January 18, 2013
close up of handgun
(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The Journal News has taken down its controversial gun databases, which carried the names and addresses of gun-permit holders in Rockland and Westchester counties. The move represents a reversal of its position that the databases provide a public service, as well as a capitulation to weeks and weeks of negative publicity, threats and pressure from gun owners, lawmakers and media types over the maps.

Here is the statement from Janet Hasson, publisher of the Journal News:

“With the passage this week of the NYSAFE gun law, which allows permit holders to request their names and addresses be removed from the public record, we decided to remove the gun permit data from lohud.com at 5 pm today.

While the new law does not require us to remove the data, we believe that doing so complies with its spirit. For the past four weeks, there has been vigorous debate over our publication of the permit data, which has been viewed nearly 1.2 million times by readers. One of our core missions as a newspaper is to empower our readers with as much information as possible on the critical issues they face, and guns have certainly become a top issue since the massacre in nearby Newtown, Conn. Sharing as much public information as possible provides our readers with the ability to contribute to the discussion, in any way they wish, on how to make their communities safer.

We remain committed to our mission of providing the critical public service of championing free speech and open records.”

A note from the newspaper’s publicist indicates that the Journal News won’t have any further comment.

The statement from Hasson is as cowardly as has been the newspaper’s handling of the crisis since just after Christmas. It responded to the outcry by issuing a statement, one that advances a philosophical disconnect with its most recent cousin. Here’s that original thinking:

“Frequently, the work of journalists is not popular. One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular,” she said. “We knew publication of the database (as well as the accompanying article providing context) would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.”

It was that statement that the Journal News treated like a sit-com, re-running it over and over for whatever outside news organization happened to be calling. The newspaper’s statementology was a PR ploy to avoid having to answer difficult questions about the decision to publish. A New York Times reporter who insisted on showing up at the Journal News’s front door did managed to pierce the media denial, and in the process managed to show just how hastily the reporters and editors slapped the gun project together. Very, that is.

Now we know that the silence from White Plains stemmed not from defiance and pride but from cowardice and jitters. The recently passed New York state law, as the newspaper’s statement notes, doesn’t compel the paper to take this step. No, it merely provides a handy pretext to take a measure that’ll relieve the pressure from gun advocates and enable staffers to tell their armed guards to head home.

If the Journal News is bagging its databases, it must believe that they were doing harm. Yet it doesn’t have the courage to say so. In a single statement, it tries to bail on the project while still affirming its belief in serving this important information to the public. Logic doesn’t bend that way.

When the Journal News controversy first broke, the Erik Wemple Blog rapped the newspaper for not putting enough inquiry and journalism behind the database to tell its readers something new about guns and crime in the lower Hudson Valley. Had it done so, it most assuredly would have headed off a great deal of the backlash. We never fully weighed in on the public value of the database itself, primarily because we were too busy trying to figure out if its publication really, actually, seriously, provably put all those people at risk.

Who knows what’ll happen now. Some folks in the coverage area did speak up in favor of the map, including parents who’d like to know whether they could send their kids to play at the house down the street without worrying about a handgun sitting on the counter. That contingent won’t be pleased with the Journal News’s latest move, but it’s hard to see them sending threats over the the paper’s HQ.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.