It's not every day that a police department refuses to do business with a television reporter. But that's part of the lingering fallout from WJLA-TV's handling of a case involving a 5-year-old boy.
Fairfax County police were livid after Channel 7 reporter Jody Benyunes got an interview with the mother of a Reston boy who had been sexually assaulted, and aired brief footage of the child. The pictures were broadcast in early October despite a last-minute plea from the police.
"This is the first time I've ever felt compelled to put sanctions on a reporter," says Warren Carmichael, the department's public information chief. "It's been an extremely traumatic experience for the victim's mother. We just feel that is something we can't tolerate. It could also hamper our investigation."
Says WJLA News Director Jim LeMay: "Clearly, there were some errors in judgment. We're dealing with it. I'm just not comfortable talking about it in public. . . .
"We've dealt with the family involved, and dealt with [the matter] swiftly. I'm a little concerned that it doesn't destroy someone's career. . . . I want to be sensitive to all the parties involved."
Virtually all news organizations have policies against identifying sexual assault victims without their consent. Carmichael says the mother, who speaks only Spanish, told police she initially thought Benyunes was a detective when she let him into her apartment. "We immediately contacted Channel 7 and said . . . we really don't want that on the air. We were assured by Channel 7 that would not happen."
Benyunes did not return calls. LeMay says he is still weighing what, if any, personnel action to take. Carmichael says he has a good relationship with WJLA and that at a meeting with station executives, "they did not in any way defend what had occurred and were very chagrined about it." He says the department will deal with Benyunes only in an emergency--and even then, no officers will talk to the reporter.
A Bit Too Cozy
The publisher of the Los Angeles Times has apologized for an unusual arrangement in which her Sunday magazine split more than $2 million in advertising revenue with the subject of a special issue.
The Times, one of 10 corporate sponsors of the Staples Center basketball arena, agreed to share profits from the Oct. 10 magazine with the arena. But 300 staffers signed a protest petition after the New York Times disclosed the deal last week. Publisher Kathryn Downing told her paper that she'd had a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the principle that a newspaper can't be partners with those it covers. Editor Michael Parks, saying he didn't know about the arrangement in advance, said it was "not a proper relationship."
Under angry questioning at a meeting with several hundred staffers Thursday, Downing, whose background is in legal publications, said she is "truly, truly sorry" for putting the paper under a "horrific cloud. . . . I need to know more firsthand about the newsroom." She confirmed that Parks had been in the dark, saying, "There is no doubt about Michael's outrage. Absolutely none."
Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes, who handed the job to Downing in June and has pushed for greater cooperation between the editorial and business staffs, acknowledged: "This is exactly a consequence of having people in the publisher's job who don't have experience in newspapers."
Spamming the Hill?
Dick Morris, the former Clinton strategist, is launching a Web site with a twist that may cause computer gridlock on Capitol Hill.
According to a report by his pal Matt Drudge, Morris paid $250,000 for the Web address--VOTE.com--and each time someone casts a "vote" on the site, an e-mail with that message will automatically be sent to the person's House member or senator.
Morris is starting the venture with his wife, Eileen McGann, who had left him after a sex scandal got him bounced from the 1996 Clinton campaign. The first week's e-votes will be on school vouchers, hate crimes involving gays and lawsuits against HMOs.
The Fox News commentator tells Drudge his method of bombarding lawmakers will "make them listen"--and that users will get a report card on their members at election time. That ought to ensure that the pols pay attention.
Making the Grade
Perhaps it's inevitable in presidential campaigns that the press rummages through the most intimate, searingly personal details of the candidate's past. So it is for George W. Bush, whose past drug habits have been exhaustively questioned. And now this: his Yale report card.
The New Yorker, in the issue out today, reveals that young W, who's never claimed to be a great intellectual, was, yes, a C student. The photocopied report card from 1964-68 shows grades mostly in the 70s, with some 80s. Bush managed to score an 88 in both Philosophy and Anthropology, but in Political Science, surprisingly, a mere 71. What's next: Secret minutes of the Skull & Bones sessions?
Local Gold Mines
The reason that local television news is often shallow and superficial has much to do with money.
The average pretax profit margin in these newsrooms is more than 40 percent, at least twice the return of many industries, according to a survey by the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism. At the same time, half the news directors surveyed said that "not enough staff" is the chief obstacle to producing quality newscasts.
In short, these newsrooms make lots of dough and don't spend it on more reporters. Seven in 10 require their reporters to do one story a day, and three in 10 require more. And the current staff is stretched even thinner as more stations add more hours of news to their lineups.
The project's second annual report found that the highest-quality stations did more investigative stories, covered less crime and were more likely to be enjoying ratings success. One intriguing finding: The group rated every station's 11 p.m. broadcast as lower quality than its 6 p.m. news, in part because the late edition features more brief stories that lack depth.
Newt the Cable Guy
In an era when ex-politicos are all over the airwaves, it's hardly shocking that Newt Gingrich has signed on as a Fox News commentator. But is Rupert Murdoch's network, which already employs such Clinton critics as Dick Morris and Matt Drudge, reinforcing complaints that it is a conservative operation?
Fox Vice President John Moody says the network has also signed Geraldine Ferraro, the former Democratic vice presidential nominee, and "I don't think anyone would accuse her of being part of a vast right-wing conspiracy."
Besides, says Moody, Gingrich "is a very bright man in a lot of areas, not just politics. I think he's one of the most interesting public figures in the country."
Quote of the Week
"Penis envy."--Mike Wallace, telling Newsweek the reason he feels a former "60 Minutes" producer betrayed him in writing a movie critical of the program.
CAPTION: Dick Morris: Ready to rock the e-vote with his new Web site?