The outrage over the New York Times’ initial coverage of the devastating balcony collapse in Berkeley has continued, with Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny publicly expressing his surprise and disappointment.
“This is a tragic incident and I was very surprised and disappointed to see the tone of the article written by the New York Times, surprised at them,” he said yesterday.
The paper of record’s initial coverage of the collapse – which claimed the lives of six young Irish people and injured seven others – placed what many have described as unfounded and unfeeling emphasis on the drinking habits of the Irish in the US on the J-1 visa program.
“Deaths of Irish Students in Berkeley Balcony Collapse Cast Pall on Program,” it was titled, with the visa exchange program described as “a source of embarrassment to Ireland” in the second paragraph.
Kenny was not the first Irish leader to speak out against the New York Times’ treatment of the story. Minister of State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin was an early detractor, as was Ireland’s Ambassador to the US Anne Anderson, who in an open letter to the editor of the Times, made an effort to explain the affront and set the record straight, calling the article “both insensitive and inaccurate.”
“No one yet knows what caused the collapse of the fourth-floor balcony; the matter is under urgent investigation by structural engineers. The implication of your article – that the behavior of the students was in some way a factor in the collapse – has caused deep offense,” she wrote.
“It is quite simply wrong to say that the J-1 visa program is 'a source of embarrassment for Ireland.' On the contrary, we are fully supportive of this program and we know that it brings enormous mutual benefit. . . . 150,000 young Irish people have participated in the J-1 program over the past fifty years, and some 7,000 are here for Summer 2015. From all the feedback we receive, we know that the overwhelming majority of our J-1 participants behave in a way that does Ireland proud.”
Mary McAleese, Ireland’s most recent president, took a stronger stance in her open letter to the Times.
“Today in Ireland we are hanging our heads in shock and sorrow at the needless deaths of six of our brightest and best young adults and the serious injuries to others.
“Today the New York Times should be hanging its head in shame at how outrageously and without the remotest evidence it has rushed to judgment on those deaths.,” she wrote.
McAleese, who was herself a J-1 student in California during 1971, said, “Yet within hours of the most appalling tragedy in the history of the J-1 visa program, when the one salient fact to speak for itself is the ludicrous collapse of a “fourth floor balcony in a relatively new building, New York Times journalists reached for the lazy tabloid stereotype and heaped deliberate injustice on top of the most awful grief.”
In an interview with RTE Radio later that day, she described the reporting as “so insensitive that I would say it is almost dissociated from any sense of human empathy or human feeling, or a sense of human grief.”
Enda Kenny was asked to comment on the article and on McAleese’s views during a press conference at 10 Downing Street. He offered his support for her comments, the Irish Times reports, and expressed his shock that “such an eminent newspaper” would publish such an account.
“They know well the impact and value of J-1 visas and the extraordinary opportunity it gives to so many thousands of young Irish people over the years to go to the US to understand the bigger world out there and the excitement it creates,” he said.
The New York Times’ Public Editor Margaret O’Sullivan issued an examination of the hundreds of complaints against the story on Wednesday.