By: George Garneau Protest column refuting rape allegation; petition claims editors hold columnists to different standards sp.
Columnist Earl Caldwell's controversial exit from the New York Daily News has reverberated through a newsroom dispute over a column by Mike McAlary. In a petition referring to Caldwell, more than 30 Daily News journalists called for the paper to apologize for McAlary's refutation of a woman's rape allegation. "McAlary's column, and the News' hypocritical performance, are a disgrace," said the petition, addressed to editor Martin Dunn, executive editor Debby Krenek, metropolitan editor Richard Gooding and managing editor Martin Gottlieb, In the April 28 column, before the News reported the incident in its news columns, McAlary called the rape accusation "outrageous." He wrote that the woman, a lesbian activist, "has an active imagination," and that everyone who heard the allegation was calling it "a hoax. The woman, who probably will wind up being arrested herself, invented the crime, they said." He said police could find no evidence to corroborate her account. After the column appeared, the city police commissioner apologized for any role the department may have played in disparaging the woman's account, and newspapers, including the News, reported that police had found semen on the victim. "Without speaking to the victim, McAlary was allowed to judge and convict the woman," petitioners said. "No reporter, whether writing an opinion column or a news story, should be allowed to rush to judgment without at least trying to hear the opposing view, the petition said. "And no newspaper that values its own integrity should blindly endorse a column that violates such a basic rule of journalism, especially when evidence proves it wrong." Both the News and McAlary have stood by the column. When the News ran a news story disclosing evidence supporting the rape allegation, it appeared beneath another McAlary column discrediting the woman's account. "How ironic that the News ran a story indicating McAlary's rape 'hoax' was wrong just below a new McAlary column claiming yet another hoax," the petition said. McAlary strongly defended his reporting and said the petition signers "are wrong. They are all incompetent because they never did any work" on the story. "If they were going to accuse me of not being a good reporter, at least they could have called me, and I would have told them what was going on," he said. He called the woman "a liar and a hoaxer. If she would like to sue me she can, but she hasn't because she can't prove her case in court." The paper has stood by his column, and a similar one two days later, because the editors know the facts and his sources, he said. "Everything I wrote was true. Not one thing I wrote has been denied by the cops," he said. He also refuted reports, including one in the News, that police found semen on the woman. The petition was not meant as an attack on McAlary, said one of the signers. "We felt [McAlary] should be held to the same standards [Caldwell] was held to . . . . We just thought the editors should have been more careful." The News released a statement saying it ran McAlary's column, after he met with editors, "based on absolute confidence in his reporting and his sources. On the other hand, Earl Caldwell declined to participate in discussions that would have resolved the very letitimate concerns that prevented the publication of his column." The situation is not without precedent in the contentious 42nd Street newsrooom, where News staffers have complained before about their own paper's coverage of rape cases, such as those involving William Kennedy Smith and several Met baseball players. The paper has had picketers protesting its actions regarding Caldwell and the alleged rape victim. Ironically, using the same language used to defend the decision to suppress a Caldwell column, the petition accused the paper of applying a double standard. It called Caldwell's case "confusing" but concluded that his rejected column "was held to a far higher standard of accuracy." Caldwell, who is black and has threatened a lawsuit, said editorial page editor Arthur Browne, who is white, fired him during an argument over the phone about the column, which reported a civil suit's allegations that a white police officer had raped half a dozen black livery cab drivers (E&P, April 30, p. 9). Browne denied firing the columnist and defended his decision to reject the column because it "convicted" the officer. Caldwell argued he had a right to express his opinion in his op-ed page column. McAlary, the paper's leading columnist who appears up front in the news pages, argued his column was aaccurate. The columnists answered to different editors. The petition pointed out that less than a week before McAlary's column, the News ran a four-part series on rape encouraging victims to come forward. The petition was disclosed in the competing city tabloids, in a gossip item in New York Newsday and in a page-two story in the New York Post. Not surprisingly in a tabloid competition characterized by journalistic attacks, both papers also weighed in with columns condemning McAlary's News column ? Newsday from the left and the Post from the right. In other developments, the National Association of Black Journalists and its New York affiliate expressed concern about the loss of Caldwell's column of 15 years. In a statement they said Caldwell tried to shed light on an under-reported story and called on the News to reinstate him "if it is truly interested in serving its audience as the 'hometown paper' for all New Yorkers." The Caldwell affair also has opened a political rift among black journalists. Playthell Benjamin used his new Daily News op-ed page column to counter-punch an editorial blow struck by Wilbert Tatum, editor and publisher of the black-oriented weekly Amsterdam News. In a column on Caldwell, Tatum said the News considers its black columnists, Benjamin, Stanley Crouch and William Raspberry, "safe" and said of Benjamin and Crouch, "These guys just may be for rent rather than for sale." "I have never held you in high regard," Benjamin responded in a column designed as open letter to Tatum. "Now you've opened your signifying' mouth and removed all doubt." Headlined "Bill Tatum-lowly hypocrite and political chameleon," the column accused Tatum of seeking revenge for Benjamin's having called him an "unprincipled fraud" on radio. ?( The Controversial column) [Photo & Caption]