Did ‘Chicago Reader’ Twist Facts About ‘N.W. Herald’ Ad? A Letter Exchange

By: E&P Staff

Last week, E&P and several other news organizations noted a Chicago Reader column by media critic Michael Miner that reported the Northwest Herald in suburban Chicago had run a television ad that included an award-winning cartoon from a staffer who had been laid off months before.

The Herald took exception to the column, and the subsequent reports about the advertisement.

Below is an exchange of letters between Chris Krug, Group Editor/Vice President NorthWest News Group of Greater Chicago, the Northwest Herald’s parent company, and Reader Editor Allison True and columnist Miner.

There is also an e-mail commenting on the column from Andy Schotz, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee

***

Michael Crystal
Publisher
Chicago Reader, Inc.


July 16, 2007

Dear Mr. Crystal:

I am writing to express my deep concern with Michael Miner’s most recent Hot Type column, which appeared beneath the headline “The Old Sack and Brag: The Northwest Herald’s been running an ad touting the editorial cartoonist it laid off in October.” It published in the July 13, 2007, edition of Chicago Reader.

The subject of the column was former NorthWest News Group graphic artist Scott Nychay, whose position was eliminated in October 2006.

After reviewing the column with industry sources who were quoted in it, I believe that Mr. Miner, working closely with Mr. Nychay, sought to intentionally undermine the credibility of Northwest Herald and NWNG through a reckless engineering of fact and fancy. Their effort involved unsuspecting industry experts who were asked to comment on scenarios and circumstances that did not remotely approximate the facts. As written, the subhead is false and even contradicts what Mr. Miner wrote in his column.

Editor & Publisher and Poynter published versions of the story on their Web sites on Friday, and the Society of Professional Journalists included it on an e-mail briefing on Monday, further spreading the tainted content that the Reader created.

As such, I ask that you move quickly to conduct an internal audit of the process by which this story was constructed. And upon your determination that Mr. Miner acted maliciously and without regard for the truth, I ask that you retract the story in your next edition.

Mr. Miner’s column was centered on a purported ethical breach made by NWNG’s Northwest Herald, a daily newspaper that serves McHenry County, Illinois. In question was a 15-second television advertisement that was originally produced in 2005 and updated in July 2006. The ad promoted the Northwest Herald by listing several journalism honors the newspaper had been awarded in recent months.

In the column published by Chicago Reader, media ethicists were contacted for comment to support a notion put forward by Mr. Miner and his column’s subject, Mr. Nychay, that the Northwest Herald had used Mr. Nychay’s reputation to promote the public image of the newspaper through an advertisement created after Mr. Nychay had left the company.

In conversations I had with sources Mr. Miner cited in his story, some had been led to believe that NWNG had been made aware of the outdated content in the advertisement and had, despite such notice, refused to respond to it. Others thought that the commercial was created after Mr. Nychay left the company. As I told Mr. Miner in one of four conversations I had with him last week, neither scenario was accurate.

In fact, Mr. Nychay has never notified us of his dissatisfaction with the mention of an award he won while employed with NWNG. Although Mr. Miner reports that fact in his column, that fact was withheld when explaining the circumstances to three of the industry experts whom Mr. Miner or Mr. Nychay contacted for comment.

As I clearly told Mr. Miner, the ad in question was created several months before Mr. Nychay’s departure from the company.

When I asked Mr. Miner in that conversation whether he had viewed the commercial, Mr. Miner said he had not.

Anyone who viewed the commercial would have seen that it contained no mention of Mr. Nychay. It does acknowledge an award that he received while an employee of NWNG, and it briefly (on screen for less than 2 seconds) shows the cartoon for which that award was won. It also lists several other awards won by Northwest Herald staff members, a few of whom no longer work for the newspaper.

Newspapers make mistakes every day. Clearly, we made one in not knowing what message our marketing department had placed before the public. That spot was televised Monday through Friday between the hours of 5 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., and no one on our news staff had seen the commercial aired. Nonetheless, the message was ours, and we accept responsibility for it.

Whether it is ethical to promote an award won, on behalf of the company, by a former employee was not important to us when we learned that there was a question about the content of our promotional ad. We acted swiftly – literally within minutes after becoming aware of a potential issue with the content of our advertisement – to remove the promotional spot from rotation on CBS 2 Chicago so that we could appropriately review its content.

That review has caused us to ask: Are we, in fact, guilty of an ethical breach? We are not certain that we are.

Would it be unethical for the Chicago Tribune to boast of its 24 Pulitzer Prizes in any public- or industry-focused marketing? Surely, not all of the Pulitzer winners in the Tribune’s 160 years of existence are alive, or continue to work for the Tribune. But who would argue that those honors should not be associated with the Tribune for perpetuity?

NWNG’s commitment to ethical conduct is high. So high, in fact, that in 2006 we released our group’s Editorial Principles to the public. These principles can be found beneath the tab marked “Info” at any of the group’s Web sites.

I am not as certain that Mr. Miner constructed his column with any sense of duty to ethical conduct.

Back-checking Mr. Miner’s column with the experts whose comments he included revealed that his work is composed of half-truths and hyperbole, and contains a quotation from an ethicist at the Poynter Institute who says she has never spoken with Mr. Miner.

My conversation Friday with Poynter Institute ethicist Kelly McBride was the most troubling. She said that she had never spoken to Mr. Miner about this matter, but had received an e-mail from Mr. Nychay about the advertisement that featured a reference to his work. Ms. McBride said that it was her understanding that NWNG was aware of Mr. Nychay’s dissatisfaction with the promotional spot and ran it in spite of those concerns.

In Mr. Miner’s column, Ms. McBride was quoted in a way that strongly suggests that she was offering her comments to Mr. Miner for publication: “It’s kind of unethical and really pathetic,” wrote Kelly McBride, the Poynter Institute’s resident ethicist. “Kind of unethical because their commercials imply that you still work there, that they are proud of your work and that your work brings value to the paper in a way that sets it apart from its competitors. Really pathetic because they have no shame. Sure they let you go for economic reasons, but come on!!! If you’re going to lay a guy off, at least have the decency to come clean with the audience.”

That quotation, Ms. McBride said on Friday, was her response to Mr. Nychay in a private e-mail that she sent to him several weeks ago after he had contacted her to ask that she write a story about him.

After I related the true circumstances to her Friday, Ms. McBride said that she was “a victim” in this matter, and that NWNG was “a bigger victim – the victim of crappy journalism.”

Of the industry experts who commented for Mr. Miner’s story, only Andy Schotz, chairman of SPJ’s ethics committee, said he had viewed the commercial. However, Mr. Schotz was under the impression that the commercial was made after Mr. Nychay had left the company.

Mr. Schotz said that, after reading the column, he e-mailed Mr. Miner on Friday to express his dissatisfaction with the use of his comments after a resolution to the airing of the commercial had been articulated in the column. “When the column came out, I was surprised to see that there already had been a resolution,” Mr. Schotz said Monday. “My reaction to the question of whether this was ethical was made under the thinking that it was made after he was let go. … My comments and the comments from the others are made moot by the resolution, in my opinion.”

Joe Skeel, Editor of Quill, the monthly published by the Society of Professional Journalists, said Monday that his comments also were taken out of context and made with presumption that Mr. Nychay’s accounts were accurate. “I was responding to a specific question asked by an individual,” Mr. Skeel said. “I offered a personal opinion.”

Brent Cunningham, Managing Editor of the Columbia Journalism Review is quoted as saying the use of Mr. Nychay’s work in NWNG’s advertisement “Sounds dodgy to me.”

Mr. Cunningham said in our phone conversation Friday that Mr. Miner had taken his comments “out of context.”

Each of the industry experts confirmed for me what Mr. Miner had said in one of our conversations — that Mr. Nychay had, in the past few months, sent many people in the media industry a highly subjective e-mail about his separation from NWNG and the use of his cartoon in the aforementioned promotional ad.

Only Mr. Miner considered it worthy of print. And while columnists occasionally stumble upon a gem that many before had bypassed, in this case he picked up a piece of glass and fashioned it to be a diamond. His overzealous pursuit of this story has come at a cost to our reputation as an information company committed to the highest standards of ethical conduct.

In my conversation with Mr. Skeel, he asked, “Have you ever had journalism done to you? I feel as if journalism has been done to me in this case.” In some way, I think everyone who has been accused of alleged wrongdoing or been asked to comment on a perceived wrongdoing is asking the same question and come away with the same answer.

I look forward to your actions in this matter.

Respectfully,
Chris Krug
Group Editor/Vice President
NorthWest News Group of Greater Chicago


FROM THE READER:

Dear Mr. Krug–

Regarding your letter about Michael Miner and his column on Scott Nychay, the Chicago Reader supports Mr. Miner, stands by his story, and is proud of his many years of careful, ethical reporting. His response to your letter is attached.

I’ve cc’d those who received your letter as well as those who received Mr. Schotz’s letter earlier today.

Best,
Alison True

FROM MICHAEL MINER:

In response to Chris Krug’s letter of July 16:

The subhead is not incorrect. By Mr. Krug’s own account, after the Herald dismissed Scott Nychay it ran the ad touting him for eight months, finally pulling it when I called the station and asked about it. The ad did not name Mr. Nychay, but it cited an award he’d won and displayed his winning cartoon. “It was an oversight on our part,” Mr. Krug told me. Negligence can be raised in mitigation, but contrary to what Mr. Krug seems to think, it doesn’t exonerate.

In his letter, Mr. Krug wonders if the Herald did anything wrong at all. He compares the Herald ad calling attention to Mr. Nychay’s award and work to a Chicago Tribune ad focusing on that paper’s Pulitzer legacy. A better comparison would be to a hypothetical ad that boasted of its “Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist” and offered a look at one of the late Jeff MacNelly’s drawings. Such an ad is unthinkable.

Mr. Nychay didn’t solicit my column. Neither did the media experts he consulted, and I apologize to them–to Kelly McBride (whom I exchanged e-mails with) and Andy Schotz in particular–for not making it crystal clear that none of them was the source of any of the letters. An angry cartoonist far from Chicago sent the letters to me. He’d gotten them from another cartoonist. They were in circulation. They were no longer strictly between Mr. Nychay and his correspondents.

The people who responded to Mr. Nychay responded to a basic set of facts: Mr. Nychay had been sent packing, and the Herald subsequently used his work and award to promote itself. Some of them hesitated to weigh in without knowing more. Now Mr. Krug not only suggests the Herald committed no breach, he objects to my publishing letters that disagree.

Mr. Krug accuses me of acting “maliciously and without regard for the truth” (which any journalist understands as an accusation of defamation) by accurately reporting what people he respects had to say about his station’s conduct. He says that when I spoke to him I hadn’t seen the ad. I saw the ad even before I read the letters.

I regret not getting back to the letters’ authors after I heard from Mr. Krug and got his version of events. They deserved a second turn at bat. With little time for any new reporting, I called the TV station, WBBM, that had carried the ad and tried to double-check Mr. Krug’s story. Had the ad actually been pulled that morning (just before Mr. Krug, who knew what I’d trying to reach him about, called me back)? Had it been running for months before Mr. Nychay lost his job? Mr. Krug said yes, but Mr. Nychay said someone at the station told him it began running in January, three months after the Herald got rid of him. I was shunted around to various departments at WBBM without ever getting an answer. Perhaps as a fellow journalist he can agree with me that it wasn’t time to return to the letter writers with a fresh set of facts until I myself knew those facts to be true.

After Mr. Krug’s letter arrived, I tried again. What I’ve learned on this go-round is sketchy and second-hand–that is, from a publicist-but so far nothing that contradicts Mr. Krug.


Michael Miner
Senior Editor and Media Columnist
Chicago Reader
July 18, 2007

FROM A SOURCE QUOTED IN THE STORY

Andy Schotz chairman of the Society of Professional Journalist’s Ethics Committee, who was quoted in Miner’s column, also weighed in with an e-mail to The Reader:

Mr. Crystal-

I’d like to clarify a few points in Mr. Krug’s letter, since I’ve been
mentioned specifically and as part of a group.

I commented on the situation for Mr. Miner’s story under the assumption that the ad was created, and that it aired, after the newspaper eliminated Mr. Nychay’s job. That was my own interpretation, not influenced by Mr. Miner. He was making the same assumption, which is why he was writing his story.

What surprised me when I read the story is that the newspaper’s explanation of what happened was different from the assumption we had beforehand. I expressed that surprise in an e-mail to Mr. Miner. I told him that if I had known the newspaper’s explanation (that the airing of the ad after Mr. Nychay was let go was inadvertent and the ad was pulled right away), I would not have said what I said — there would have been no point. If the first half of a story consists of experts criticizing an intentional action, then the action is found to be unintentional, that, in my mind, makes all of the critical comments moot.

Knowing that a story can change 180 degrees at the last minute, I didn’t assume that Mr. Miner had intentionally withheld information during interviews, or that he was intent on writing a slanted story, and I don’t accuse him of either. But I was puzzled how he could have stuck to a premise in the first half of his story when it appeared to have been disproven.

The result was: “Here’s what a bunch of people said assuming this was true. It’s not true, but here’s what they said anyway, before they knew it wasn’t true.”

Or is there still a question about the timing of the ad? Maybe it wasn’t
created or put on the air until after Mr. Nychay’s job was cut? That wasn’t in the story.

One other point:

Further in the letter, Mr. Krug wrote, “Each of the industry experts
confirmed for me what Mr. Miner had said in one of our conversations – -that Mr. Nychay had, in the past few months, sent many people in the media industry a highly subjective e-mail about his separation from NWNG and the use of his cartoon in the aforementioned promotional ad.”

I did not tell Mr. Krug that and didn’t comment at all on what Mr. Nychay might have sent anyone, nor would I have.

Andy Schotz
Chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee

(Anyone who received Mr. Krug’s letter the first time is free to use anything I said here in a follow-up story or letter if they want.)


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