Friday, June 26, 2009

Farewell Michael (and maybe Mark, too)

We've had a BIG couple of news days this week, to say the least.

First we learn about a scandal involving Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

Seems Sanford had a "tryst" (word the media uses) with a lovely woman in Argentina.

Ok, that stays on the news front burner for all of two days.

Then, off the burner it goes (sort of), because Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, died yesterday. News of his mysterious death (still under investigation) is consuming the media.

And it SHOULD consume journalists. Michael was WEIRD beyond belief, but wow, the man could sing and dance and entertain.

Was he black? White? Man? Woman?

Who really cares, now that I think about it.

Michael Jackson, cultural icon, may have been sent to us from another planet. One like him comes along but once in a lifetime.

(I'm humming his song "Billie Jean" as I write this.)Click on the Billie Jean hotlink to enjoy his music video.

Farewell, Michael. We loved you even though we never understood who or what you were.

But back to beleagered Gov. Sanford, now moving off the front pages because of the death of the King of Pop.

Who was deliriously happy when news broke that Michael Jackson died?

It had to be Sanford.

Think about it. He's now on pg. 2, and MJ is dominating pg. 1.

Such is news and the world of journalism. It's a world with a very short attention span.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Story about dentist touches nerve

Here's a story I wrote that was published in the July 2009 edition of Publishers' Auxiliary. To get this particular edition of Publishers' Auxiliary, contact: National Newspaper Association, P.O. Box 7540, Columbia, Mo. 65205-7540. Or call Publishers' Auxiliary at 1-800-829-4662, and press the prompt for the Columbia, Mo., office of NNA. One other way to access the story is to click on the boldface headline above. See pp. 27-28 of the PDF version of Publishers' Auxiliary.

The picture with this blog post accompanied Dudley Brown's Herald-Journal story about the Miracle Hill Rescue Mission and Dr. Charles Hanna.

By Larry Timbs

Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
Was one graph of a recent news feature story in a South Carolina daily newspaper pandering to the kind of "lurid curiosity" that the SPJ Code of Ethics warns journalists to avoid?

Or was it in line with the same Code’s directive that journalists commit themselves to serving the public with "thoroughness and honesty"?

Some readers in Spartanburg, S.C., are grappling with those and similar questions after their hometown newspaper, the New York Times-owned 50,000-circulation Herald-Journal ran a story about local dentist Charles Hanna.

Written by Herald-Journal reporter Dudley Brown, the story noted that Hanna and some other area health care professionals offer free medical services on the first Saturday of each month.

Anyone showing up at the medical clinic at the Miracle Hill Rescue Mission, according to Brown’s story, is treated free of charge, whether they need a tooth pulled or filled, or whether they need treatment for such conditions as high blood pressure, diabetes, athlete’s foot and emphysema.

Brown quoted several people in his piece, including an official of the Miracle Hill Rescue Mission who praised Hanna and the other medical professionals for rendering a "great value" for the mission. He also quoted a construction worker who had stayed at the shelter and who noted he came there to get a tooth pulled because he lacked medical or dental insurance.

Another person Brown quoted was the mother of a 13-year-old child, who, like the construction worker, lacked medical insurance. She noted that if she’d gone to another dentist, she would have paid $60 for each of the three teeth she needed extracted. The $7-an-hour worker called what Hanna had done for her at the free clinic "a wonderful thing."

And Brown didn’t miss touching base with Hanna himself. In Brown’s story is this quote from the good Samaritan dentist who has volunteered at the clinic the first Saturday of each month for 10 years: "My father always told me never make anyone feel like they can’t afford it. There are a lot of people who fall through the cracks."

So far, so good.

This is a feel-good, uplifting story about a dentist and other local health care professionals who help anyone, no questions asked and no payment needed, with afflictions ranging from hurting teeth and infected gums to urinary tract infections, emphysema and hepatitis.

People out of work or under-employed or otherwise hurting come to the Miracle Hill Rescue Mission the first Saturday of each month and they get some relief from their aches and pains–for absolutely no payment.

It’s all there in Brown’s June 7, 2009, story.

But what’s also there, about midway in the story, are these kicker graphs:

Hanna’s license was suspended after he was convicted of Medicaid fraud in 1997. The state also suspended his license in the 1980s after he pleaded guilty to prescribing a painkiller to women in return for them posing for nude photographs.

"That’s been dead for a long time," Hanna said of the suspensions.

So much for smiling readers ready to give Brown his due for reporting positive news about a humanitarian dentist.

Now some readers were shocked, angry, stunned; to them, such an indiscretion by the good-deed working Hanna was old, pointless news with no place in a story about how he selflessly helps down and outers.

The Herald-Journal’s online forum reflected that reader outrage.

One reader, "kennedydavid," posted this comment: "Why is it necessary to write a great article about how volunteering can benefit everyone and finish the last few lines with old news that is not even relevant(?). Guess it’s just the only way reporters know how to write. Pitiful!"

Likewise, another disappointed reader, "justdandy," complained: "Pointless. I guess Dudley is trying to stay "edgy." Where’s the editor?"

"I agree with you kennedydavid!" another person, "pinkpanther," wrote. "It is a shame that the reporters are known for their dragging old issues up to cloudy a good thing for a smear campaign. They need to be sued a couple of times to teach them a lesson."

A reader self-identified as "janewatkins09" on the Herald-Journal’s online forum for comments chimed in: "I agree with the previous posts. Dudley Brown’s comments about Dr. Hanna’s past issues are completely unnecessary in this otherwise uplifting article. Making comments like that are pure sensationalism. Thank you to all the volunteers mentioned in this article. You are greatly appreciated."

However, not all the comments on the Herald-Journal’s online reader forum, took Brown or the newspaper to task.

"Ms. Informed" wrote: "So the writer was supposed to paint this guy as a saint? Then he’d be accused of a cover up artist by people who were affected by or remember these incidents. The writer obviously had the guts to ask the dentist about it and let the dentist respond."

About the idea that the newspaper ought to be sued for mentioning the negative information about Dr. Hanna, "Ms. Informed" noted: "That would be a fun lawsuit. "Your honor, I’m suing because this reporter wrote some facts about me."

Reporter Brown learned about the homeless shelter medical mission via a phone call from a woman who told him her dad, a dentist, had volunteered his services there for the past 10 years. But, as a young staffer in the Herald-Journal’s newsroom for only a few years, how did Brown discover the dentist’s past misdeeds?

Chalk it up to research and some sharp editing.

"I skimmed through our archives going back to 1998 and all I saw was wedding announcements for his (Hanna’s) kids," Brown wrote in an email. "Another editor went back to 1997 and saw the dentist was convicted of Medicaid fraud and in the 1980s he pleaded guilty to prescribing painkillers to women who posed nude for him. The editor-in-chief, city editor and an assistant city editor felt that information should be included in the story."

There’s no question that the dated but factual information about Dr. Hanna should have been included in Brown’s story, according to Michael Smith, executive editor of the Herald-Journal. Readers would not have been well served had it not been in Brown’s piece, Smith said.

"We thought the information in question was relevant to the story," Smith responded via email. "It was a story about this dentist providing dental services to the homeless. As a dentist, his license had been suspended twice. That’s relevant in any story about him providing professional dental services.

"Some of our readers thought the information tainted an otherwise positive story," Smith added. "It is our job to tell the full story, not just the positive side. Some comments said he was doing a wonderful thing by providing these services, and it showed his good character, but including the information about the suspensions ruined that. If it was a story about his character, then certainly the suspensions are relevant.

"In short, we strive to provide the entire story. Whether our readers focus on his professional services or his character, if we had left out his license suspensions, we would have failed to tell the whole story."

Dudley Brown’s story can be accessed at:

Larry Timbs is an associate professor of mass communication at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., where he’s also faculty adviser to the student weekly newspaper and adviser to the Winthrop chapter of SPJ.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Enchanted Island

By Larry Timbs
Composed on June 5, 2009

It began in early June.

Four families, 18 people, yearning for "down time" and the romance of the dune.

There was Patsy and Larry, and John and Rachel, and Clint and Shannon, just to mention a few.

And don't forget Jessie, Samantha, Little Hank, Taylor and Hanna.

They, with Blake and Weston, traveled to an island near Savannah.

It was an enchanting place they all wanted to go.

The locals called it Edisto.

There, all 18 of us had a grand time.

(Did I mention, by the way, that Dr. Joe, his wife Trish and their three kids helped us toe the line?)

We played. We swam. We romped in the ocean. We swapped lies.

Everything seemed quite fine.

In the evenings, after hours in the sun and bouncing about in the waves and picking up shells,

We all settled in to rest, eat, watch TV and catch up on a few tall tales.

All of this we did in our grand beach house of pink.

It had everything--five bathrooms, five bedrooms, five TVs, and, of course, more than one kitchen sink.

The house, a palace, was called SEArenity.

It definitely was the best of the lot in the vicinity.

Our evening meals were delightful.

We had chicken and rice, steak and salad and juicy, scrumptious burgers that were fat and frightful.

We ate till we couldn't move.

With such delicious food, who wouldn't hit their groove?

One day, during brunch

Our whole bunch went to Charleston--just on a hunch.

Some toured an aircraft carrier.

Others shopped at the downtown market.

Whatever we did, whereever we went, it couldn't have been merrier.

Our last day at the beach was Friday.

That day, among the choppy waves and the masses

The oldest among us, his silver hair glistening, lost his sunglasses.

Kids and adults searched with their eyes and probed with their feet,

But it was all to no avail.

The sea had swallowed those glasses,

And maybe, just maybe, they were in the belly of a whale.

As the week drew to a close

It was all we could do to bid adios.

But alas all good things must come to an end.

Even the magic of Edisto--the sun and the sea and the wind

Would soon be but a cherished summer memory.

Here we had come to play and swim and to pick up shells and rocks

And even to recover from the chicken pox.

So farewell Edisto.

It was great warm fun on this island enchanted.

For sure, we love you Edisto, and we'll never take you for granted.