Mirror, Mirror

What the reporters found astonished them; scout leaders had been warned about the pedophile, but hired him anyway. Theran a six-day series about the affair. Then the backlash began.
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In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the beautiful but wicked Queen would ask her mirror each day, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?" And the talking mirror would respond, "Oh My Queen, it seems to me, there is none fairer in the land than thee!"

The fairy tale sprang to mind recently at the first annual Mirror Awards for "the best in media industry reporting," sponsored by Syracuse University's S.I Newhouse School of Public Communications. It's no secret (at least in media circles) that the media loves nothing as much as awards ceremonies. This is especially true when the awards are being presented to the media ... And given this century's explosion of new forms of media content and technology, with its concomitant boom in reporting about that media, it's not surprising that awards ceremonies for media about the media would soon follow. The Mirror Awards, which honor reporters, editors and teams of writers "who hold a mirror to their own industry for the public's benefit," are but the latest entrant in the media awards sweepstakes.

As someone who regularly reports, comments on and criticizes "the media industry" (this meta-media post -- a media commentary about media about media -- was inevitable) I welcomed news of the competition, which drew 140 entries in seven categories. (Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart received the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.) The winners were feted at a Manhattan luncheon attended by "the media's top writers, readers and leaders" and hosted by Meredith Vieira who, having worked variously for ABC, NBC and CBS, is kinda meta-media herself! Vieira began by citing "the vital journalistic activity of reporting on the media," which she opined was "something completely new," and noted "journalists covering the media are watching the watchdogs and holding a mirror up to the media."

So who's the fairest of them all? To my mind, not the Big Media boys like David Carr of The New York Times, whose his weekly column won for 'Best Commentary,' or Philip Weiss and Clive Thompson of New York magazine, who won for 'Best Profile' and 'Best Single Article,' respectively -- as worthy as their entries may have been.

Instead, my favorite was culled from Nieman Reports, the small (and, to some of "the media's top writers, readers and leaders" in attendance, obscure) publication of The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. The category was 'Best Coverage of Breaking Industry News,' and the author is Dean Miller, executive editor of the definitely small and obscure Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Miller's article in the Summer 2006 Issue of Nieman Reports, entitled "A Local Newspaper Endures a Stormy Backlash," http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/06-2NRsummer/p95-0602-miller.html tells an amazing story of how his paper exposed Boy Scout pedophiles and those who failed to kick them out of the scouting program," and how "three of our community's big forces...the community's majority religion, the richest guys in town, and the conservative machine that controls Idaho," tried to punish the paper for doing so. Why? Because Miller and his team chose "to tell the story of powerless people who'd been hurt by powerful people who counted on the public never learning what they'd done."

Here's what happened: after receiving a tip that a pedophile caught at a local scout camp in 1997 had not two victims (as the paper reported at the time) but actually dozens, Post Register reporters went to the courthouse to look for a civil suit filed by victims, only to be told that there was no such case. They later learned that the national Boy Scouts of America and its local Council had hired two of Idaho's best-connected law firms to seal the files -thus covering up the entire affair.

Or so they thought ... But the Post Register went to court and "dragged the case file into the light of day." What reporters found astonished them; scout leaders had been warned about the pedophile years earlier, but hired him (again!) anyway. Lawyers for the Boy Scouts knew about more victims, but never told those boys' parents. Top local and national leaders of the Mormon Church, which sponsors almost all area scout troops, had also been warned.

The Post Register ran a six-day series about the affair. The first story featured a 14-year-old camper - "the son of a Mormon seminary teacher and a cinch to become an Eagle Scout" -- who forced adult leaders to call the police about the pedophile.

Then the backlash began. Mormon church members were among the first to complain, characterizing the paper's coverage as an attack on their faith. "The drums banged, and we were flooded with calls and e-mails and letters to the editor from readers who told us that holding the Grand Teton Council accountable was Mormon-bashing," Miller recounted.

The backlash came as well from advertisers, and the economic pressure built everyday the paper ran the series. "It's one thing to lose an account when you're an employee," Miller wrote. "It's quite another when you're also a stockholder; 140 employees hold close to 49 percent of the company's stock. For many families, this is their retirement." Nevertheless, he recalled, "Most of what I heard inside our building were words of support." Publisher Roger Plothow was also staunchly unapologetic throughout, "standing up with a stoic and clear-eyed defense... for the values of journalism."

The attacks weren't just financial, but personal as well -- including the outing of a gay staff reporter, Peter Zuckerman, by a local multimillionaire who bought full-page ads devoting several paragraphs to establishing that Zuckerman is gay. "Strangers started ringing Peter's doorbell at midnight," Miller wrote. "His partner of five years was fired from his job. Despite the harassment, Peter kept coming to work and chasing down leads on other pedophiles ... I spoke at his church one Sunday and meant it when I said that I hope my son grows into as much of a man as Peter had."

By then the paper had secured evidence of four other pedophiles in the local scout council, "about as many documented cases as the 500,000-member Catholic diocese of Boston when that scandal erupted in The Boston Globe," as Miller noted.

Laboring in obscurity, and without Big Media resources, community journalists "often end up dreaming small," Miller wrote. "But my 34 colleagues at the Post Register -- in particular the cadre of editors who have worked together for a decade and lead a largely entry-level staff -- refused to pull back in the face of much opposition."

In his Nieman report, Miller asks, "Was what any of us did courageous?" I'll say it was! Moreover, the story has a happy ending -- one all too uncommon in these days of massive layoffs, dwindling circulation, disruptive technologies and fears that the entire newspaper industry might be rapidly crumbling. I'll let Miller tell the tale: "One of the sweeter moments of our year occurred when we received figures from our circulation audit. While the sales numbers of other U.S. newspapers were in free fall, we were among the nation's faster growing daily papers."

So what's the moral of this fairy tale? To Dean Miller and the other ordinary heroes at the Post Register, it's clear: "For us, these numbers testified to the value of fortitude. Publishing uncomfortable truths needn't be an act of hot-blooded courage; it should be a cool-headed exercise in focus: Find the civic heart of a story, steer a steady course to it, and serve the public's legitimate interests in openness and justice. Do that and, even when the story rocks your boat, trust that the waves won't capsize it."

(For his work on this series, Peter Zuckerman also won the Livingston Award in the category of local reporting, a prize recognizing the nation's best journalists under the age of 35-- Editor)

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