. The story was reprinted in the San Francisco Chronicle, and carried the headline that read in part: "Catholic Clergy Not Alone in Having Problems."

"They are finally getting around to teachers," I said to myself before I read the story. No such luck. It mentioned scandals involving clergy of other faiths and even alluded to coaches and Scout leaders. Not a peep about teachers.

I am not bashing all the press. Just the national outlets. I saw some good work by local media that delved into the teacher stories so well that some state legislators became involved. Mainly, the local stories remained just that -- local news. I witnessed this while at the AP and kept my mouth shut. At my age and a retread, I was lucky to have a job. Now I am free to speak. If you want, do your own search on the Net. As far back as December 1998, Education Week was reporting on "Passing the Trash," recounting how school districts freed sexual predators "to hunt again." Education World followed a year later.

I finally got a chance to blow the whistle in May 2002 when Catholic San Francisco ran my commentary. I don't want to sound like the cock that crowed and thought it made the sun come up, but the AP finally did a national roundup on teacher sex cases shortly after my column appeared in Catholic San Francisco. It reported that an AP national survey found that dozens of cases of sex between teachers and students were reported during 2002 alone. It also cited the 1998 Education Week report that found 244 cases in a six-month period involving "allegations ranging from unwanted touching to sexual relationship and serial rape."

The New York Times got into the act with a piece in June 2002 about "silently shifting teachers in sex abuse cases." Better late than never, I guess. The San Francisco Chronicle ran the AP story -- on its last page.

Even though it used the AP story, the Chronicle still had a problem dealing with the subject. While radio and television was blaring a story about the arrest of a Bay Area teacher on charges of molesting students since 1997, the newspaper was silent. This, even though the suspect had been named elementary school teacher of the year in his district. On August 16, 2002, the newspaper reported that the Archdiocese of San Francisco had placed 74-year-old Msgr. John Heaney on leave while it investigated accusations of molestation that dated back 40 years. The piece was a long one and included a picture of Heaney, the San Francisco Police Department's senior Chaplain.

The disparity was too much for me. I got off a message to the reporter who covered the Heaney story, asking why the teacher had been ignored. A story about the award-winning teacher's arrest appeared the next day.

The newspaper's staff, of course, may have been too busy to note the discrepancy. By this time, the Chronicle was also reporting that one of its veteran writers faced sex charges involving a minor.

As far as balancing the scales of news justice, all this was too little and far too late. I feel flattered, however, that I may have goosed the wire service and The New York Times into finally acknowledging an oversight.

Why the huge difference? Some might look for anti-Catholicism, insisting that it goes with the territory. Would that the problem were that simple. Anti-Catholicism would certainly be the case among the usual suspects, but there are some unusual suspects as well. I went from typewriter to computer in my career, and I think the Net, computers, and the entire hi-tech culture should be included. It's far too easy today to determine how other publications have handled a story and then follow the beaten path. There is a news food chain, and a lot of recycling goes on.

Hi-tech culture? That's not going far enough. The entire "culture" of journalism has changed dramatically. When I was a cub, there were bars filled with smoke and reporters who spent the night arguing if a story was covered fairly. I even saw a few fistfights that stemmed from the "slanted" wording of a story. In contrast, many of today's reporters aim to influence rather than inform.

When I started at UPI, the logo for that wire service showed a reporter holding a notepad and a poised pencil. From the stance, you knew this guy was going to ask a tough question, which now seems to be a vanishing art. I am anxiously waiting for a reporter to ask the backers of the "marriage equality" movement if polygamy would be included in their agenda. Or ask a "pro-choice" politician if he is for "choice" on education or guns. Fat chance.

Then there's the constant search for the answer to this journalism conundrum: "Is a story on the front page because it is news, or is it news because it is on the front page?"

What do Watergate, My Lai, Gary Hart, and the Church scandal have in common? All were "exposed" by a mass media that then promoted them ad nauseam.

Mike Hoyt wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) in which he postulated that the Church sex stories were viewed as isolated incidents for years until the Boston Globe started an "unprecedented chain reaction." Hoyt said reporters and editors should have paid more attention to the National Catholic Reporter, which his father founded. The paper, he wrote, was reporting on predator priests as early as 1983.

A year before the Hoyt article, Carl Cannon, who won honors for the 1985 San Jose Merc story mentioned in my opening paragraphs, wondered in the American Journalism Review why the 1980s stories didn't get the attention received by the later ones. "What transforms a scandal into a major national news story, and are there lessons to be learned for investigative reporters and journalism as a whole?" he wondered.

You bet there are lessons, including not having to wait for a story to make the AP for it to seem important.

In the CJR piece, Hoyt concluded that there was a failure to "connect the dots" with individual priest scandals "usually viewed as isolated incidents."

Sounds just like what happened with teachers. Not enough education writers were reading Education Week. I hope I have connected dots so well that some reporter will run with this and win a Pulitzer. Why not? The Globe did when the dots were priests.

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"Prelates" such as Law will eventually answer for their cowardice and hypocrisy. Unfortunately, they are being allowed by Rome to continue damaging the faithful. Posted by: gespin3549
July 15, 2008 06:01 AM EDT
July 15, 2008 12:17 PM EDT
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