Getting yourself in hot water

TV/radio column

TV: There's little tolerance these days for critical words in the press or on the air.

Television and Radio Column

October 03, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

At age 22, Tom Gutting graduated from the Johns Hopkins University, got married and was hired for a dream job as city editor of a small-town paper in Texas.

Just last week, at 23, Gutting wrote a column that elicited threats of violence and cost him his job. In the process, he's become enmeshed in a national debate about the value placed on dissenting voices during crisis.

Make no mistake, Gutting's Sept. 22 piece was a screed against President Bush, questioning his manhood and his ability to lead the nation after the terrorist strikes in New York and Washington.

"What we are stuck with is a crippled president who continues to be controlled by his advisers," Gutting wrote. "He's not a leader. He's a puppet, and it has never been more apparent."

Others have found similar approbation after making caustic remarks.

Comedian Bill Maher, host of ABC's Politically Incorrect, has now apologized twice for saying that the terrorists showed courage and that past U.S. bombing raids displayed cowardice because they were executed from the safety of the sky. WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, dropped his show.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer responded by saying: "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that. There never is."

The columns of Ann Coulter have been dropped by National Review Online after she argued that Afghans and other Muslim critics of the United States should be bombed and converted to Christianity.

An Oregon newspaper fired a columnist for assailing what he said was Bush's weak leadership.

"The scariest thing of all is to be told by the government what to say, what to report, what to think," says Sanford Ungar, a veteran journalist who is now president of Goucher College. But it's not much better when journalists attempting to show restraint instead become their own censors, Ungar says, waiting to be fed the news by official sources.

Gutting, who was once an academic intern at The Sun, says he was trying to argue that people should examine Bush rather than exalt him.

And, he says, he sought to convince readers that "we should really be careful of what this war against terrorism is. We should be skeptical of what we are throwing all this money at."

The Texas City Sun serves a town that is a hub for petrochemical activity on the Galveston Bay, about 45 miles southeast of Houston. It is a blue-collar community where some Democrats count themselves as strong Bush supporters.

Gutting's piece struck his already distressed readership in the solar plexus. Scores of angry readers called the paper. Many decried Gutting as "un-American." One person walked into the office and showed an editor a gun permit, Gutting recalls, and said he had left the gun in his car only because he was a "God-fearing man."

The paper's editor and publisher, Les Daughtry Jr., wrote a front-page apology and a column that countered Gutting. Several days later, according to both men, Daughtry fired Gutting.

As city editor, Gutting was responsible for putting out the newspaper in the absence of the managing editor. While he routinely wrote columns in his three-month stint with the paper, Gutting was supposed to clear controversial topics with top management. That weekend, he says, he couldn't reach his boss in time.

"Anybody who's read this newspaper knows that we've had columns not favorable to Bush or [Vice President Dick] Cheney," Daughtry says. "I would have liked to at least had an idea that it was coming, and not resort to name-calling."

Gutting's failure to clear the column displayed poor judgment, disqualifying him from his job, Daughtry says. And in a newsroom with only seven employees, there were no other positions to offer Gutting, he says.

Gutting looks at it differently. "I really thought I was doing a uniquely American thing by being a voice of dissent," he says. "The beauty of American society is diversity of thought, not unity of thought." Instead, he believes, he was fired to silence a differing view that disturbed readers.

Not good journalism

When HBO produced a six-part documentary series on the training camp of the Baltimore Ravens, the cable network worked hand-in-glove with the NFL.

Just how close the relationship was has been disclosed by the Philadelphia Daily News and The New York Times. Several Ravens, including tight end Shannon Sharpe and defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, received payments from NFL Films for their time before the camera. It's chump change for the players - up to $8,000 each - but it complicates how one views what HBO put on.

"It was a surprise," says Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports. "If we do this kind of project again, we have to come up with a way that doesn't compromise the journalistic quality of the product, or the perceptions of that."

He suggests that any future payments go to charity.

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