I’m disturbed and saddened by a story this morning in Triad City Beat about the defamation lawsuit filed — and withdrawn — by the International Civil Rights Center and Museum against the News & Record. And I am praying I’m wrong about it.
First, some quick background. The News & Record has written about the civil rights museum since its genesis with the founders, Skip Alston and Earl Jones. The paper has cheered it on, criticized its lack of transparency and, notably, contributed $150,000 for its construction. (Full disclosure: I was editor at the paper during part of this time, although not for the past four years.)
That close, in-depth coverage makes sense. The museum represents a proud moment — one of the proudest — in this city’s history.
But the museum has always had trouble raising money. It has had a revolving door of administrators, and it has resisted opening its operations to public scrutiny. It has demanded public support (tax dollars) while criticizing the very elected officials and their questions that it wants money from. I know all this because I read it in the paper.
Two weeks ago, the museum filed a libel suit against the News & Record, saying that “the paper … knew full well that the average reader would believe that the Museum was hopelessly mired in debt and could never climb out. They further believed that the Board of Directors and the leadership of the Museum were hopelessly inept and had cast the Museum into an impossible hole when in fact the true story reflected extremely well on the Board of Directors and the leadership.”
I know about the suit because Courthouse News Service wrote about it. The Courthouse News Service story now is a 404 error page. But Eric Ginsburg with Triad City Beat fills in some details. Basically, the suit was filed in error and was dismissed the following day. Apparently negotiations for some type of settlement are being held between the museum and the paper.
I haven’t read about any of this in the News & Record.
This is Exhibit A in why newspapers cannot cover themselves. Well, more like, an example of what happens when newsrooms don’t have independence from their own business.
A prominent institution in town sues the only news organization that has aggressively reported and editorialized on the institution’s troubles. By any judgment, that’s news given the history of the museum and the history of the newspaper. But not here and not now. The publisher/editor won’t comment on it, referring questions to the paper’s attorney.
I get it. I’ve been on the inside and understand how it works. My guess is that the paper wants this to go away and is holding fire to see if things can be worked out. If true, don’t hold your breath for any skeptical stories about the museum until this plays out. You probably won’t read any stories about the museum at all.
How will this play out once this is resolved? Will the newspaper resume its persistent coverage or it will it back off?
Transparency is an important characteristic for news organizations. It engenders trust. Journalists demand it of public organizations. But this isn’t transparency, and while it’s probably good business, it isn’t good journalism.
Interestingly enough, I did read in the newspaper last week that Earl Jones — the same Earl Jones who is part of the group bringing the suit against the paper — said he filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging that he had been discriminated against by Downtown Greensboro Inc.
That story was on the front page.