Media bias demonstrates need for citizen journalism

Nov2_01
(InterAct member Jordan Rogoff leads an anti-war march past the Athens County Courthouse en route to the Athens Armed Forces Recruitment Ceter. Photo by Anna Trevino)

By Damon Krane
February 2006
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)

**********************

Whether you supported or opposed it, there is no denying a local anti-war demonstration held last fall was big news. With approximately 200 participants targeting the military’s local enlistment apparatus, the November 2nd demonstration at the Athens Armed Forces Recruitment Center was the largest anti-war action held in Athens since the US invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003 and one of the few stories of 2005 to simultaneously make the front page of all three local newspapers. (See “Standoff with the military: Demonstrators vow to shut down recruitment,” Athens News, 11/3/05; “Students walk, speak out: Rally questions war, administration, recruiting,” Athens Nessenger, 11/3/05; and “Anti-Bush activists stage walk-out,” The Post, 11/3/05.)

Yet when controversy arose surrounding one newspaper’s coverage of the event, none of the local papers were willing to touch the story-with one reporter telling The InterActivist her paper has an official policy against commenting on other media. The entire saga, as well as The InterActivist’s role in the matter, raises certain questions about the integrity of local media and the nature of professional journalism as compared to “citizen” or “activist journalism.”

Allegations of False Reporting

According to the Athens Anti-War Coalition (AAWC)-the alliance of groups that organized the demonstration under its previous name, the Athens Can’t Wait Coalition – The Post falsely reported that protesters assaulted a war supporter present at the demonstration. The AAWC alleges The Post initially acknowledged the report as a misrepresentation but later refused to publish a retraction, claiming the original report was correct and denying the paper had ever admitted any error. The coalition claims all of this occurred within a larger context of the newspaper’s bias against the November 2nd demonstration, evident in the dramatically disproportionate attention The Post’s news coverage gave to opponents of the demonstration, as well as in editorials the newspaper’s staff wrote.

In a November 9th email, Post Managing Editor Kyle Kondik denied these allegations and refused to publish a retraction of his paper’s coverage. Kondik claimed to be in possession of photographs supporting The Post’s account, but later refused to show any of these photos to coalition members.

The Report in Question

The Post’s controversial report is contained in a front page article on the demonstration, published November 3rd. It reads: “Protesters initially tried to move the woman, later identified as Monica Gaszyonyi, [sic] but she stayed put…”

“The woman,” whose name is correctly spelled “Monika Gasztonyi,” is listed as a senior in Ohio University’s online directory. A supporter of the war on Iraq, Gasztonyi had positioned herself in front of one of the center’s six doors before anti-war demonstrators arrived, with signs calling war opponents “selfish swine” who should “go live with [Cuban President] Fidel Castro.”

Nov2_05
(Right-wing counter-protester Monika Gazstonyi makes her view of protesters known while standing in front of the door to the Athens Armed Forced Recruitment Center. Photo by Anna Trevino)

AAWC members believe The Post’s report that protesters “tried to move” Gasztonyi suggests that demonstrators used physical force, or the threat thereof, against Gasztonyi in an attempt to move her from the doorstep of the recruitment center. (Section 2903.13 of the Ohio Revised Code defines assault as knowingly causing or attempting to cause physical harm to a person or a person’s unborn child.) The coalition contends that no such action occurred. On the contrary, the group claims Gasztonyi assaulted several peaceful demonstrators.

“The demonstrators did nothing to try to move her, nor did they do anything that could be considered assault,” asserted Hocking College student and Glouster native Heather Conner.

“I was standing right next to a kid named Mark,” said OU Senior Christine Merker. “[Gasztonyi] pushed him several times, and he stumbled back off of the step and fell on the ground.”

(Merker said demonstrators reported this incident to police who were monitoring the situation, but that police chose not to intervene.)

“When the protesters arrived at the recruiting center, Gasztonyi was planted firmly on the front step of the center,” said recent OU graduate Danny Burridge, who covered the event for The InterActivislls November issue. “A few protestors attempted to physically get up on the step as well but she forcibly pushed them off.”

Burridge said a few protesters ‘jostled with” Gasztonyi while unsuccessfully trying to position themselves near Gasztonyi on the 8 x 2′ slab of elevated concrete that serves as the center’s doorstep, but added, “I wouldn’t call it pushing.”

Other newspapers’ coverage of the demonstration failed to corroborate The Post’s account. The Athens Messenger did not report any altercation between Gasztonyi and protesters, while The Athens NEWS reported it was “Gasztonyi — who blocked the door to the Army office [and] scuffled repeatedly with anti-war protesters…”

The NEWS provided further context after Gasztonyi attempted to portray the demonstrators as menacing in a November 28th letter to the editor.

“I recall quite clearly how that crowd of 150-200 leftists spent close to l0 minutes shouting obscenities at God,” wrote Gasztonyi. “The self-proclaimed peace advocates shouted these words with such heart-felt intensity that members of the press were visibly alarmed by the rage bursting out of the crowd — that’s why the press made a beeline away from the protestors.”

In a note accompanying Gasztonyi’s letter, NEWS Editor Terry Smith stated, “Athens NEWS senior writer Jim Phillips and photo editor Ed Venrick, who covered the anti-war protest in question, said they do not recall the l0 minutes of ‘obscenities’that Monika Gasztonyi mentions, nor any unusual alarm felt by journalists at the scene.”

Nov2_02_crop
(Gazstonyi, pictured with hands around Rogoff’s neck, expresses herself more physically. Photo by Anna Trevino)

The eye-witness account closest to The Post’s version of events comes from second year OU Osteopathic medical student and November 2nd demonstrator Mark Thornton.

“My memory of the specifics is not clear.” said Thornton. “But from what I recall, I don’t think Jordan [Rogoffl threw a punch or a kick, but things more along the lines of pushing, holding, and as The Post photo shows, getting down between Monika Gasztonyi’s legs.”

Published on the front page of The Post’s November 3rd edition, the photo to which Thornton refers shows AAWCmember Jordan Rogoff sitting down on the center’s doorstep with her back to Gasztonyi who is standing behind her with one leg on either side of Rogoff. Rogoff’s right hand is placed on one of the center’s doors, and her left hand is placed on her own leg.

Thornton described Rogoff as the instigator of the situation while expressing sympathy for Gasztonyi. Thornton did not intervene in the situation, but said he would have done so to protect Gasztonyi “if the level of aggression had escalated” to the point of what he called “energetic use of force.”

Currently studying abroad in Mexico, Rogoff could not be reached for comment.
However, other participants dispute Thornton’s account. Pointing to a photo taken by InterActivist Staff Photographer Anna Trevino and published in our November issue, Christine Merker argues, “Gasztonyi clearly had her hands around Jordan Rogoff’s neck when Jordan wasn’t doing anything to her.”

So What Really Happened?

Ironically, the AAWC claims The Post put the matter to rest itself on November 3rd, when the newspaper’s own reporter admitted she had not in fact witnessed the incident in question herself, but instead reported as fact what she merely heard second-hand “from somebody else” at the demonstration, and never cited the report’s source. Thus, even if one or more demonstrators applied or threatened force to Gasztonyi, The Post still reported unverified hearsay as if it were fact.

During a November 3rd press conference, coalition members Jordan Rogoff and Will Klatt confronted Post reporter Emily Vance, who, along with Post reporter Chris Deville, wrote the article containing the controversial report. As an active member of the AAWC, I participated in the conference as a designated spokesperson for the coalition. In response to Klatt and Rogoff ‘s questioning, I witnessed an apologetic Vance assume responsibility for the report and state that she had not in fact witnessed the alleged altercation between Gasztonyi and demonstrators.

Other witnesses report Vance making the same admission.

“I remember Will Klatt saying something about [Vance’s] false reporting being considered something along the lines of slander, and that it could be grounds for suing,” said Heather Conner. “I also remember Vance apologizing for the false report that she had made about the demonstrators using physical force against Gasztonyi.”

According to Conner, “[Vance] told the coalition members that she would try to have a retraction printed in The Post, in attempt to set the record straight.”

On November 7th,I emailed The Post AAWC’s request that the newspaper publicly retract Vance’s report.

“We realize that lastWednesday’s demonstration was a confusing and at times chaotic situation, and thus a challenging event to cover,” that email stated. “However, we feel the false report of demonstrators assaulting Gasztonyi is a very grave matter. At the most basic level, it is inaccurate and defames both the Coalition and participants in last Wednesday’s demonstration.”

The AAWC’s email charged that The Post’s report damaged the coalition’s reputation and put demonstrators’ physical safety at risk.

“The Coalition succeeded in its declared intent to hold a non-violent demonstration, but The Post reported otherwise,” wrote the AAWC. “Not only has Ms. Gasztonyi learned that she can assault protesters with impunity, but police typically use prior reports of violence on the part of protesters to justify subsequent applications of police force against protesters.”

2005-11-02_11-46-17 edit
(InterAct member Will Klatt, wearing medic’s armband, approaches Post reporter Emily Vance on the outskirts of the demonstration as longtime peace activist and local organic farmer Art Gish, right with beard, keeps the lines of communication open with Athens police.)

The Post Responds

A weekly columnist for The Post last fall as well as a member of The InterActivist’s staff, Danny Burridge provided a behind-the-scenes account of The Post’s initial reaction.

“On November 7, I was in The Post’s editors’ office with Dan Rinderle [associate editor for The Post, editing my column for the next day, when Kyle Kondik and Emily Vance burst into the room,” said Burridge. “Kyle said something to the effect of ‘Dan, we got a problem.’ Dan said, ‘What is it?’ Kyle responded ‘Another email from Damon Krane.”‘

(This was the second of three emails I sent The Post concerning the November 2nd demonstration; the third was a letter published in the Post’s November 4th edition.)

Overhearing Kondik’s comments, Burridge said he jokingly asked, “Oh, is Damon giving you guys some more trouble?” This was when Burridge said a less-than-amused Rinderle asked him to leave the room. “But as I left I heard the journalist [Vance] say very emotionally, ‘I didn’t concede anything!”‘ said Burridge.

About ten minutes later Burridge said a “noticeably angry” Rinderle invited him back inside to finish editing his column. Two days later Post editor Kyle Kondik responded to the coalition’s request via email.

“Our reporters stand by the description of the event, and, after reviewing photographs of the events by the door to the recruitment center, I see no reason to correct or clarify the description we printed,” wrote Kondik.

I replied to Kondik on behalf of the coalition and asked him to share with the AAWC any photos that showed demonstrators attempting to forcibly remove Gasztonyi from the doorway of the recruiting center. He responded on November l6th with the following email:

“Damon–

“I’m not going to pass along any photos. I stand by the statement I sent to your organization, and by the story. Other than that, I can only say that I’m not going to comment any further on this matter.

Sincerely,

–Kyle”

A Pattern of Bias

A mainstay of professional journalism is the notion that “real journalists” are “objective” as a result of being “detached” from the stories they cover. I, on the contrary, was very much attached to this story. A designated spokesperson for the AAWC, I was quoted in several newspaper articles prior to the November 2nd demonstration. Then, after playing a prominent role in the demonstration itself, I served on the coalition’s panel of speakers at the November 3rd press conference. It is there, I report to have witnessed Vance’s admission of false reporting. But given my personal involvement in this story, why should the reader take my word over that of a “real journalist” like Vance?

The AAWC provides one possible answer. According to the coalition, The Post was hardly “detached” from the story. First the paper took a strong editorial stance against the November 2nd demonstration, and then gave vastly disproportionate coverage to the demonstration’s opponents in coverage of the event.

Comparing the three local newspapers’ front page articles on the demonstration, the AAWC found the following, which The InterActivist has since verified: “While The Athens NEWS quoted three of the protest’s opponents and six of its supporters, and The Athens Messenger quoted four opponents and four supporters, The Post quoted seven of the protest’s opponents without quoting a single protest supporter.”

Rather than providing balanced coverage of the demonstration, coalition members charge The Post used its November 3rd article to buttress the newspaper’s own editorial position by only quoting people who agreed with that position. Thus, in addition to requesting a retraction for allegedly false reporting, the AAWC’s November 7th email also asked the newspaper to acknowledge “the severe lack of balance in the Post’s coverage of this event.”

Confronted with the above comparison, Editor Kondik offered the following explanation in his November 9th email:

“My reporters — Emily Vance and Chris DeVille — talked to many supportive people at the event. We were prepared to include them, as well as the mother of the soldier who spoke by MemAud [on OU’s College Green]. However, after the story was written, I was told that many of these sources didn’t wish to have their full names printed. We withhold names – or use only first names – only in extreme circumstances. So many of these sources were taken out, and, being that we were on deadline, we tried to work with what we had without using unnamed sources.”

Several demonstrators dispute Kondik’s claims.

“That’s not true,” said OU freshman Will Klatt. “They talked to me and I gave my name. Kenton [Cobb] gave his name. They definitely talked to people who gave their names.”

“Dan Rinderle informed me that many protestors were masked and would not give their names,” said Danny Burridge. “In reality, only a very small portion of the protestors were masked, and obviously other newspapers were able to find protestors willing to give their names.”

Without publishing any anonymous quotes, The Athens NEWS and The Athens
Messenger obtained the names of the following demonstration supporters whom it quoted: Luke Bentley, Heather Conner, Peggy Gish, Roger Hill, Damon Krane, Mike Ludwig, Christine Merker, Chuck Overby, Josh Richardson, and Jordan Rogoff.

Early in the demonstration, during the rally on College Green, Emily Vance approached me and asked to verify the spelling of my first and last name. I complied and watched as she checked the spelling I gave her against each of the letters I could see she had written down in her notebook.

Nov2_04
(Student activist and InterAct member Christine Merker makes some noise to help disrupt recruiters’ work. Photo by Anna Trevino)

“The motherof the soldier” whom Kondik claims refused to give her name is most likely Kari Gunter-Seymour, the only demonstrator to publicly identify herself as such.

“…even though she had given her name to student reporters covering the event for classes, she did not want her name to be published,” wrote Kondik.

Not quite, said Gunter-Seymour. “It wasn’t my name that I didn’t want to be printed, but my picture,” she said. “I do remember the young lady who must have been Emily Vance asking me to use my name for a picture. And I said, ‘No I didn’t want a picture.’ But she never asked me for a quote.”

A combat veteran recently returned from Iraq, Gunter-Seymour’s son remains enlisted in the military. Due to problems he has faced as a result of his mother’s high profile activism, Gunter-Seymour’s son has requested that while his mother continues to speak out against the war publicly she try to keep her picture out of the paper.

Gunter-Seymour did not hesitate to be quoted by name for this article in regards to her participation in the November 2nd demonstration.

“I was proud to be a part of the coalition’s event. It was a peaceful event,” said Gunter-Seymour.

Gunter-Seymour and Burridge both characterized The Post’s coverage as “clearly biased” against the demonstration and its participants. Both noted The Post’s editorial board had Published a statement of opposition to the demonstration in its November lst edition alongside an additional column denouncing the event, written by Dan Rinderle, himself a member of The Post’s editorial board.

“It seemed pretty obvious to me that these reporters are pro-war,” said Gunter-Sevmour.

“Everyone has a right to their opinion, but when you’re a reporter you’re supposed to be writing what you see.”

“This lack of journalistic integrity on the part of The Post staff should have been apologized for and their article should have been retracted,” said Burridge, adding: “I felt embarrassed to be associated with this journalistically unrespectable newspaper as one of The Post’s weekly columnists.”

Uncovering Even Deeper Bias

In mid-November, press releases detailing the AAWC’s charges against The Post were submitted to The Athens NEWS and The Athens Messenger. The NEWS offered to consider running a letter to the editor on the subject (limited to 400 words) but declined to assign the story to one of its reporters. The Messenger simply did not respond.

In the process of writing this story, I contacted The Messenger again. Having given up on other local publications, I decided to write the story myself for submission to The InterActivist. But given my position as a “biased participant,” I decided to seek out a “real journalist” and “objective observer” of the situation-the only person present at the November 3rd conference to hear Vance’s statements who was not herself a member of either The Post or the AAWC– Athens Messenger reporter Casey Elliot.

I phoned Elliot and explained the situation to her: The Post and the AAWC were giving conflicting reports of what was said at the November 3rd conference. As someone in attendance not affiliated with either side, was she willing to be interviewed about her recollections of the press conference?

Elliot quickly interrupted to ask if the coalition was taking legal action against The Post. “No,” I responded. “Even if we could prove the report was false, legal council has advised us that we cannot win a libel suit without proving the false report caused significant damage to the coalition. This is just for an article in a local activist newsletter,” I assured her.

“OK,” said Elliot. “I need to talk to my boss first.”

After putting me on hold for a few minutes, Elliot returned to the phone, apologized for the wait and politely informed me she could not be interviewed on the matter. “We have a policy against commenting on other media,” she said.

Given that a large portion of the AAWC’s November 3rd press conference focused on The Post’s coverage of the demonstration, perhaps The Messenger’s policy is why, despite attending the conference, Elliot took few notes, asked no questions and published no story on the event. What is certain, however, is that her paper’s policy prevented the only person who could have verified the truth of the matter from talking to the only local news source interested in uncovering the truth.

Consequently, readers are left to not only draw their own conclusions about the credibility of one local paper, but the integrity of the rest. Unless The Messenger and The NEWS are prepared to argue that the accuracy of a newspaper’s coverage of a major local event is not itself a newsworthy topic, then they must concede that newsworthiness and the “objective” pursuit of the truth are not always the deciding factors in whether they choose to cover a story. Furthermore, if the ideal of “detachment” prevents journalists from covering the alleged failings of other journalists and media institutions, then the public must ask which is the greater threat to the spread of accurate information upon which democracy depends: journalists reporting on something in which they are themselves enmeshed or their refusal to do so?

However difficult questions like this are to answer, the practical lesson for citizen activists is captured in a fairly simple slogan: “Don’t just criticize the media, become the media.” While citizen journalism cannot hope to match the financial resources of the five transnational corporations that control more than half of the US media, grassroots publications like The InterActivist can offer an alternative to local mainstream media, whether commercial or university-backed.

Nov2_10
(The author, not in Uncle Sam outfit, shares the bullhorn with retired OU engineering professor, Navy veteran, Article 9 Society founder and peace activist Chuck Overby outside the Athens Armed Froces Recruitment Center. Photo by Anna Trevino)

******************

[Editor’s notes, 1/7/13 – A few months after the November 2, 2005 counter recruitment demonstration, Athens Anti-War Coalition founding member group InterAct was voted “Best Student Organization” in the 2006 Athens News Reader’s Choice Awards.

For a critical response to the piece above (and my reply), see associate journalism professor Bernhart Debatin’s piece, “Is this supposed to be citizen journalism?” from the April/May 2006 edition of The InterActivist.

For a direct response to other problematic aspects of The Post’s coverage of the counter-recruitment demonstration — specifically, the newspaper’s November 1, 2005 editorials against the demonstration — see my guest column “World can’t wait… for decent journalism” in the November 4, 2005 edition of The Post.]

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6 Responses to Media bias demonstrates need for citizen journalism

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