It is time to set aside the New York Times and its coverage of the tragic Berkeley collapse. They are guilty of poor journalism, no more, no less. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny is the latest to lash out (see accompanying story) during a visit to Downing Street, but it is past overkill at this stage
The Times has admitted four times it was wrong. Public Editor Margaret Sullivan devoted an immediate column to it admitting there were “valid complaints.” Eileen Murphy, the head of public relations, stated. “It was never our intention to blame the victims and we apologize if the piece left that impression.”
That’s pretty remarkable stuff from the notoriously skinflint Times when it comes to offering apologies – but wait there’s more. National Editor Alison Mitchell admitted the story focus was wrong and lead reporter Adam Nagourney accepted blame (see below). That’s four different apologies – likely a record, one Times staffer noted.
Not that the Irish media all had clean hands either. As far as I know, none of the Irish papers who published the grim aerial shot of the body bags after the collapse apologized for the hurt they caused families who lost loved ones.
They are not the story. The real story is the shoddy building and maintenance work by contractors in Berkeley whose negligence resulted in the death of six innocent, young Irish.
The San Francisco Chronicle showed that the firm that constructed the building, Segue Construction Inc. of Pleasanton, paid $3 million in 2014 to settle a lawsuit over “water penetration” problems on dozens of balconies on a San Jose apartment complex – exactly the fault that brought about the rotten wood that gave way and plunged six Irish students to their death with seven more injured.
The Irish community must resist the urge to scapegoat the newspaper and not the perpetrators. To do so is a similar error in judgment to the one the Times article originally made in blaming the wrong people, emphasizing the wrong angle.
It seemed about half the stories in the Irish media over the past two days were focused on the New York Times coverage. I am reliably told the journalists who wrote the story are receiving spades of hate mail.
That is not the proper reaction.
Mary McAleese, a woman I greatly admire, jumped the shark when referring to “sociopathic” tendencies evident in the writing of the piece. On balance, Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson struck the right tone sticking to the facts, most notably that Ireland is very proud of its J-1 students, not embarrassed by them.
The more we read about the building’s flaws the more a death trap it seems, with shoddy work and poor maintenance everywhere. That should be the focus.
It is true that the NY Times egregiously made Irish students who party (have they heard of spring break?) the focus of their coverage. It is also true that they have pretty abjectly admitted they were wrong to do so. Adam Nagourney, the main writer, is a former highly regarded chief political correspondent and current LA Bureau chief. He has at least gamely admitted he screwed up.
This is what he said:
“Looking back, I had the balance wrong; I put too much emphasis on the negative aspects, and they were too high in my story. That did not become clear to me until I got a distraught email from a reader right after the story posted. I made a minor change in the story to try to address that, but it did not go far enough.
“Do I think that the program – as well as the problems associated with it – are fair game for a news story? Yes. But there was a more sensitive way to tell the story. I absolutely was not looking to in any way appear to be blaming the victims, or causing pain in this awful time for their families and friends. I feel very distressed at having added to their anguish.”
That is a pretty clear mea culpa. The Times should and could do more by withdrawing or rewriting the original piece. That is a fair criticism. They should also pursue the real story of how the deaths happened so needlessly. There is a lot there to uncover.
But the screeds about the Times being historically anti-Irish also do not hold water. During the Northern Troubles, fearless Jo Thomas wrote the first accounts of “Shoot to Kill” that led to the Stalker report and the truth about collusion. In the peace process years they were the only newspaper in America that called for a visa for Gerry Adams and for Clinton to push ahead with the peace process despite massive objections from the British. They have also been outstanding on legalizing the undocumented. They have been very supportive of Ireland during its bail out negotiations.
The paper’s key columns are peppered with Irish names and not just in name only: Maureen Dowd, Jim Dwyer (who won a Pulitzer when with Newsday partially on his IRA ceasefire coverage), Dan Barry, Gail Collins, editorial writer Lawrence Downes, to name some.
The paper of record screwed up on this occasion but let’s not make it the story. That belongs elsewhere, with greedy construction companies cutting corners, management teams that take no responsibility and owners a continent away who simply don’t care as long as the checks keep coming in.
They are the true culprits here.