Recently local media organizations -- namely, WJLA Channel 7 and The Washington Post -- have implied through their reports that a broken air-conditioning system at a local apartment complex caused the death of Daniel Mackall, a 79-year-old resident. This is a gross misrepresentation of a limited set of facts. It is a sad commentary on the state of modern journalism when news organizations consciously leave out facts in order to fashion the story they desire.
The apartment building in question is Foster House, located at 801 Rhode Island Avenue NW. This building is 17 years old, and I have managed the building for 14 of those years. It is true that recently the air conditioning system broke down, which is characteristic of any old air conditioning system when working to cool 75 apartment units in 90-degree weather. It is also true that otherwise Foster House is an extremely well-maintained building with no graffiti on the walls or stench of urine in the halls.
A news article about the heat wave and the difficulties we all had in contending with it, generally, may have been newsworthy. Or perhaps a story about air conditioning systems and their faults might have been a good piece. But a story about one building with a maintenance problem simply because it is managed and owned by two black politicians should not make the news.
Since The Post has chosen this matter as a news item, let me share the more complete story about this particular case. Foster House needs a new air conditioning system to replace the 17-year-old one, but this is easier said than done. The building receives a subsidy from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD sets the procedures by which major renovations, like air-conditioning replacement, occurs. This process includes various paper-work submissions and departmental review and approval.
Unfortunately, no one knows exactly why Daniel Mackall, the 79-year-old resident, died -- including The Post and other reporters who chose to speculate that it was heatstroke. I understand that Mackall had several ailments, the most minor of which was his suffering from the 90-degree weather, an ailment that he shared with all of us that day. If a new air conditioner could have saved him from dying, I dare say a life-saving machine has gone unrecognized, and, again, the news media have neg story.
But there is more than the violation of proper journalistic tenets here. I am deeply troubled by the trend in the media of character assassination of black people who hold positions of power and influence. It is unfortunate when news organizations use a deceitful shield like "Crawford could not be reached for comment" to cover lazy fact- gathering and deliberate distortion.
I have successfully managed apartment buildings for more than 20 years. No news story, with the exception of a July 1981 piece written by noted black columnist William Raspberry, has taken the initiative to explore the positive contributions I have made to the housing industry. The point here is that a good news story about black government officials does not have to dig for their dirty laundry, particularly when there is no impropriety. A good news story can and should be about the significant inroads we have made in a society that has a history of racism.
The post-Watergate equation of shoot-from- the-hip-equals-good-journalim is twisted and misguided. This unwritten policy of "getting something on a person" in office has hurt the news media. It hurts the public and feeds the stereotype that journalists (and the editors they work for) are frustrated movie stars who want their names up in lights. I know that this is not true of the majority of journalists, but when a few journalists take the myopic view that all politicians are irresponsible, heartless and totally self-motivated, then proceed to write stories purposely designed to manifest this stereotype, they unwittingly help undermine the public trust in both the government and the media.
I am in no way suggesting that news people should ignore or let corrupt officials off the hook. I am simply urging responsible and would-be responsible news people to seek the complete story. It is too convenient for news reporters to say they did everything they could in a fact-finding situation, with the reality being they were purposely not thorough, motivated by a desire to boost their personal recognition. News reporters, just as government officials, must hold themselves to a higher standard.