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The NY Times: Those Who Live In Glass Houses ...

June 7, 2010

Boy, it’s not easy being a reporter fbvnment, desk, and copy editors, reporters have to contend with a professional second guesser, known as the Public Editor, who picks apart a Times story each Sunday in his column.

City-side reporter Corey Kilgannon was the latest scapegoat. The Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, suggested that, in recently profiling the late jazz great Hank Jones, Kilgannon violated an undefined ethical standard.

This same Corey Kilgannon had, some months before, profiled Your Humble Servant. Kilgannon had been thoroughly professional. Before he visited Police Plaza, he explained what the piece would and wouldn’t be. [It would, he said, focus on the column, NYPD Confidential, not on the recently published book of the same name.]

Click here to read the New York Times profile of Leonard LevittHe obtained a deliciously wicked quote from Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne — no fan — and ran it high up in the story, as he should have.

“Asked about Mr. Levitt,” Kilgannon wrote, “Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, wrote in an e-mail message: ‘His self-absorbed bitterness and inaccuracy remind me of the old biddy, an aging malicious gossip I knew growing up in the Bronx.”

Yet Kilgannon wrote what I considered a balanced piece. Reading his story, even the most obtuse reader understood that Browne — known to readers of this column as Mr. Truth — was a horse’s ass.

So what was the Public Editor’s beef with Kilgannon? It turns that, after Jones died, Kilgannon, a jazz aficionado, called up Manny Ramirez — Jones’s roommate, landlord, and longtime caregiver — and asked if he could view Jones’s one-room apartment. Jones had left the place locked before being admitted to a hospice, where he died on May 16th at the age of 91.

Ramirez told Kilgannon that he was getting ready to pack up Jones’s belongings for his family, then used a hammer and a chisel to cut a hole in the door, and unlocked it.

Kilgannon’s story described Jones as living “an oddly bifurcated existence,” performing around the world but living in “near isolation” when not on the road.

Although this sounds pretty tame — a glimpse into the last days of a jazz great — family members complained. They said Kilgannon had falsely described Jones as a recluse. They also complained that Kilgannon had invaded his privacy — without their permission.

The Public Editor appeared to agree.

He quoted Jones’s niece, who wrote that her uncle had recently been “withdrawing” from the caregiver, suggesting that Kilgannon had been gulled into thinking that Ramirez spoke for Jones.

“Did Kilgannon cross that sometimes hard-to-define line between legitimate reporting and violating privacy?’ Hoyt wrote. “Did he put too much trust in a single source [Ramirez]?”

Hoyt then asked rhetorically whether Kilgannon’s piece was “misleading and unfair.”

While his criticisms may be worthy of debate at the Columbia School of Journalism, any police reporter police can sympathize with Kilgannon.

What police reporter has not come upon a crime scene or entered a victim’s apartment, then described what he sees, with or without relatives’ permission? That’s a reporter’s job. His editor’s job is to worry about the relatives.

Just where do you draw the line between privacy and news? What about all the reporters who looked inside would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad’s Connecticut home? Are they supposed to worry about the privacy rights and sore relatives of a suspected terrorist?

Furthermore, relatives are often estranged from one another. When it comes to older people like Jones, they are often distant.

Leonard Levitt's new book, NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country's Greatest Police Force, will be out in stores July 21. Preorder it today by clicking on the book at right.

Public Editor Hoyt did mention — though in a different context — that Jones’s relatives all lived far from the city, in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Virginia. He apparently never asked when was the last time they had visited Jones or whether they were at the hospice with him when he died.

Most interestingly, Hoyt seemed to have forgotten his own reporting days and the privacy rights he ignored in winning journalism’s greatest honor: the Pulitzer Prize.

If memory serves me correctly, his award came from obtaining the confidential medical records of the 1972 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Thomas Eagleton, who some years before had been given shock therapy treatment for apparent depression.

Hoyt’s article led to Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern dropping Eagleton from the ticket.

Click here to read the Washington Post article on NYPD ConfidentialThe decision to run that article was not Hoyt’s, but his editors’, who rightly felt that Hoyt’s story was a public service about a public figure.

In Kilgannon’s case, the fault — if there was one — was not Kilgannon’s but that of his editors, who vetted the story. Hoyt’s error, in this reporter’s view, was in suggesting that a good reporter’s job is not to report — in short, for criticizing a reporter for being a reporter.

The Times has finally caught up to whistleblower cop Adrian Schoolcraft and his audio tapes of fellow officers and supervisors at the 81st precinct. Its story on Friday described the testy exchange between Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Councilman Albert Vann over Schoolcraft’s charges that his precinct bosses manipulated crime statistics — allegations that appear to be backed up by his secretly-made recordings.

Coming next week are documents that could prove more damning — records from Jamaica Hospital, where cops insisted on taking Schoolcraft after he left work early and where he was allegedly held in the psych ward against his will for six days.

The death of Sergeant Pete Sweeney is a small reminder of the large brotherhood the NYPD can be. Sweeney, a veteran department spokesman in its Office of Public Information — known as DCPI — was a kind and honest man. In keeping with yesteryear’s philosophy under Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Alice McGillion, he never lied to reporters. If he didn’t know the answer, or if he didn’t want to answer, he had a stock response: “Good question. I’ll get back to you.”

Sweeney served in an office run by some legendary spokespeople [legendary at least to the reporters who covered the department.] The prim McGillion was as sharp a number as anyone who ever walked the 13th floor. The commanding officer, Inspector Bob Burke, was charming — and a sharp piece of work himself. There was also Tom Fahey, then a lieutenant, who became the public face of the department for many years. Finally, there was the endearing, if not enduring, John Clifford, who was loyal not only to the NYPD but to telling the truth — if not the full truth, then at least to not telling a lie.

Clifford, who left DCPI for Ray Kelly’s staff during his first term as commissioner, was also loyal to his boss. “Kelly’s the best commissioner the department ever had,” Clifford said during Kelly’s first term. “He knows it better than anyone else, and he’s smarter than all of them.”

Kelly also attended Sweeney’s wake. He and this reporter shook hands — for the first time in a long time.

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