Two distinguished experts in journalistic ethics differ sharply over the propriety of the upcoming six-hour series to be aired on CBS about Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes and his office as he is in the midst of a fierce battle to win a seventh term.
A national network’s allocation of such an extensive amount of airtime to an incumbent in close proximity to an election raises many troubling questions: Is it fair to the challengers? More fundamentally, does it skew the democratic process? The fairness doctrine died a long time ago, but should powerful media organizations exercise self-restraint in such situations? Should the decision to run with such a series rest within the sole discretion of the network? Should there be industry norms setting limits or guidelines as to the exercise of that discretion? Would such norms or limits constitute impermissible self-censorship?
Stephen B. Shepard, the founding dean of the graduate journalism program at City University of New York, pointedly questioned the wisdom of CBS’ airing the series. “They have a right to do it,” said Shepard, who was editor-in-chief of Business Week for more than 20 years, but the airing of the show runs the risk of “glorifying [Hynes] before an election.” For a network to devote six hours of coverage on a single candidate before an election is “totally out of the ordinary when is the last time you heard of a network doing [that].”
Richard C. Wald, a former senior vice president of ABC News, the question of whether to broadcast the series is “more a matter of taste or how-do-look-to-my-audience than a matter of ethics.” Wald, who holds a prestigious professorship at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said if “voters deserve to know the bad stuff” about a candidate before an election, “why not the good stuff?” Wald is the Fred W. Friendly professor of professional practice in media and society. Friendly was a pioneer in the development of broadcast news and worked closely with Edward R. Murrow and subsequently became president of CBS News.
CBS, through a spokesperson, declined to weigh in on the debate. Instead, in a statement, it advised that “CBS News does not publicly discuss its editorial process.”
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When CBS announced the series in late March, it issued a press release vowing that the series would take a “tough, candid look” at the work of the prosecutors in the office. The release also described the office’s lawyers as “hard charging prosecutors, who are “living the lives that Hollywood loves to write about. Their stories are raw and emotional.” The release also contains a quotation from its executive producer, Susan Zirinsky, which reads, “What makes this series so unique is getting into the lives and personalities of the individual DAs, led by Charles “Joe” Hynes.” Click here to read CBS release.
The series, which is titled “Brooklyn D.A.”, will air at 10 p.m. for six consecutive Tuesdays from May 28 through July 2. The Democratic primary will be held on Sept. 10.
The series will be produced by the same team of producers who put together “48 Hours,” also an hour-long show which focuses upon the investigation and prosecution of a single crime each week. At the outset of each “48 hours” episode this tagline scrolls across the screen: “Real people… Real crimes… Real life drama.” The producers of “48 Hours” are a part of CBS’ news division.
Hynes’ tenure as district attorney had been marked by some spectacular successes. One of the most spectacular—the 2007 conviction of Brooklyn Justice Gerald P. Garson for bribery—comes with video evidence, tailor-made for TV. Garson was captured on video coaching a lawyer how to handle a case that the judge was presiding over. A camera, which investigators placed in the ceiling of his robing room, records Garson telling the lawyer that his client would win though “he doesn’t deserve it.”
But, the office has also been the subject of sharp criticism. Last May, The New York Times ran an article reporting that the office yielded to requests from politically powerful ultra-Orthodox Hassidic rabbis that they be permitted to handle child molestation cases within their community.
More recently federal judges have had harsh words for the office’s handling of two murder cases. One federal judge in Brooklyn, writing that a murder case had been “rotten from day one” ordered the release of an inmate who had been in prison for 23 years. A second judge, during oral argument, questioned why Hynes had not disciplined one of Hynes’ top lieutenants for the way he handled a murder prosecution. That inmate had been incarcerated for 16 years before the office agreed to his unconditional release.
Hynes has recently taken moves that could blunt criticisms that the office has been overzealous in some of its prosecutions and unwilling to admit error when problems are called to its attention. Last month, Hynes agreed to the release of an inmate who had served 23 years in prison for the murder of an Orthodox rabbi during a diamond heist in 1990. Hynes acted upon the recommendation of a Conviction Integrity Unit, formed at the end of 2011, which discovered during a yearlong re-investigation that an eyewitness to the heist was now saying that a detective had coached him to pick the inmate out of a lineup.
Similarly, with respect to the claim that Hynes has been too cozy with powerful Brooklyn rabbis, the office in January obtained its first child-molestation conviction against a member of the ultra-orthodox Satmar sect since he took office in 1990.
Meanwhile, Hynes, 77, faces a tough re-election fight. Two well-funded opponents are challenging him: Kenneth P. Thompson, 46, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, who delivered the opening statement in the trial of the police officer who was convicted of sodomizing Haitian immigrant Abner Louima with a broken broomstick, and Abraham George, 33, a former Manhattan prosecutor, who spearheaded a year-long investigation while assigned to the citywide Special Narcotics Office, which dismantled a narcotics operation that had terrorized residents of the city housing project in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. George was with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for eight years before he resigned last summer to challenge Hynes.
Both challengers have vulnerabilities. Thompson represented the hotel maid who pressed rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund—a case that collapsed after the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office uncovered information that raised doubts about her credibility. Thompson did secure a monetary settlement for the maid, Nafissatou Diallo. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed.
George, prior to his entry to the race, had a thin list of accomplishments at the Manhattan office he could boast about.
In a borough where the white population is a shade less than 50 percent, Hynes has had a tough time against minority opponents. Though he faced no opposition four years ago, in 2005 he squeaked by a black state senator with two other white candidates in the race and, in 2001, a political unknown was able to claim 36 percent of the vote. Thompson is black, and George’s parents are immigrants from India.
Other Experts Weigh In
Merrill Brown, the director of the communications and media program at Montclair State College, said that to devote “six hours of coverage [to the incumbent] in the midst of a hot election race is wrong.”
“As a matter of simple fairness and equity,” added Brown, a network should avoid such a concentration of coverage on a single candidate raising the possibility that the candidate will be portrayed as the “most dedicated prosecutor in New York City.”
Kelly McBride, an ethics professor at Poynter Institute, said, after reading CBS’ press release, “I wonder if it is appropriate to put such emphasis on entertainment value in a news story.” The Poynter Institute, which is located in St. Petersburg, Fla., provides continuing legal education for journalists.
Al Tompkins, also a professor at Poynter, whose field is broadcast news, did not share McBride’s concerns, saying, “I have no doubt that [any program produced by the CBS news division] will not be a PR machine.” Additionally, he said, “the series may provide fodder for [Hynes’] opponents.”
Like McBride, Shepard, the dean of CUNY journalism school, expressed concern that the series could veer in the direction of entertainment in an effort to “gain viewership.” To be “fair-minded,” he added, the series should reflect the reality of the situation and contain substantive coverage of the election, including the totality of the criticism of the district attorney.”
Wald did not see anything inherently wrong in the personality-driven approach described in CBS’ press release. He did note, in his email responding to the issues I flagged in my request for an interview, that he would presume that a network “would NOT” [Wald’s emphasis] air a laudatory program on the night before an election “unless it were truly vital.”
Beyond that, he wrote, if such a program were to be broadcast “months” before an election, the question of whether to go ahead would be “a matter of choice, of taste, of appearance as to how long before an election such a thing is allowable or sensible.” But, he added, such a decision is not an ethical call but one “that is open to the judgment of the broadcaster.”
So, who had the better side of the argument? Though I am decidedly not an expert in journalistic ethics, I am going to be presumptuous enough to throw in my two cents. I agree with Shepard because I think that six hours of what looks like it will be personality- and ratings-driven television carries too great a risk of casting Hynes in a highly favorable light and possibly tilting the playing field toward Hynes, who already has the advantage of being able to attract coverage by exercising the powers of his office—as he did in deciding to release the prisoner who had been identified by a witness, who now claims to have been coached.
The lens, through which the show examines the office, is that of the foot soldiers on the ground handling difficult, sometimes sensational, cases fraught with difficulties. As Zirinsky, the series executive producer put it in CBS’ press release, viewers will get to see the prosecutors’ “successes and failures—it’s immediate, compelling and heart breaking.”
It is difficult to see how the hard work and dedication of the office’s prosecutors, many of whom are in their thirties and forties, will not rub off favorably on Hynes. And six hours is a LOT of airtime. Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly’s seminal 1960 expose on the plight of migrant workers ran in one installment, 55 minutes long.
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