By: John Armstrton
THE LETTER FROM International Creative Management hummed in over the fax in the Times newsroom just 48 hours after the news broke of Margaret Lesher’s death.
From Beverly Hills, ICM agent Nicole Clemens suggested we strike a deal for a feature film or TV movie script. ICM is “very intrigued” by the story, she told us. We politely turned her down.
On the same day, the Globe, that smarmy supermarket magazine, asked us if it could buy some pictures of Lesher and her husband, “T.C.” Thorstenson. We turned down the Globe, but this time we weren’t particularly polite.
The top editor of the Globe went so far as to appeal to our parent company in Miami, to no avail.
In Arizona, where Lesher died, friends of Thorstenson told us they rejected offers of $15,000 each to talk about their buddy on the TV show, Hard Copy.
Lesher family members felt harassed by television and print reporters. Thorstenson hunkered down and later lamented about the “grilling” he received in the press.
Welcome to the media squall that swirled around the tragic death of Margaret Lesher, one of the East Bay’s most prominent citizens.
Her story was made to order for tabloid TV. She was attractive and very wealthy. She had married a man 25 years her junior just six months earlier. She was a socialite and philanthropist, her new husband was a rodeo performer. And she died under puzzling circumstances, a drowning victim at a popular lake where her husband and she had gone on a last-minute camping trip.
All of this fueled street speculation and whetted the appetite, however briefly, of some elements of the national media, including CNN and the aforementioned Hard Copy and Globe.
The story presented a special challenge to us because Margaret Lesher was a member of the extended Times family. Her late husband, Dean Lesher, founded the Times, and after his death she owned the paper and its parent company, Lesher Communications, before selling to Knight-Ridder for $360 million less than two years ago.
It also presented the special challenge faced by all hometown newspapers when the national media pounces on a local story; that is, how a local paper pursues “we-must-own-this-story” coverage while respecting the privacy and wishes of the local family and their friends.
The touring media circus inevitably packs up and moves to the next town, but the local newspaper stays put. How the hometown paper comports itself in the maelstrom of big story coverage says a lot about its values and sensibilities, its willingness to balance journalistic aggressiveness with an appropriate level of restraint.
The Times had a leg up on the Lesher story. Over the years, people in the company, both in and out of the newsroom, had developed relationships with the Lesher family and with those involved with the Lesher Foundation.
We assigned more reporters and photographers to the story than any other newspaper, and we hit the story hard. It topped our front page on five of the seven days between the reports of her death and her funeral. From the start, we tried to strike the right balance between aggressiveness and restraint.
u When T.C. Thorstenson decided to speak to the media, he chose us for an exclusive interview, in part responding to our repeated requests. Since the story would appear on the day of visitation, the day prior to the memorial service, our editors debated for hours where the story should be played and the text of the headline. Ultimately, we decided to run the story across the top of the front page, and we settled on a headline that respected the feelings of the family: “T.C.: ‘The way I remember her.’ “
u We were careful in our use of descriptive words. Television regularly referred to the “mysterious” circumstances surrounding Lesher’s death. We settled on “puzzling” as a more neutral adjective.
u On the day before the memorial service, the Lesher family decided that no press cameras would be allowed at the service. The daughters were concerned that their grief might be exploited, and they wanted no pictures of their mother’s open casket. The daughters subsequently agreed to allow one member of our staff to serve as a pool photographer, with the understanding that the pictures would be respectful of their concerns.
When the most powerful, poignant picture turned out to be one of T.C.’s placing a kiss on the forehead of his wife, we showed the photo to the daughters and received their permission to publish it.
u The toughest judgment call came in the hours after the memorial service. Reports surfaced that Thorstenson’s second wife (Lesher was his third) filed three domestic violence complaints against him, an irony given Lesher’s widely publicized support of programs for battered women.
Times editors initially decided to hold the story for a day so it would not take away from coverage of the memorial service, but Phoenix and San Francisco stations telecast the report, and we learned that at least two Bay Area papers planned to publish it. We compromised by placing our story on an inside page that did not contain memorial service coverage.
As careful as we tried to be during that first week following Lesher’s death, we did not satisfy everyone. As a few letters in our Perspective section illustrated, some of our readers were offended by this Times headline: “Lesher legally drunk when she downed.”
And one family member complained that we published comments of his that he thought were off the record.
And despite having family approval for the memorial service photo, a number of readers called in protesting that it was in bad taste.
The reporters, photographers and editors at the Times were acutely aware of the sensitivities involved in the Lesher story because so many of them personally knew her or her family members.
I suspect one wouldn’t find much disagreement around the Times newsroom or around the community that the extra attention we gave to these sensitivities made for better, more responsible coverage.
It serves as a reminder that we need to be equally sensitive reporting all the tragedies we cover.
?(Armstrong is editor of the Contra Costa Times. This is a slightly condensed version of his first-person account which appeared in the newspaper and on its Web site.) [Caption]
?E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com.
?copyright: Editor & Publisher May 31, 1997