Why celebrity scandals matter; open records victory in Kentucky; remembering the great Jimmy Breslin

March 13, 2019
Category: Newsletters

Why it matters

Happy Wednesday. Let’s see if we can get through a newsletter without mentioning Fox News, the Democratic National Committee, Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Pirro, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bubba the Love Sponge.

Instead, let’s start with … Aunt Becky from “Full House”?

That was the big story Tuesday as Lori Loughlin, the actress best known for playing Rebecca on “Full House,” and “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman were among dozens charged by the Justice Department of being part of a scheme to bribe and cheat to get kids into colleges and universities. The defendants are accused of paying off college entrance exam administrators to help cheat on tests in a variety of ways. In the case of Loughlin, she and her husband are accused of paying $500,000 so their two daughters would be designated as recruits to the University of Southern California crew team even though they were not part of the team. That designation, however, helped get the daughters into USC ahead of, one might assume, more qualified candidates.

Here’s the journalism question that arises in stories such as this: Should famous people such as Loughlin and Huffman be singled out — and presumably mocked on social media and talk shows — when there were dozens of others involved in a fraud, including CEOs, lawyers, school administrators and coaches?

The answer is absolutely. The media doesn’t do it to set up punchlines for Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert, but to put a recognizable face on a shameful crime in which real people, who don’t come from affluent families, were denied fair opportunities.

Is there a fascination with celebrity? Of course. Is this story more interesting because it involved a couple of famous actresses? Undeniably. Does the media feed the public’s appetite to see celebrities fall? Unfortunately, yes.

But leading this story with Loughlin and Huffman is not out of bounds. It serves the greater point of highlighting injustices, and pointing out injustices is one of the media’s biggest responsibilities.

A big victory

The Louisville (Kentucky) Courier Journal and all of journalism won a big court battle Tuesday when a Franklin Circuit Court judge ruled the Kentucky State Police must provide the Courier Journal with its entire database of 8 million citations and arrests since 2003. The state police agency said it would have been too time-consuming to go through all the records and redact confidential information and that it would cost too much to create a new system to do it electronically.

But Judge Thomas Wingate affirmed the attorney general’s opinion that the excuses weren’t good enough. Wingate wrote, “ … an agency should not be able to rely on any inefficiency in its own internal record keeping system to thwart an otherwise proper open records request.”

Fittingly, the decision comes during Sunshine Week, which focuses attention on access to public information, open government and journalism’s role in promoting transparency.

Trying to save jobs

The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer News Guild is trying to save jobs by pushing for reader subscriptions. According to a Facebook post, the guild has asked its publishing company to preserve one job a year for every 500 subscriptions. The guild wrote: “This plan offers a chance to preserve the jobs of Cleveland journalists and to support the union pressmen who proudly produce our paper.”

The Facebook post also asks Plain Dealer editor and president George Rodrigue to hold off on looming layoffs for three weeks while the guild conducts a subscription drive.

Remembering a great column

Author-columnist Jimmy Breslin poses for a photo in his New York apartment in 2004. Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of wise guys and underdogs who became the brash embodiment of the old-time, street smart New Yorker, died in 2017. (AP Photo/Jim Cooper, File)

I spent part of my Tuesday at Poynter talking about column writing to the Ernie Pyle Scholars from Indiana University. It gave me an excuse to pull out one of the best newspaper columns ever. It’s the one the brilliant Jimmy Breslin wrote on the day President John Kennedy was buried, called “Digging JFK grave was his honor.”

Speaking of column writing, I love this breakdown in an old interview with The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore:

“It’s not that hard to have opinions — look at the acceleration of the news cycle. What is hard is to differentiate your opinion from all else and for it to be authentic. The other bit is to entertain people and not take it all so seriously and to pace yourself. Some weeks it may be the end of the world and, at other times, I may write about moths and how in fact that can feel like the same thing. A good columns is sometimes like an antenna that has just picked up the background noise out there.”

Check it out

In a collaboration between the New York Times and ProPublica, Alec MacGillis reports on The Tragedy of Baltimore — a city torn apart by violent crime.

Journalist’s Resource published a series of interviews with the finalists for the 2019 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting awarded by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. It’s a pretty cool behind-the-scenes look at important pieces of work.

The Ringer’s addictive podcast “The Rewatchables,’’ which revisits memorable films, dives into one of journalism’s great films: “Broadcast News.” By the way, Holly Hunter’s character is loosely based on new CBS News president Susan Zirinsky.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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