Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

The cost of unlawful convictions, cable news’ sharp focus and reporting on kidnapped journalists

By Steven Brill
August 26, 2014

Demonstrators shout slogans as they march towards the Ferguson Police Department to protest the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

1. Becoming a millionaire the hard way:

Last week, the New York Times published this article about a man receiving a $10 million settlement from New York City after Brooklyn prosecutors’ misconduct resulted in his spending 16 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

This is the latest in a series of recent payments that New York has made to settle similar claims, including those of the five men exonerated following their wrongful convictions in the infamous 1989 Central Park jogger rape case.

I’m curious about what happens to these newly minted millionaires. For starters, how much money do they actually get after their lawyers deduct fees and expenses?

What do they plan to do — and, in older cases, what have they done — with the money? Does anyone help them manage it?

It would be great to look in on three or four exonerated millionaires.

2. Is cable TV news flooding one zone at the expense of other news?

In March, when CNN chief Jeff Zucker focused the network on covering the missing Malaysian airliner at the exclusion of almost everything else, the cable news channel was attacked by media critics and derided by people like Jon Stewart.

But lately it seems that all cable news, and to some degree network news, is following Zucker’s lead.

The police shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent events in Ferguson, Missouri, were of course a big story. But is it my imagination, or did the cable news channels — following a 48-hour gorging on the Robin Williams suicide — abandon pretty much everything else from August 14 through about August 19 to cover every moment of what was happening in Ferguson? Even when there was no real news?

The everything else that went largely uncovered includes some pretty earth-shattering events: the war with Islamic State militants and the beheading by these terrorists of kidnapped American journalist James Foley; the conflict in Ukraine and the status of the Russian truck convoy being sent there, and the war in Gaza and the negotiation of a possible peace agreement.

Then by last Thursday it seemed that Ferguson was being pushed aside for the Islamic State story and the Foley execution. I don’t mean that one story got more weight than the other. Rather, that since CNN’s swarming of the missing Malaysian airliner, cable news seems to be focusing on one story a day — pretty much to the exclusion of all others.

I’m hoping media reporters are on top of this, about to produce data on just how wall-to-wall the coverage was and on the resulting ratings. There also needs to be thoughtful analysis on why it is happening and what it means. Including whether, as I suspect, it produces less balance, more hype and speculation (when some story gets its turn as today’s obsession), and a lot less comprehensive news coverage.

3. Kidnapping journalists:

Speaking of kidnapped journalists, this report in the Huffington Post says “at least 30 journalists have been kidnapped or have disappeared in Syria.”

This New York Times story quotes the Committee to Protect Journalists saying the number is “at least 14 cases” but then adds “the total number of abductions is believed to be significantly higher because many cases have not been publicly disclosed, usually at the request of the victims’ families, partly for fear of angering the kidnappers or emboldening them to demand higher ransom payments.”

What’s significant about both reports is that they were published a year ago, and I’ve found little comprehensive reporting since. Until last week’s execution of Foley.

Still image from undated video of a masked Islamic State militant holding a knife speaking next to man purported to be James Foley at an unknown locationThe news embargo is obviously because the press has been sensitive to the wishes of victims’ families. However, two or three or four dozen hostages, let alone hostages who are journalists, is a big, big story — and can and should be covered without endangering individual victims.

Reuter’s David Rohde, himself a former kidnap victim, weighed in last week about the need for a public debate over whether the U.S. and British policy of never paying ransom in these situations is the correct one. He’s right, and that debate is now starting — in part thanks to his prompting.

But we also need a lot more reporting about the basic facts surrounding all this — as I am sure there would be if 30 or 40 other categories of people, such as passengers on a hijacked airliner or customers in a shopping mall, were being held hostage somewhere.

What is the best estimate of the real numbers? If the total is as high as these vague reports, what does that say about the odds of reporters going into these combat zones and never coming out? How are news organizations dealing with these new dangers?

Are the hostage-takers predominantly or exclusively Islamic State militants? If so, what calculus are journalists and their employers now making before deciding to try to cover the terrorist group or even go into regions where they are engaged in combat?

And, yes, what compromises has the press made in its coverage, ostensibly to protect their colleague-hostages? Have they made the same compromises in other situations?

 

PHOTO (TOP): Demonstrators shout slogans as they march towards the Ferguson Police Department to protest the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, August 22, 2014. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Screen grab from video of James Foley killing. REUTERS S

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