Posts Tagged ‘The New York Times’

Today, I’m going to follow the lead of a popular Kansas City blogger and run a “girlie” picture.

I submit, however, that this photo is twice as alluring and titillating as any photo that my fellow blogger (sorry, not going to name him; gotta keep the focus on the photo) has ever put on his site.

Now, you fellows out there, put your eyes back in your sockets and compose yourselves.

And everyone — ladies, as well as gentlemen — get ready for a quiz.

I will tell you this about the photo: It was taken at Elaine’s, a legendary New York City bar and restaurant that has long attracted celebrities. Elaine’s has been in the news lately, since its owner, Elaine Kaufman, died Dec. 3.

The photo was reprinted Sunday in The New York Times style section, along with a story by Times reporter Tim Arango, who used to frequent Elaine’s. 

Now for the quiz.

1) This picture was taken when?

2) Who is the woman?
A–Olivia de Havilland
B–Jayne Mansfield
C–Candace Bushnell
D–Tina Brown

3) Who is the distinguished-looking man standing in the background?
A)John Updike
B)Prince Philip
C)George Plimpton
D)Gay Talese

4) Who’s the man kissing the lady’s ankle?
A)Jack Kerouac
B)Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
C)one lucky guy
D)Jack London

OK, here are the answers: ACDC. (Pure coincidence…I swear.)

If you’re at all like me, this is a picture that, when seen for the first time, makes you want to know more about it. It was taken by a New York photographer named Jessica Burstein. Burstein’s web site says that she began her career in 1974 as the first female staff photographer for the NBC network.

She now is a freelancer whose work has appeared in many publications and magazines. Among other things, she has worked as the official photographer for the Law & Order franchise, and she was the New York Yankees’ official photographer for construction of the new Yankee Stadium.

On Sunday, I sent an e-mail to Burstein, telling her how much I liked the Elaine’s photo and asking her if she would mind telling me more about how the photo came about.

Yesterday, Burstein phoned me from her home in New York, and we talked about that photo and her photography in general.

Burstein has been a regular at Elaine’s for many years and was a very close friend of Elaine Kaufman. In 1992, Kaufman asked her to document the bar in photographs, and she has been taking photos there ever since.

The night that she took the photo of Bushnell, author of “Sex and the City” and other novels, was “just another night at Elaine’s,” Burstein said.

“Candace was a few sheets to the wind,” Burstein said. “She would admit that.”

Not only that, but she was angling to have her picture taken. 

Burstein said she noticed the interplay between Bushnell and the two men — magazine writers — and that Bushnell made eye contact with her. “She knew exactly what she was doing,” Burstein said. 

In the frame immediately before the seminal one, Burstein said, both of Bushnell’s legs are raised (although not as high as the right one seconds later), but the man on the left is not kissing her ankle. Also, Bushnell’s hair is not shrouding as much of her face. 

When the scene changed slightly, Burstein was ready: “I saw it and caught it,” she said. 

To me, one of the many points of interest in the photo is the contrast between the bacchanalian scene in the foreground and the serious conversation going on in the background, with writer Gay Talese at the center of that facet of the picture.      

Another noteworthy point is that the photo was taken in black and white, which gives the photo a timeless quality. Burstein said she used black and white film exclusively until switching to digital photography in 2004. One advantage of black and white photography, she said, is that it eliminates “color distractions.”

At the time of the photo, Bushnell was about 39 and single. In 2002, she married New York City Ballet principal dancer Charles Askegard.

“She calmed down a lot,” said Burstein, who got to know Bushnell at Elaine’s. 

The photo first appeared in New York magazine as part of a retrospective, called “The Place To Be,” about Elaine’s.

Asked where the photo ranked on her list of personal favorites, Burstein said that for a long time it was “just another of my Elaine’s shots,” but that she has come to appreciate it more in recent years.

I asked her if she ever got any feedback from Bushnell.

“Yes,” Burstein said. “She said to me, ‘Jessica, you’re brilliant.’ ”

Jessica Burstein, Elaine Kaufman and Peter Khoury of The New York Times, 2008

Read Full Post »

The beauty of running a blog or a web site is getting to write or post whatever you want.

The flip side, for some bloggers and operators, is what might be called the scourge of the troll.

A troll is someone who anonymously (or pseudononymously) posts inflammatory, derogatory or downright ridiculous messages in public forums.

Fortunately, I don’t have that problem on JimmyCsays. Maybe it’s because I have relatively few readers. (I’m a teacher, and I tell people a full classroom is all the audience I need.) Maybe it’s because I have a sophisticated following. (Of course, that’s it!)

But it’s a big issue for a lot of  sites, including several local ones, and an op-ed column in Tuesday’s The New York Times explored the issue in depth.

Writer Julie Zhuo, a product design manager at Facebook, used her column to urge content providers to put their feet down and click the “delete” button on anonymous comments. She deplored trolling, essentially, as aberrant behavior under the cover of darkness. To me, she hit the nail on the head when she said, “…most trolls wouldn’t have the gall to say to another person’s face half the things they anonymously post on the Internet.”

She called on site operators to moderate their comments and forums and to do whatever they could to “improve the quality of engagement on your site.”

All of us bloggers and web site operators crave feedback and engagement, but we have varying views on how to best monitor and manage that engagement.

Being a relative newcomer (nine months) on the blogging scene, I did some research and solicited the views of others who have a lot more experience with anonymous comments than I. 

Here, then, are observations from Derek Donovan, readers representative at The Star; John Landsberg, operator of Bottom Line Communications (bottomlinecom.com); and Hearne Christopher of KC Confidential (kcconfidential.com).

Derek Donovan

Donovan hasn’t responded to my e-mails since I quoted an e-mail from him in which he tabbed me — a 36-year, former Star reporter and editor — as an “anti-Star blogger.” However, he has addressed the comments issue several times in his Ad Astrum blog.

Several months ago, he wrote that the No. 1 complaint he gets as readers rep is “about bad behavior” in the comments.

“It’s a Catch-22,” Donovan said. “People want to make their thoughts heard, but not many are willing to attach their real names to it, and there’s no way to force people to — especially in these days where so many are waking up to very real concerns about online privacy.

“So the imperfect system goes on. I know it’s frustrating, but I don’t see a better solution anywhere else. My personal hunch is that anonymous online comments may continue to exist around the Web, but fewer people will pay attention to them as time goes on. I know I never even glance at them any longer unless a reader points one out to me as problematic.”

John Landsberg

At Bottom Line, readers cannot directly post comments on the site. Instead they can send e-mail “feedback,” which John monitors and decides whether to publish.

I solicited John’s views in an e-mail, and this is how he responded.

“I will allow anonymous comments on my site because many journalists and very credible sources do not want to jeopardize their employment, but I will not simply allow trolls to come on and take cheap shots. To me, my site (and me) lose credibility when I allow some folks to simply spew personal venom.

“It is a tough call sometimes. I think anonymous comments can lead to some very honest discussions, but sometimes they can be destructive.  It is a balancing act.”

Hearne Christopher

Hearne, who, like me, is a former Star employee, has a particularly interesting situation at this time. With the help of a designer, he recently changed from a blog to a Web site.

(Disclosure: Hearne publishes a lot of my posts. My only requirement is that he include a tag line crediting JimmyCsays, where my posts almost always appear first. I receive no payment from him.)

Under Hearne’s former format, commenters could parachute in with virtually no restrictions or filters and say whatever they wanted and have their comments appear moments later.

Now, they have to register first, using their e-mail addresses (not displayed, of course) and establish a user name and password. Then, they have to write headlines for their comments, and they are limited to one paragraph. Granted, the paragraph can be as long as the writer pleases, but it does tend to reduce mush-mouthed rambling. Commenters can still uses pseudonyms, and most do.

Hearne doesn’t like the new comments format and has been prodding his designer to change it back to the old, fast-and-loose system.

In an e-mail, Hearne said: “Our comments section doubles as content for arguably some of our less sophisticated (but still important) readers.

“Filtering out comments robs those readers who find snarky retorts and opinions entertaining and/or informative. Believe it or not — and as writers we’d undoubtedly prefer not to — readers have told us on a number of occasions that they often find the comments more entertaining than the stories.

“So, rather than eliminate them as some who find them distasteful or insignificant suggest, our feeling is that the same standards apply to would-be comment killers as to the rest of the readership. If you don’t like something, don’t read it. In other words, turn the channel. It’s not like comments are required reading.”

Unlike bottomline.com and JimmyCsays, KC Confidential accepts paid advertising, and Hearne looks at the issue through a different lens. 

Since going to the new format several weeks ago, he said, “our traffic went down by nearly 20 percent. The comments themselves plummeted probably by 70 to 80 percent.”

Obviously, when the number of views goes down at his site, ads could follow suit. 

Yet, I believe — and I’ve told him this — that the designer did him a favor by making the commenters more accountable. I think the caliber of his site, as well as the caliber of the comments, is much improved and that his viewership numbers will rebound. 

He still gets some boring commenters who insist on writing three, four, five or more messages on the same post — more afterthoughts than genuine engagement in many cases — but, overall, the tone is not as reckless and ugly as it frequently was.    

My posts have been — and continue to be — the object of some vitriolic messages on Hearne’s site, but that’s not the reason I favor a more restrictive comments environment, at his site or elsewhere.

To put it simply, I’m in favor of conversation, personally and online, that is as substantive and high-road as possible.

I side with Julie Zhuo, who said: “Raising barriers to posting bad comments is…a smart first step. Well-designed commenting systems should also aim to highlight thoughtful and valuable opinions while letting trollish ones sink into oblivion.”

Read Full Post »

Taken together, a series of stories in The Star and a Sunday take-out in The New York Times offer up a volatile cocktail that makes the future of our country look loopy. 

The Star’s three-part series, “A Generation in Free Fall,” began Sunday and concluded today. It explores, in troubling detail, the diminished career opportunities that people in their early 20s are facing.

As writers Scott Canon and Diane Stafford put it, “It’s a generation stalled, exiled from an economy hung over from a crash set off by house-flippers, mortgage scammers and Wall Street shell games.”

The unemployment rate for Americans 20 to 24, Canon and Stafford report, is 15 percent — twice as high as 10 years ago.

The counterpoint to Canon’s and Stafford’s fine stories is Matt Richtel’s front-page centerpiece, in Sunday’s Times, headlined “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.”

The photo above the headline tells the story: Three California school girls are sitting shoulder to shoulder at an outdoor table during lunch, but they are not eating and they are not talking. Each is texting. 

Richtel gets to the guts of the matter in the fifth and sixth paragraphs:

“Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

“Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.”

Richtel knows this subject well. Earlier this year, he won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for a 2009 series called “Driven to Distraction,” which is about the problems inherent in driving and multitasking, including texting.

For his latest piece, Richtel interviewed a 14-year-old girl who sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month and can carry on as many as seven text conversations at a time.

Another student, a boy, said  the lure of the Internet kept him from finishing either of his two summer reading books. “My attention span is getting worse,” he admitted.

So, look at the deadly dilemma here: Fewer jobs available for the foreseeable future and millions of kids who can’t, or choose not to, focus on their school work.

Now, I realize that the distraction of the Internet, video games and cellphone usage is not causing the job shortage. But it seems to me that distracted youths are at a distinct disadvantage when they have the chance to interview for the jobs that are open. And when the job tourniquet eases, many youths might find themselves complaining not that jobs aren’t available, but that they just can’t land them. Or, if they’re able to land them, they can’t hold onto them. 

Anyone who has a college degree can testify that higher education requires great focus. And everyone who has ever had a good job knows how important focus and attention to detail are to success in the workplace.

So, what’s going to happen with this generation of young people with their 15-second attention spans? It’s not promising, is it?

It is a part of the decline, in my view, of the American culture. Other evidence of that decline is the ebbing of manners and the rise of road rage and boorish behavior.

I’m a substitute teacher in the Shawnee Mission School District. I frequently catch students texting in class — a prohibited activity, of course. I tell violators to put the phone away. The second time I catch someone, I usually send him or her to the office with a referral slip.

Is that going to change their behavior? Probably not. I understand that. But teachers and other responsible adults have a responsibility, in my opinion, to try to get students to practice self-control and to tune out the distractions. 

Frequently, I ask students how they like whatever book they’re reading in their English classes. (That’s the subject I usually teach.)

“Boring!” is often the refrain that comes back at me.

I’ve heard students say that about Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and other great works. Why do they say such books are boring? It has nothing to do with the stories, of course; it has to do with many students’ inability or unwillingness to sit still for 10 minutes and give themselves a chance to get into the stories.

It’s easier and more tempting to fire off another text, or turn to a video game, or search for something light and breezy on YouTube. 

I hate to overstate this, and I sure hope I’m wrong, but when I look down the road — at the future of our country and the prospective caliber of our citizens – I don’t like the view.

Read Full Post »

David Carr, media reporter for The New York Times, has had two intriguing pieces within the last week — a front-page news story about the implosion of the Tribune Company and a column in which he explored the “vanishing journalistic divide.”

In the column, Carr deftly used his experience in reporting and writing the Tribune story to help make his point about the ever-hastening confluence of new media and old-school journalism.

Let’s take it from the top.

Phase one.

If you think The Kansas City Star has fallen a long way, consider the plight of The Chicago Tribune and the other papers in the Tribune chain, including The Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and The Orlando Sentinel. As recently as about 10 years ago, The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times were considered to be among the country’s premier newspapers. 

Like other newspaper companies (it also owns TV stations and WGN America), Tribune fell on lean times and began unraveling financially. Publicly owned, it was sold in 2007 to a group headed by Sam Zell, described by Carr as “a billionaire deal maker,” for a price of $8.2 billion. Thing is, though, the way Zell structured the deal, he only put out $315 million of his own money.

Then he brought in some radio-industry executives to run the show. One of those executives, Randy Michaels, showed some of the old Tribune hands early on that it was a new day and a new game. As Carr tells it, Michaels ran into several other senior colleagues at a hotel next to the Tribune Tower in Chicago. Shortly after he sat down in the bar, Zell said “watch this” and proceeded to offer the waitress $100 to show him her breasts.

“The group sat dumfounded,” Carr wrote.

Michaels proceeded to conduct a management make-over, putting more than 20 former associates from the radio business in key positions. One of the management team’s first moves was to rewrite the employee handbook.

“Working at Tribune means accepting that you might hear a word that you, personally, might not use,” the new handbook said. “You might experience an attitude you don’t share. You might hear a joke that you don’t consider funny. That is because a loose, fun, nonlinear atmosphere is important to the creative process…

“This should be understood, should not be a surprise and not considered harassment.”

They might has well have put out a sign that said, “Let it all hang out!”

It didn’t take long for the boss himself, Zell, to throw at Chicago Tribune Editor Ann Marie Lipinski one of those words that she, personally, probably would not use.

In June 2008, while urging her to more aggressively pursue a story that he was interested in, Zell told Lipinski, “Don’t be a pussy.”

Lipinski, who had been the editor since 2001, resigned a month later.

Before 2008 was out, the company sought bankruptcy protection, listing $7.6 billion in assets and debts of $13 billion. And the financial woes continue. In the first half of this year, The Chicago Tribune’s weekday circulation was down nearly 10 percent, while The Los Angeles Times lost nearly 15 percent of its weekday circulation.

Zell remains chairman of the board but is no longer involved in day-to-day operations.

Phase two.

David Carr

In his column on Monday, Carr talked about the migration of print journalists to Web sites. His peg was the announcement that Howard Kurtz, long-time media reporter for The Washington Post, had resigned to become Washington bureau chief for The Daily Beast, which Carr described as “a two-year-old toddler of the new digital press.”

“More and more,” Carr wrote, “media outlets are becoming a federation of individual brands like Mr. Kurtz. Journalism is starting to look like sports, where a cast of role players serves as a platform and context for highly paid, high-impact players. And those who cross over, after years of pushing copy through the print apparatus, will experience the allure of knocking some copy into WordPress and sending it out into the world to fend for itself.”

And yet, despite its surging popularity, Carr said, digital journalism doesn’t generate a thimbleful of revenue, compared to newspaper companies. 

“The reason that newspapers put all the white paper out on the street is that we get a lot of green paper back in return,” he said. “Put out all the pixels you want, even ones that render scoops, and you will still receive pennies in return.”

Then, Carr proceeded to talk about the thrill involved in piecing together the Tribune story, working on it for months, and finally seeing it “land hard,” lighting up Twitter accounts and generating hundreds of online comments.

The ability to “land hard,” he went on, isn’t limited to The Times: “All over the country, daily regional newspapers in very diminished circumstances similarly still manage to set the civic agenda even as they struggle.”

In Kansas City, of course, The Star — beleaguered and buffeted, scorned and dismissed by many — continues to set the local civic agenda. Not Tony’s Kansas City, not KC Confidential and most certainly not JimmyCsays.

“Yes, you can make news working in your pajamas and running stuff past your cat and now one else,” Carr concluded. “But even in 2010, when a print product is viewed as a quaint artifact of a bygone age, there is something about that process, about all those many hands, about the permanence of print, that makes a story resonate in a way that can’t be measured in digital metrics. I love a hot newsbreak on the Web as much as the next guy, but on some days, for some stories, there is still no school like the old school.”

Read Full Post »

I had seen, in passing, headlines about some American soldiers alleged to have killed some Afghan civilians, but I had flitted by the stories, thinking — hoping, perhaps — that maybe it wasn’t a big deal and would pass on by.

But then came Tuesday’s front-page story in The New York Times, and I found myself quickly enmeshed.

If you haven’t heard about this story, you need to start following it. It turns conventional battlefield accounts about loss of life upside down and points to the sickness, the infestation that can afflict the ranks of the perceived “good guys.” That would be us.

It’s the story of a high-school dropout from Billings, Mont., who somehow rose to the rank of staff sergeant in the Army and now stands charged with murdering, or orchestrating the murders of, three Afghan civilians.

It doesn’t stop there, however. Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, 26, is alleged to have collected fingers from the bodies of his victims and rolled them out like dice to intimidate a fellow soldier who had reported widespread use of hashish in Gibbs’ unit. Gibbs also is alleged to have kept track, via skull tattoos on his lower left leg, of the number of “kills” he had made in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For the record, the count is six — three in Iraq to augment the three in Afghanistan.

Four other Army enlisted men — two privates first class and two specialists –also are charged with murder. Gibbs is said to have openly discussed how he might kill one of the other soldiers, Specialist Adam C. Winfield, who, Gibbs feared, might report the killings. In one scenario, Gibbs would take Winfield to the gym and drop a weight on his neck. In another scenario, he would take Winfield to the motor pool and drop a heavy piece of equipment on him.

Gibbs earned just one of 20 credits needed to graduate from high school, but it sure appears that he had a vivid imagination when it came to killing.

With The Times’ story, there’s a mug shot of Gibbs, smiling and wearing a plaid shirt, standing in front of a doorway. You look at that picture and see what appears to be a normal kid, whom you probably wouldn’t think twice about if you passed him on the street.

But above his photo is an excerpt of a statement from the soldier who had reported the use of hashish in the unit. The soldier is quoted as saying:

“I was just sitting there on my cot…and that is when CPL (Jeremy) Morlock (another defendant in the case) and SSG Gibbs came back into the room, they calmly sat down and ask (stet) me how my day was going. SSG Gibbs then proceeded to roll out a set of fingers onto the floor. CPL Morlock looked at me and said if I don’t want to end up like that guy then he suggest I shut the hell up and it wouldn’t be an issue for him because he already had enough practice. SSG Gibbs was just sitting there agreeing with CPP Morlock, he was being subtle and quite (stet) but didn’t get worked up. When they were done, SSG Gibbs picked up the fingers, rolled them up and stuck them back in his pocket. Then they left the room.”

Stuck them back in his pocket. The smiling guy in the photo!

As you might expect, the story drew a guttural reaction from readers. (An accompanying story detailed how two of the civilians died.) As of 2:09 p.m. Tuesday, 247 comments had been affixed to the story. At that point, comments were shut off. 

Here are excerpts of a few of the comments:

— From P. Clayton, of New Jersey: “No one wants to admit the ability to see one of our…men behaving in such an abominable way, but it has happened before in other wars that America engaged in so why not now in Afghanistan? Within this article, which probably only scratches the surface when it comes to analyzing Gibbs’ personality, there are many details that fit the profile of a soldier gone awry, including threatening his fellow soldiers and keeping records of his ‘kills’ via tattoos; how gruesome is that?”

— From JD, of Austin: “While Staff Sergeant Gibbs’s alleged actions disgust me and, if true, are a stain on this nation’s honor (one of many…), I challenge you to consider the nature of war before condemning and demonizing him so quickly. War is a nasty reality, and unless you’ve been there, you really don’t know what it’s like or what you would do. I consider myself a pretty humane and decent guy. I served two tours in Iraq, and I did things there that to this day I’m not proud of. War hardens the heart and clouds the mind. Until you’ve been in contact with the enemy, don’t be so quick to write off the soldier as a monster and a murderer.”

— From Ralph, of San Francisco: “Young men with weapons in war time do despicable things. I saw it in Vietnam. Generally, they get away with it. Investigation from the Inspector General’s office are exercises in futility. It just happens. If you vote for war, you get war. If you go to war, you learn that the morality changes.”

— From Andrew, of Minneapolis: “Completed only 1 of 20 credits in high school? Apparently the Army has been scraping the bottom of the barrel. It’s consistent with reports of greatly lowered recruiting standards following the advent of Bush’s wars.”

— From MikeLT, of Boston: “This is what we get for sending video game-loving kids to war. If the allegations are true, he’s elevated the killing in the games to real killing.”

My comment? I’m glad I never had to go to war, and I’m happy to say that the only things I’ve ever wanted in my pockets were cash, credit cards and my driver’s license.

Read Full Post »

Like many people, I am haunted and heartbroken by the death of Tyler Clementi.

It is so hard to accept the fact that this 18-year-old boy — just a month into his freshman year at Rutgers University, with so much talent and maturity — is gone from the earth.  

It is hard to accept that he was so shattered and psychologically undone by his roommate’s callous act of live streaming Tyler’s sexual encounter with another boy that he thought the only way out was to take his own life.

Apparently his last Facebook message, on Sept. 22, the night he died, was “jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

And with that he walked onto the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, and jumped.

His fatal act was prompted, as we all know now, by a decision by his roommate and, allegedly, a friend of his roommate to remotely activate a Web cam in the two boys’ dormitory room and invite others to watch the sexual encounter on the Internet.

This was at least the second case of  “bullying” leading to a student’s suicide this year. In January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, a high school student in Massachusetts, hanged herself after being taunted for four months after she had had a brief romantic relationship with a popular, older boy. Phoebe, whose family had recently moved to the United States from a small town in Ireland, had books knocked out of her hands, was called an “Irish slut,” and received threatening text messages. Several students are charged in connection with that case.


One of the things that hit me hardest about the Clementi case was the dignified and reflective way that Tyler was trying to deal with the situation after learning that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, was spying on him and baring the most private compartments of his life.

Ravi and his friend, Molly Wei, both 18, are now charged with invasion of privacy, a low-level felony that is likely to get them little or no jail time, even if they are convicted.

Ravi pulled the Web-cam stunt on Tuesday, Sept. 19 , and tried again, unsuccessfully, on Thursday, Sept. 21. After Clementi realized what Ravi was up to, he posted on a gay chat site a message that reflected his maturity and purity of heart:

“Revenge never ends well for me, as much as I would love to pour pink paint all over his stuff…that would just let him win.”

At the same time, he made it clear that he wasn’t going to sit still for the indignity being perpetrated on him. “I ran to the nearest R.A. (resident assistant) and set this thing in motion,” he wrote. “We’ll see what happens.”

That was at 4:38 a.m. the day he took his life. But his mind was such a whirl and the inner demons were tormenting him so — undoubtedly the worries about how he would be viewed, the prospect of being a laughingstock — that he couldn’t wait to “see what happens.”

Reading how it unfolded, I only wish — and I’m sure you do, too — that I could have intercepted him before he headed out for the bridge. I would have sat him down, put my arm around his shoulders and tried to convince him that it was not the end of the world; that his sexual orientation did not define him as a person; that he was a thoughtful and good-hearted person; that even though he was understandably humiliated, it wasn’t his fault; that it would pass and that he would be able to continue on, unadulterated, as a student, musician, son and fellow classmate.

And, oh, my, think about his parents, Jane and Joe Clementi — how achingly they must wish that they would have known what was going on, and how quickly they would have been at his side to help him through the crisis. 

In a statement issued Friday, the family exhibited the same thoughtful reaction that Tyler had displayed in his last days. “Regardless of legal outcomes,” the statement said, “our hope is that our family’s personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity.”

Compassion, empathy and human dignity. Those qualities are hard to come by, aren’t they? Haven’t we all failed, many times, to show compassion, to be empathetic and to treat people with the dignity they deserve? I know that I have failed in those departments many times. Fortunately, most of us have not failed to the point that it has pushed someone else to the point of suicide.

An Associated Press story in The Kansas City Star on Friday addressed the troubling issue of the “decreased empathy” and “behavior contagion” that technology has spawned. 

“All around you,” the story said, “your friends and acquaintances post information once thought ‘private’: names of boy- or girlfriends, social plans, secrets.”

I’m sure glad I didn’t grow up in the Internet age; I was able to hold my secrets, nurse my insecurities, plow through my adolescent depression without those secrets and insecurities being placed on public display without my knowledge or against my will. 

But Tyler — shy boy, budding violinist — wasn’t so lucky. Couldn’t have been unluckier, in fact. Had a crummy roommate, as Holden Caulfield might have put it, who thrust him into a vortex of negative emotions that swallowed him up.

Where to go from here? What can we learn?

Two letters to the editor in Friday’s New York Times contained helpful and hopeful ideas.

“Our society must enforce appropriate legal consequences to deter the use of technology to so humiliate an individual into feeling that life is untenable,” wrote Lorraine DeRienzo-Buchbinder of Suwanee, Ga. “We cannot afford to lose another young, promising life so senselessly.”

“I hope,” wrote Gracy Yan of West Haven, Conn., “that parents and teachers will encourage young people to create healthy identities and be ‘whole’ without the obsessive need to be connected and share everything over the Internet.”

Amen, I say. And long live the memory of Tyler Clementi, a boy who, through no fault of his own, was deprived of the right to advance to adulthood.

Read Full Post »

Ten days ago, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger began turning out stories in his new job as Midwest correspondent for The New York Times.

Sulzberger, a fifth-generation member of the Ochs-Sulzberger dynasty that has controlled and managed The Times since 1896, was named a Midwest correspondent, based in Kansas City, in June. He moved to Kansas City within the past few weeks and alives near downtown. His grandmother, Annie Gregg, lives in Topeka.   

Sulzberger, who uses the byline A.G. Sulzberger, has had three midwestern stories since Sept. 10. The first was a provocative piece about a video war game that allows the user to become aTaliban fighter and attack American troops. The Army, Navy and Air Force have prohibited the game from being sold on their bases. The Marines had not decided whether to make it available on their bases.

The second story, which was published last Thursday, was about a Mulvane, Kan., man who built a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge over a creek on his property.

The third one, published Friday, was very special. It was a front-page feature on a 103-year-old federal judge in Wichita. Yes, Judge Wesley E. Brown is still hearing cases at a century plus three.

Sulzberger opened the story like this:

“Judge Wesley E. Brown’s mere presence in his courtroom is seen as something of a daily miracle. His diminished frame is nearly lost behind the bench. A tube under his nose feeds him oxygen during hearings. And he warns lawyers preparing for lengthy court battles that he may not live to see the cases to completion, adding the old saying, ‘At this age, I’m not even buying green bananas.’ ”

It might be an old saying, but it sure made me laugh.

As lively and polished as Sulzberger’s writing was, it was a photo that The Times used that elevated the story to a remarkably high level. The photo showed a smiling Judge Brown virtually swallowed by his big office chair and appearing to be sliding down under his big, wide desk. It’s a hilarious picture, and to use another old saying, it’s a picture that’s worth a thousand words.

Wisely, The Kansas City Star picked up the story and also ran it on the front page. Unwisely, The Star chose not to run the tell-tale photo, opting instead for a mug shot.

Before moving to Kansas City, the 29-year-old Sulzberger was covering U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. He joined The Times’ staff early last year, after reporting stints at The Oregonian and The Providence (Rhode Island) Journal.

He is the son of Times’ chairman and publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. He got his middle name from his mother, Gail Gregg. Young Sulzberger has a sister, Annie Sulzberger, who is not in the newspaper business.

I had the pleasure of meeting Arthur earlier this summer, and he struck me as genuine, unassuming and enthusiastic about his Kansas City-based assignment.

This is the first time that The Times has had a Kansas City-based correspondent in nearly 20 years. In my opinion, this is a great move by The Times, which, like the Wall Street Journal, is spreading its reach as a “national” newspaper. Unfortunately, while The Times and the Wall Street Journal are extending their tentacles, the nation’s second-tier papers, like The Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune, are pulling in their horns because of financial problems, and they’re losing their foothold with many readers.

For more than a year now I’ve subscribed to The Times, along with The Star. I understand that the vast majority of people either can’t afford two newspapers or they’re just not interested enough to take both (or maybe either). I would urge all of you, however, to at least try to follow Arthur Sulzberger’s writing out of Kansas City on The Times’ web site, www.nyt.com. If you just check the site every once in a while, you can put “A.G. Sulzberger” in the search box, and his stories will pop up. 

We’re lucky to have him among us. For one thing, it could elevate our profile in the eyes of the nation. So, welcome, Arthur, we hope you enjoy your time in our great city!

Read Full Post »

For me, the most uncomfortable part of The Star’s afternoon news meetings — held every day at 4 p.m. to assess how the next day’s paper was coming together — occurred at the end of the meeting.

It was part of the wind-down, after the various editors had spoken on behalf of their stories and after everyone had weighed in with their opinions regarding which stories should go on the front page.

That’s when the managing editor, or whoever was presiding at the meeting, would say these words: “Any corrections?”

Whenever I  had to acknowledge that I, or someone on the desk I was representing, had a correction for the next day’s paper, I always wanted to curl up in a ball and not be seen. That being impossible, however, I would try to keep my voice steady and state quickly and concisely what the error was and how it occurred. Then I’d try to beat the crowd out of the room. 

In the newspaper business, the journalist who errs — and, by extension, his or her editors — bathes in the waters of ignominy. It is the grade-school equivalent (although no longer imposed on children) of sitting at the front of the room wearing the dunce cap.

With long schooling in the matter of errors, then, I read with great interest readers’ representative Derek Donovan’s column on the editorial page on Sunday, June 27.

It was a very informative column, for readers and reporters alike, because it summed up The Star’s approach to corrections at this point in its history. Donovan made at least two basic points:

1) Readers who are paying attention to such things want to see the corrections run in the same spot every day;

2) When it comes to corrections caused by bad information from a source, the paper should consider changing its style and say that the problem was source related. 

I don’t have a strong opinion about his second point — telling the readers when misinformation from sources was the root of a problem — but I do think that if The Star decided to do that, reporters would be working very hard to convince editors that “sources” were the cause of many problems.

Reporters will do just about anything to stay out of the corrections column. I know because more than once I didn’t self-report errors that no one but me knew about in my stories. 

On the other major issue that Donovan addressed — the placement of corrections — I have very strong opinions.

Donovan was careful — I don’t know why — not to say whether he thought the corrections should always be in the same place. As I see it, when the corrections do not run on the same page every day, when the editors make the readers go looking for them, it tends to devalue the corrections. 

The Star used to run the corrections on A-2 every day. Some time ago — months or maybe a year or more — the corrections began moving around. Donovan explained the variance by saying that the Page 2 design “doesn’t always allow room for the complete list.”

Well, let me tell you, if The Star really wanted to run the corrections on A-2, the page designers could make it happen. They don’t need rulers anymore; the computer does all the math, so don’t give me any page-design excuses.

Taking my basic point a step further, when the paper devalues the corrections, I believe it sends a subtle signal to the journalists that acknowledging errors isn’t as important as it was when they were in the same conspicuous place every day. It reduces the pressure on the journalists to police themselves. 

On Tuesday, I sent an e-mail to Donovan, laying out my theory and asking him if he had any comment. He wrote back: “Nope, I don’t have any comment. I learned the hard way that interacting with anti-Star bloggers is a losing game for me.”

Hmmm. Anti-Star? Me? I don’t think so. Do you sense some defensiveness there? If that’s the prevailing view at The Star — the enemy is right outside the door! — it could go hand in hand with devaluing the corrections. The line of thought (unspoken, of course) could be: “Well, circulation is down, and we’re not getting read by as many people as we used to, so why should we do all these mea culpas on Page 2 every day?”

If that’s the thinking, it’s misguided. I believe it’s important for a paper to own up to its mistakes and to do so very publicly and conspicuously. Put them on the same small platform (Page 2) every day. That’s responsible journalism.

That’s what The New York Times does — puts them on Page 2. Sometimes The Times’ list of corrections takes up 15 or more column inches. But taking responsibility is good for the soul of a paper. Its’ humbling but, at the same time, ennobling.

The Star could stand to follow suit.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts