2010-02-19 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

What Newspapers Do
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Any journalist who has been around the block a few times knows that you don’t get into the business to make friends.

When one seeks to tell the truth and to inform the community, those whose ox is gored often disagree that the story is newsworthy. While it’s perfectly okay to gore somebody else’s ox, you better stay away from mine, seems to be the mantra.

Newspapers, however, provide the news without favor or fear.

Recently, The Wave has received a number of accolades from other journalistic experts, particularly for covering all of the news that happens on our narrow peninsula and for taking on stories that normally do not appear in the pages of a community newspaper.

The Village Voice and New York magazine cited our coverage of the Kareem Bellamy case, our investigation into Geraldine Chapey’s non-profit, our close look at the impact that closing adult homes would have on the peninsula and our coverage of other local stories of import as examples of exemplary journalism.

The Wave was even cited for its interviews with Michael Green and Levon Melvin in the judge’s decision allowing Bellamy to remain free.

While many are taking a longer look at The Wave, there are many locals who are not happy with us for covering the same type of story we cover regularly without complaint.

If you look at page four in last week’s edition, you will find that each of the first ten letters to the Bag of Mail concern one of the front page stories that ran in the January 29 edition, a story about a local music teacher who pled guilty to statutory rape in connection with a sexual affair he had with a 15- year-old girl.

To my best knowledge, many of those who wrote the letters are friends and relatives of the family, people who are in shock and denial over the incident and who believe that we should not have run the story in any way, shape or form because it is damaging to his wife and two children.

Over and over again, I have been told that his wife and his two young children are the real victims of his actions and that it was harmful for The Wave to have run the story.

“Don’t you realize that what you have done has led to the kids being taunted at school,” one correspondent said.

I have been accused of “sensationalizing” the story, by writing that the liaison took place in a church basement and that sexual intercourse took place.

Anybody who read the criminal complaint against the music teacher would have quickly realized, however, that I actually toned the story down because that complaint included all of the lurid details of their movement from a first kiss to the actual intercourse.

I do realize that his wife would bear the brunt of publishing the story and that the kids would be taunted in school.

I have never come up with a way of stopping kids from being cruel to each other, not as a teacher and not as a journalist.

I have been at the business of writing for 40 years now, and I certainly understand that any crime story has an impact on the criminal’s family and friends. How could it not? The same is true, to a more limited extent, for those involved in accidents and fires.

I lived through the same type of controversy with the Bain case a few years ago, a case in which a drunken husband crashed his car into a pole on Cross Bay Boulevard, killing his wife and injuring himself.

With the mother of the family dead and the father on trial for killing her, many locals focused on what the story was doing to the couple’s teen-age son, who was obviously tormented by the loss of his mother and the impending trial of his father.

At the time, I was excoriated for running the story on the front page, where the son (and his peers) would see it.

We continued to track the story and the husband is now in jail and the son is living with friends of the family.

It seems strange that, while a dozen people commented on the unfairness of running a story about a music teacher who pled guilty to statutory rape, there was no complaint about another story on the same front page.

That story was about a mother who put her young child in scalding water because he soiled his diaper.

There was a family involved in the story. There was a young child, and yet we got no letters complaining that the story would impact the child’s father or grandmother, with whom the child lived.

Those who cared mightily that we named the pedophile and told where he lived seemed not to care at all that we did the same for the woman who scalded her son.

Nor did they care when we named the rapist who assaulted two women in Arverne or any number of minority criminals who committed heinous crimes.

Nor, when we named the Rockaway man who shot a Breezy Point man on Beach 129 Street.

Both the statutory rape and child assault stories were handled the same way.

There is something disingenuous about accepting a story when it concerns a resident of Arverne or Far Rockaway, but not when the resident comes from Belle Harbor, Neponsit or Breezy Point.

The only question that should be reasonably asked is, “Is the story factual?”

If the story is factual, then it belongs in the paper.

The founder of the television program “60 Minutes,” had a firm fourword saying that guided the program from its inception – “Tell me a story.” That is what we do, and we did in the story of the pedophile music teacher. The only question up for discussion is, “Is the story true?” It is unarguably true.

The music teacher pled guilty.

We told the story, and not only were we right to do so. It was our obligation as a newspaper. It is what newspapers do.

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The decline of the newspaper

The decline of the newspaper industry is in part due to exactly what you are discussing. Once you decide to editorialize the news to what you think readers want and to only report one news item over another you are no longer reporting the news. I do not enjoy reading all of the crime and horrendous acts people do to each other, but, that is what is happening in Rockaway. I do notice that all of the good things that happen are being reported also. What people have to realize is, is that, IT IS WHAT IT IS. The Wave is very good at reporting things as they are. Thanks for all the hard work Howard.

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