Sunday, January 3, 2016

Why I am unfriending Steve Collins on Facebook

image from

Je suis Edward Clarkin.
On April 15. 1912, the ocean liner Titanic, on its maiden voyage, struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic Ocean and sank, taking "1,517 women, men and children to the bottom of the ocean with her, including some of the most famous names of her time," according to
Now that was an epic, the kind of epic that would place Leonardo DiCaprio on top of the world one moment and at the bottom of the sea the next.
On Sept. 28, 1980, the Washington Post published an article titled "Jimmy's World" by reporter Janet Cooke about an 8-year-old heroin addict. "She described the 'needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin, brown arms,'" according to Wikipedia. "The story engendered much sympathy among readers," leading to a search for the boy. They couldn't even find him on Facebook. Oh, wait, Mark Zuckerberg wasn't even born yet. Nevertheless, none other than the legendary Bob Woodward, also according to Wikipedia, nominated Cooke for the Pulitzer prize for feature writing, which she won. "Two days after the prize was awarded," Wikipedia notes, "Post publisher Donald E. Graham held a press conference and admitted that the story was fraudulent. The editorial in the next day's paper offered a public apology. ... Cooke resigned and returned the prize."
That was an epic breach of journalistic ethics.
On May 11, 2003, the New York Times published an article titled "Correcting the Record; Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception."
"A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found," the article begins. "The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.
"The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.
"And he used these techniques to write falsely about emotionally charged moments in recent history, from the deadly sniper attacks in suburban Washington to the anguish of families grieving for loved ones killed in Iraq."
Step aside, Janet Cooke. This was an epic breach of journalistic ethics on steroids.
Which brings me to what my former colleague Steve Collins calls "journalistic misconduct of epic proportions."
"I have watched in recent days as [the publisher of the Bristol Press] has emerged as a spokesman for a billionaire with a penchant for politics who secretly purchased a Las Vegas newspaper and is already moving to gut it," Collins wrote in his Dec. 24 letter of resignation. "I have learned with horror [pardon me, but do I hear the tap tap tapping of a raven as Edgar Allen Poe turns in his grave?] that my boss shoveled a story into my newspaper – a terrible, plagiarized piece of garbage about the court system – and then stuck his own fake byline on it. He handed it to a page designer who doesn’t know anything about journalism late one night and told him to shovel it into the pages of the paper. I admit I never saw the piece until recently."
I am the copy editor to whom the publisher handed the story "late one night" -- it was actually sometime around 8:30 p.m., as the deadline for the New Britain Herald -- where the story originally appeared, being reprinted with some additions in the Bristol Press the next day -- was 9:15 p.m.
I carefully placed the story on a blank page. I corrected a couple of grammatical errors and eliminated some redundant lines after checking with the publisher. The piece was about business courts -- the Herald is very attuned to the workings of the business community in New Britain, and the publisher is active in the local Chambers of Commerce as well as the Rotary Club -- and he made a case for the need for business courts in Connecticut. The section criticizing Nevada judge Elizabeth Gonzalez seemed like something personal for a person other than the publisher, but it didn't seem libelous so I didn't raise the issue. The article would have been more appropriate in the opinion section, but I didn't suggest that.
Since then it seems like every media watchdog has been barking about the relationship between a Las Vegas billionaire and the publisher. The staff of the Las Vegas Review Journal is supposedly upset with the sale of the paper to the billionaire's family. But has he already "started to gut" the paper, as Collins claims? So far only the managing editor has left, with a buyout.
If I have not yet put this in perspective, let's say, for argument's sake, the publisher unintentionally crossed a line in an article that appeared in a pair of newspapers with a total circulation of a few thousand, on a page which was so poorly designed -- a virtual sea of grey with only a couple of subheads -- that only a handful of people were likely to read it -- is hardly a breach of ethics along the lines of a Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair. Yet Steve Collins would have you believe that the future of journalism is at stake, and the media watchdogs are lapping it up.
Three factors went into my decision to unfriend Collins.
The first was a couple of days after Collins posted his letter of resignation and started a gofundme campaign. Jeremy Stone, the son of I.F. Stone, created an award and gave the initial one, worth $5,000, to Collins. Stone called it a "whistleblower award."
There wasn't one iota of whistle-blowing involved in Collins' act. He wasn't fired. He was neither demoted nor disciplined. If Collins were indeed all about journalistic integrity as he claims to be, he should have said thank you, Jeremy, but I can't accept this.
The second was on Dec. 29 when he posted a link to a column in the Day of New London that suggested the publisher's purchase of the Block Island Times was a front for the Las Vegas billionaire so  he can bring a casino to Block Island. And in a Dec. 30 post Collins mocked the publisher's sincere column in his first issue as publisher of the weekly.
"We're an independent company, and the buck stops at my door. There's no connection to anyone or any thing," the publisher wrote. "Our only commitment is to the communities we serve."
In the five years I've worked at the Herald, the publisher's door has always been open, and while he won't always be on Block Island, I've no doubt he'll be accessible to the workers there, and that he meant what he said.
The  third was a Facebook post by Collins, who has taken to comparing himself to George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life" and other icons of American idealism:
"There's battle lines being drawn," the headline reads.
"This is a watershed moment for American journalism," his post begins.
Las Vegas. He's talking about Las Vegas.
"The strange, secret purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by a billionaire who has never hesitated to use his riches to advance his political agenda has stirred us to long-delayed, much-needed action," he continues. "That brave little band of journalists in Nevada, who know their future is dim, are fighting back while they can..."
Excuse me if a vision of Peter Finch shouting "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" didn't just flash through my mind.
In the sports department of the Daily News, where I spent five years in the 1980s, there was a copy editor named Eddie Coyle. Eddie was a recovering alcoholic who traded his addiction to booze for an addiction to running. The older copy editors at the News liked to tell a story about the "old days." The News Building had a large globe in the center of its Art Deco lobby. One night when he came to work inebriated, the story went, Eddie climbed on top of the globe and shouted "I'm on top of the world!"
Today Steve Collins is feeling like he's on top of the journalism world. Tomorrow he will have one less friend on Facebook.