Editors face passions in coverage decisions

December 12, 2004|By Paul Moore

THE DATE, Dec. 7, 1941, still has powerful hold on many Americans, 63 years after the attack by the Japanese on American forces at Pearl Harbor. Newspapers remember it with tributes to the fallen soldiers and to others who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

The Sun's three-part series "Return to Minidoka: An American Journey," which ran Dec. 5-7, documented an extended Japanese-American family's search for its identity in the context of internment camps, in which 120,000 Japanese immigrants and their American-born children were forcibly placed after the Pearl Harbor attack.

The articles by Sun reporter Erika Niedowski chronicle the Yamada family's pilgrimage this year to Minidoka, Idaho, where 81-year-old Mitsuye Yamada, her mother and brothers were interned during the war. They are told through the eyes of Mitsuye Yamada's daughter, Jeni Yamada, who hopes to understand how the internment affected her life and those of her siblings and her children.

Because the Pearl Harbor attack triggered the U.S. government's decision to relocate and detain men, women and children of Japanese descent, publishing the series on the week of Dec. 7 seemed logical.

A number of readers strongly disagreed. "Erika Niedowski's story about the Minidoka internment camp was very touching," said Mark Johnson, "but as I recall, the Japanese dropped the bombs that killed 2,300 Americans on 12/7/41. I can't seem to find The Sun's front-page coverage documenting the horror and suffering that Americans families endured from that attack. A little balance would be nice."

(The Sun's coverage of Pearl Harbor remembrances ran on the Metro section fronts Dec. 7 and the next day. )

Another reader, who said the Minidoka articles "were moving and beautifully written," felt the timing of the package was wrong. "It troubles me because it appears that The Sun has a political or social agenda by running it the week of Dec. 7."

John G. Davis, a longtime Sun reader, called the package "a slap in the face to veterans. My father died at Pearl Harbor, so I take it very personally," he said. Winifred Kilian said: "The Japanese-American stories were unpatriotic because they diminished the importance of the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers."

How far should The Sun go in recognizing the symbolic importance that readers place on holidays and anniversaries? Along with Dec. 7, a list of potentially hot-button dates includes Martin Luther King Day, Easter, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas and, of course, Sept. 11.

Beyond marking the anniversaries, are there some topics that newspapers should avoid on these days?

Some journalists believe such sensitivity is symptomatic of a growing timidity at U.S. newspapers, which increasingly are making decisions designed to avoid offending specific groups of readers. They argue that especially since Sept. 11, 2001, many papers have become overly conscious of appearing unpatriotic and have shied away from political subjects that could make readers uncomfortable.

There was debate about the timing of the Minidoka series among The Sun's top editors. They discussed whether holding it a week would mitigate potential controversy.

Michael Gray, the articles' supervising editor, argued for the Dec. 5-7 dates. "The stories, as you know, do not in any way lend any sympathy to Japan itself or its role in World War II," Gray wrote. "What they do is present the story of something that happened here in America as a result of that day, and its effect on the people who were the target of internment."

Gray's arguments, along with those by author Niedowski and others, eventually persuaded the top editors to publish the series as planned.

The family debated the timing, too. Jeni Yamada's husband, Bill Agnew, said their son, Aaron, wondered if some people would liken it to a story about a Muslim family being published on the anniversary of Sept. 11. But they finally endorsed the decision, calling the series "a story about patriotism and perseverance." They paid a price.

"Today I received a hostile letter in my home mailbox from the wife of a veteran, indignant about the articles and telling me I should get down on my knees every day and give thanks that I live here," Jeni Yamada wrote in an e-mail late last week.

She wondered what would have happened to her interned grandfather if he had been arrested after 9/11. "Vengeance is not the same as justice," she wrote. "And when we dismantle civil liberties, we erode democracy."

For editors at The Sun, the decision to publish the series was not particularly courageous or momentous. It was, however, the right decision. It was a case of editors trusting their instincts and letting readers determine how relevant the timing of the series was.

As Niedowski said later: "For members of this family and to so many others of Japanese descent, Dec. 7 was the day that changed their lives forever. ... I felt there was no better time to tell that story - which, in a broad sense, is a very American one - than around the anniversary of that day itself."

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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