Staying Away From Newtown: Rare restraint on shooting anniversary

I come today in praise of media self-restraint.

And for that, I imagine the people of Newtown are grateful.

As you may know, Saturday is the one-year anniversary of the heart-rending school massacre that left 20 children dead. Ordinarily, every TV outlet on the planet would invade the Connecticut town and be grabbing people to recount the horror—all in the name of reporting on the “healing” taking place.

In fact, what such a mass invasion does is disrupt the healing process by turning a community’s private grief into a public spectacle.

This time, however, some media outlets are just saying no.

Local politicians began speaking out a couple of weeks ago, asking the media to stay away during the anniversary.

First Hartford station WSFB said it wouldn’t send crews to Newtown, choosing instead to run profiles of the victims in the days leading up to the anniversary. The station said it was acting “out of respect for the community,” to “give people in the community time to be with each other to reflect on the events of that day.”

Imagine that.

Others began following suit. CNN said it wouldn’t send any crews. USA Today said its reporters will stay away.

Here’s why this is a breakthrough.

The public already thinks the media are populated by a bunch of insensitive clods. By respecting the community’s wishes, news organizations demonstrate that they are capable of empathy.

The other reason is that anniversary stories are essentially bogus. They are a media ritual that use an arbitrary date to go wild over a big story from the past. Some achieve a broader cultural significance, like the 10th anniversary of 9/11 or the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. But is Newtown a bigger story this week than it was last week or last month? The answer is obvious.

A similar question came up when the 911 tapes from the day of the tragedy were released. Most television operations played only snippets; some aired none at all. I don’t think they added anything to our understanding of the mass shooting. The guidance from Fox News management, to use the tapes sparingly, struck the right tone: Imagine if these were your neighbors and you were playing tapes that took them back to that awful day?

When there is a mass shooting or hurricane or flood or earthquake, it’s inevitable that hordes of journalists will parachute in. Their presence can be intrusive, but at least they are serving the broader public by reporting breaking news.

But there’s no real purpose for the media to descend on Newtown this Saturday, and kudos to those who are staying home.

Fox Reporter Wins Legal Victory

Jana Winter is no longer facing the prospect of being jailed for doing her job.

In a 4-3 ruling, New York’s top court ruled yesterday that the Fox News reporter didn’t have to testify in Colorado about her confidential sources in the Aurora movie-theater massacre.

It’s a major blow in favor of press freedom, “a terrific win for all journalists,” as Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes put it.

I frankly thought this was a long shot, since it required the Court of Appeals to say that New York’s strong shield law applied even though Winter was reporting in Colorado.

In a dissent, Justice Robert Smith wrote: "The majority is holding, in substance, that a New York reporter takes the protection of New York's Shield Law with her when she travels -- presumably, anywhere in the world.”

Winter had exclusively reported last year on notebooks with chilling drawings that accused shooter James Holmes had sent to his psychiatrist before last year’s killings.

The government wasn’t trying to force Winter to testify to determine his guilt or innocence. What was infuriating was that this was a legal sideshow initiated by Holmes’ lawyers to cast doubt on those who had denied being involved in the leak.

The case has had a big personal impact on Winter and made it more difficult for her to do her job. The prospect of  her being jailed—because no reporter can break the vow to protect sources and still function as a journalist—was an appalling one that has now been averted.

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