WWJD?

6a00d83451c45669e20120a75559d2970b-800wiThere’s a lesson for journalists and a lesson for public officials in what is proving to be a fiasco.

It began on Monday, when the Taunton Gazette reported that a second-grader had been sent home from school and required to undergo a psychological evaluation because he drew a picture of Jesus on the cross.

The boy’s father told the Gazette that his son drew the picture in response to a class assignment in which students were asked to draw something that made them think of Christmas. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re violating his religion,” the father, Charles Johnson, told Gazette reporter Gerry Tuoti.

The story created a brief sensation, as it seemed to be another example of political correctness run amok. But it began falling apart almost immediately. Today, David Abel writes in the Boston Globe that Taunton school officials say there was no class assignment, and that the boy’s teacher became alarmed when she found the drawing because the boy told her it was himself, not Jesus, on the cross.

For good measure, Johnson comes across in the Globe like he’s only interested in one thing: money. He is quoted as saying he wants “a small lump sum” and that his family “should be compensated for our pain and suffering.”

What strikes me about Tuoti’s original Gazette story is the pains he took to confirm it. He contacted the boy’s principal, Rebecca Couet, who referred all comment to school superintendent Julie Hackett. Hackett, in turn, declined to say anything, calling it “a confidential matter regarding a student.”

Given that, there are not too many news organizations that wouldn’t run with the story. (And, in fact, Abel’s Globe story freely bashes the Gazette in a way I find unwarranted — though Gazette editor Dino Ciliberti could have helped himself if he’d returned Abel’s calls.)

So the first lesson, for journalists, is that just because officialdom does not avail itself of an opportunity to knock down your story, that shouldn’t be taken as confirmation. (On a far more cosmic level, I recall that CBS News was very excited when someone showed those phony National Guard documents about George W. Bush to then-White House spokesman Scott McClellan, and that McClellan didn’t dispute their authenticity.)

Would I have run with the story? Yes, I would have, and I suspect most editors and news directors would have as well. And I don’t think the Gazette has anything to be embarrassed about. But if I were a television reporter who stuck a microphone in the faces of passersby to ask them what they thought of Taunton’s war on Christmas, I’d be just a little bit chagrined right now.

The second lesson is for public officials, and it’s rather simple: When you choose not to comment in response to a reporter’s inquiry, use your imagination and picture the consequences. And tell the truth.

Why am I suggesting that there was a lack of candor? Because, on Monday, superintendent Hackett told the Gazette she was forbidden from talking about an individual student. And on Tuesday, she couldn’t shut up. Abel writes:

She [Hackett] said the drawing was seen as a potential cry for help when the student identified himself, rather than Jesus, on the cross, which prompted the teacher to alert the school’s principal and staff psychologist. As a result, the boy underwent a psychological evaluation….

“In this case, as in any other case involving the well-being of a student, the administration acted in accordance with the School Department’s well-established protocol,’’ she said in a statement. “This protocol is centered upon the student’s care, well-being, and educational success. The protocol includes a review of the student’s records.”

That’s quite an outburst of non-confidential verbiage. And it strongly suggests that Hackett was either being less than candid when she told the Gazette on Monday that she couldn’t address the issue, or that she intentionally violated the boy’s privacy on Tuesday in an attempt to clean up the mess. My guess is that it was the former. (I also hope the Gazette on Monday did not let her believe that she had succeeded in killing the story.)

In her interview with the Globe, Hackett accuses the Gazette of not giving school officials sufficient time to respond. That’s a serious charge, but it doesn’t square with her telling the Gazette that she couldn’t speak about a “confidential” matter.

Hackett also calls the Gazette’s report “totally inaccurate.” In fact, she has misdiagnosed the problem. It was entirely accurate, but it appears not to have been true. She needs to take some responsibility for that.

More coverage from the Gazette and the Boston Herald. Here is some right-wing reaction to the initial story (via Chris Bodenner). And here is a lengthy statement from the Taunton School Department, which, of course, would never violate the confidentiality of its students.

Update: The Globe’s David Abel offers some further thoughts in the comments.

36 thoughts on “WWJD?

  1. BillH

    First, the Taunton Daily Gazette, a GateHouse paper, is well known in southeastern Massachusetts as the least reliable source of news, and for the very reason that it now finds itself in difficulty. Inexperienced reporters consistently jump the gun on sensational stories and the paper, under Ciliberte’s leadership, publishes them in ever-shrinking news holes. These serve no purpose except to inflame those readers who think important issues can be covered in two paragraphs. Second, although public officials, including the superintendent of schools, have an obligation to inform the public about actions taken within their departments, they are under no obligation to do so to meet the local newspaper’s deadline. The Taunton superintendent is a meticulous, circumspect person who knows both the law and local school policy. She has a much larger responsibility toward the community and its people (including its kids), than does the Gazette reporter who needs to jump this into the system before the 7 p.m. deadline for the next day’s edition.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @BillH: Your beef with the Taunton Gazette doesn’t strike me as responsive to the matter at hand. Some questions for you.

      1. The superintendent did not say she needed more time; she said she wasn’t going to comment. At that point, do you think the Gazette should have killed the story?

      2. If the superintendent is “meticulous” and “circumspect,” why did she go from refusing to comment to, one might argue, violating the student’s privacy?

  2. mike_b1

    I’d be more worried about the fact that no one seems to realize Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, not his crucifixion (that was Easter, which is far and away the more significant religious holiday).

  3. zadig

    It’s not hard to imagine that the school officials were unwilling to violate the boy’s privacy *until* his father and the complicit media had done their best to throw all pretense of privacy out the window. At that point, the school should feel free to defend itself.

    I don’t know if that’s their reasoning (and of course, neither does anyone else), but it’s worth mentioning as a possible explanation.

    And it’s pathetic just how silent the right-wing radio has been this morning after going non-stop on this yesterday when poor oppressed Christians were still the victims. Now that the school is shown to be appropriate and responsible, they can’t shut up enough, can they.

    And I was skeptical about the whole thing when they kept saying yesterday that the drawing was to satisfy an assignment to draw something that reminded them of Christmas. No public school teacher would assign something that specific. Reminding them of the holiday season, maybe. But Christmas would never (nor should it) be specified in the assignment. Gullible right-wingers.

  4. BillH

    Dan, both your questions are valid. First–and I don’t know what the superintendent was thinking–but I’m sure that she knew that the story wasn’t going to go away, that it was in fact growing every minute and that sooner or later she was going to have to comment fully. I believe she did what any good manager would do: get the facts, talk to the main characters involved and then make a statement. Second, I think she spoke out because, after the kid’s father had spoken to every news outlet that called him–and he called a few himself– there was no more privacy to violate.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @BillH: Good practice would have been for the Gazette to read the father’s quotes to the superintendent on Monday. I hope that’s what happened. The editor could have clarified by returning the Globe’s call.

      If the superintendent had told me, “I’m learning about this from you. Can I please ask you to hold off until I’ve had a chance to investigate?”, I would like to think I’d have honored that request, especially since there was no reason to believe anyone else had the story. But we have no indication that the superintendent said anything like that.

  5. recon

    media nation , your second lesson to be learned by public officials should also apply to reporters… when they (public officials) won’t comment use your imagination and examine the consequences before running the story without all the facts. school officials aren’t there to serve a reporter’s ambitions but the taunton public. as it turns out, i think the T. Gazette has egg on its face big time!!!

    also, this story got big play on WTKK’s Michelle McAfee program last nite. she’s an idiot who is a disgrace to journalists who really work hard at their task of providing legitimate well sourced, well reported and well written news.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @recon: I think you make some good points about the Gazette. You’re right, someone should have realized they could be wrong.

      If you are going to be unkind to Michele McPhee, you should get at least one of her names right. I’m not a fan, but if you are suggesting that radio talk-show hosts conduct independent investigations before commenting on stories in the news, I am not going to go there. I’d add that the same standard applies to us poor bloggers.

  6. recon

    oops about her name but as a reporter ( nyc and boston) she shouldn’t open her mouth without some facts . be interesting to listen in and see if she has any other comments

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @recon: Not to belabor this, but McPhee had facts, published by a newspaper with a decent reputation. I’m not sure what you are asking her to do. Is she supposed to re-report every news story she comments on? I can tell you that if I were held to such a standard, I would have to shut down this blog and stop writing my weekly Guardian column. We opinionators riff off the news. What we produce may be low-value compared to original reporting, but I don’t think anyone is laboring under false notions of what it is we do.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    The following is the full text of an e-mail from Boston Globe reporter David Abel:

    Hey Dan,

    I just read your post about the Taunton mess. As an admirer of your evenhanded, often lucid analysis, I thought you were missing some of the picture in today’s post and thought you would appreciate more detail about why we published the story we did.

    When I was assigned the story, like most other reporters, I read the piece in the Taunton Daily Gazette. There were some rather damning claims in that story. So we went to Taunton to check them out. When I arrived, there were satellite trucks and reporters from Providence to Boston waiting in line to interview the boy’s father, who was holding court at his girlfriend’s apartment, reveling in the media attention. By that point, the story began appearing on national websites, all parroting the allegations made in the initial story.

    When I went to interview the dad, I asked him to recount what happened. The bottom line, after speaking to him for about a half hour: It seemed to me that his account didn’t quite follow, and his story changed when asked about when and why his son drew the picture. He also kept repeating that he hoped to profit off the story, and the media attention.

    At that point, there was a considerable amount of pressure to post what we had heard from the dad on our website. But given what he said, and my questions about the veracity of the account, I suggested we not post anything until we had a chance to scrub the story with school officials, who had not answered multiple calls at that point. So I drove to the superintendent’s office and told them I would not leave until they answered my questions. After a few minutes, the superintendent invited me into her office, and she went through the allegations. At the time, she was meeting with a district lawyer to figure out what she could say, because of the confidentiality issues.

    During our meeting, she cited errors throughout the initial story, from small to large. It started with banner headline on the front page of the Gazette, which said the boy was suspended. She said he was never suspended. She said neither he nor other students were ever asked to sketch something that reminded them of Christmas or any religious holiday. She said it was unclear whether the boy even drew the picture at school, and she raised questions about whether the picture published in the Gazette was the image that sparked the teacher’s initial concern. She also alluded to issues that would have given the teacher reason to believe that the picture she did see was potentially a cry for help, but for confidentiality reasons she did not provide details. She said the paper even got the boy’s age wrong. “Religion had nothing to do with this at all, 100 percent nothing to do with it,’’ she said.

    She also said she asked the paper to allow her to investigate the allegations, before they ran their story. She questioned the paper’s motives and cited an editorial published on the Gazette’s website yesterday by Dino Ciliberti, the editor of the paper, which seemed to pile on, without raising questioning about the facts. He called the school’s actions “a shame” and argued that the district had “turned this into a major story.” He added: “Instead of trying to work with children and applaud their creativity and their sense of expression, we condemn the child as if he has committed some crime. The only crime here is that the educators failed this child.”

    With this information, I called Ciliberti. He did not return my calls.

    We had two choices: ignore the story or report the contradictions. We chose the latter, because the story had received so much attention. We also chose to note the inconsistencies in the original story, because it created such a stir.

    Best,
    David

  8. Michael Pahre

    Dan: you should add an “update” to the post itself along with a link to David Abel’s comment. It pretty much answers all the questions, I think.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: I suppose you’re right. When trying to follow good blog protocol, it sometimes seems there are too many bases to cover. But I will.

  9. Neil

    Thanks for the thorough inside baseball analysis.

    From the outside, which is the perspective of the public which is to be informed by the press, it appears that journalists are attracted to culture war stories like flies to shit. It is somewhat distasteful to us but not to flies for some reason.

    If the truth had been apparent, this wouldn’t have made news.

    When can we start calling them the Taunton balloon boy family?

  10. Peter_the_Gr8

    This whole thing reminds me of The Wire: Season 5. This is what happens when all the real reporters are bought out and papers are desperate to keep up with instant news on the web and 24 hour cable news networks.

  11. Newshound

    This is turning into a story about the story.

    I read in the Boston Herald that the mayor of Taunton called the school superintendent requesting apologies, etc. Mayor Crowley is a decent, honorable person and like the rest of us could be disrupted over the initial reports.

    I can recall incidents in which I quickly called the school superintendent, and if the story was as fractured as what Mr. Abel tells, I would have left it alone – that is if I were the Gazette editor breaking the story – not what Mr. Abel reports. Of course, that is if I truly believed the superintendent and found discrepancies with the parents’ story.

    But, if I thought a child had been abused and I had a shred of evidence with a cover-up with the superintendent I would not have given up. I would have delayed and dug deeper. Much deeper.

    Mr. Abel it appears handled his work in a most professional manner. He served his readers and as a byproduct the school department and administrator by reporting important details about this story.

    As for the school superintendent, I suspect this was coming at her faster than she could respond and perhaps her willingness to be more open and perhaps defensive on the second day was an attempt to place what she believed to be facts to calm an uproar. And, this is a story worthy of a mighty big uproar if it turns out to be true as initially reported.

    I think the Gazette should have waited. Competition isn’t that fierce these days. The overlap daily is The Enterprise, also a GateHouse paper. Maybe the superintendent was being a little too curt and self-serving the first day, but I don’t know if there are accurate reports to substantiate that.

    With or without competition, the newspaper business must maintain its integrity and accuracy with its reporting.

  12. LFNeilson

    I agree with Newshound: a story about a story.

    A second-grader draws a picture. He certainly isn’t expected to differentiate between Christmas and Easter. Then he told the teacher that it was him on the cross — well, teachers often encourage kids to explain their drawings. Did the kid assert this without questioning, or was it in response to questions, maybe leading questions?

    If he had simply drawn a dinosaur eating people, I don’t think there would have been a problem. (Pardon me for conjecture.) But because the tyke crossed the line of religion, it became the stuff of media attention.

    I would assert that the problem isn’t the drawing, the kid, the teacher or the superintendent. It’s the domino-effect of media coverage of an inane matter.

  13. Steve Stein

    Jay Severin and Michelle McPhee are going full-tilt on this story. Severin had a call from Taunton City Council President David Pottier, who gave the Taunton Schools’ version of the facts. Jay politely said goodbye, spent the next couple of hours calling him a liar after Pottier was no longer on the line. McPhee is also going with “the school committee is lying” line.

    I can’t tell who’s telling the truth but I’m sure neither one cares what the actual facts of the case are.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: The more you listen, the less you know! If I had to boil my thoughts down to one sentence, it would be this: I believe the superintendent, but I’ve got some problems with the way she’s handled this.

  14. Newshound

    The way I viewed this is that the community was outraged by its judgment of a harmless drawing from a young student. To many if not virtually all of of us, the drawing seems well within limits. The newspaper reported that it was the letter X used for the eyes that triggered this event at school that allegedly resulted in actions that caused the young lad to suffer emotional and psychological damage, and the father was then asking for the city to pay for the child to be enrolled in another school.

    If the superintendent did tell the truth to the Boston Globe reporter and that the parents’ story is flawed, this almost becomes a hoax, but not completely though, as the child has become, through no fault of his own, an inappropriate public celebrity. That is what is so sad, and I think why the community, including Mayor Crowley, is so outraged because of its care and concern for a child over a most innocuous drawing, and especially considering the age of the artist.

  15. I just want to say, there are some fine journalists at the Tauton Gazette, including Dino. In my brief dealings with Dino, I believe he’s a caring and conscientious editor.

    It’s not unusual for initial reports to come up short because often information is just coming in and sources will withhold or play games with information often through no ill-will of their own, but because they’re still coming to grips with things.

  16. Newshound

    Dan and Larz – well said. Harm to the child is issue No. 1.

    I know it is Monday morning quarterbacking, but I would have been mighty careful of breaking this story too early, and I can hardly imagine providing information that leads to the identity of the child.

    I saw on tv this morning the superintendent of schools and a display of another drawing which allegedly was the real cause for concern. That is just making this story snowball. Perhaps school authorities were prudent in their judgment and work prior to the publicity, but now I question the school superintendent putting into the public forum a questionable child’s drawing, and I would not have published the drawing under most circumstances. Maybe if this were being discussed at a well attended forum in an auditorium and it was posted for public display I wouldn’t hesitate in publishing.

    The media has a duty not to contribute to the child’s distress. Even if the superintendent and parents are not properly protecting the child, the newspaper is not excused from participating. And, that is a story too, along with a more carefully and protective story about school policy and the way the superintendent handles touchy matters.

  17. mike_b1

    Let’s be fair about this: If I’m an educator, would I put my career on the line because some parent (not to mention a few media types) is clearly a few branches shy of a full tree?

    My guess is, this isn’t one of the things they teach at superintendent school. You’ve running a school district in some unknown Mass. town, and the biggest thing on your mind is what you’re going to get your spouse for Christmas, then all of a sudden you have media from all over calling (and one reporter who says he “won’t leave until they answer his questions,” to which they should have responded, “We lock the doors at 6 and turn the heat to 55, so I hope you brought a warm coat”), the parent of some random student is holding press conferences, and your response has become a nationwide concern. And, amid all of this, you’re supposed to be worried about a little kid you’ve never met? How would YOU respond?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @mike_b1: Confidentiality is a very important consideration, and often mandated by law. I would think that school officials would put themselves less at risk by respecting confidentiality than they would by vigorously defending themselves at the expense of a second-grader.

      Try this: “Mr. Johnson’s allegations are false. There was no assignment. The child was not suspended. Beyond that, we must respect the confidentiality of the child and will have no further comment.”

      Works for me.

  18. Steve Stein

    Dan, that’s just about the line that the Taunton City Council President took with Severin. Severin’s response (once the official was off the phone) was to imply that he was a liar (or an imposter). McPhee went further, and actually call Taunton officials liars.

    Of course, why Severin and his ilk should matter in this issue is beyond me, but apparently they do (for many people).

  19. Newshound

    Mike-b1 – I understand you are trying to illustrate a point. Of course all of the unexpected is not taught at superintendent school, and of course her mind was, we hope, on something more important – more like along the lines of how to better educate a few thousand students without increasing the budget, but the superintendent is well paid to be intuitive, responsive, and protective to the children, even if, to some degree, at the expense of her own defense if necessary.

    Unfortunately, this is a big distraction to what the superintendent should be doing, but these kinds of disruptions happen on occasion – all the more reason why a highly qualified, properly motivated, innovative, kind, decent person is selected for the position, or at least that is the objective.

    Instead, she joined in with an 8 year old child, a father, and a newspaper into one big mess.

    This is as simple as Dan’s suggestion “There was no assignment. The child was not suspended. Beyond that, we must respect the confidentiality of the child . . .”

  20. mike_b1

    Newhound and Dan, somehow I don’t think that would have ended it. Put another way, if you were reporting the story, would you have stopped there?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @mike_b1: That wouldn’t have ended it immediately, but it would have fizzled on its own soon enough. Revealing that there was no class assignment and no suspension is revealing quite a lot, and would have helped to lower the temperature. Reporters could also have asked other families if there was an assignment, and presumably those families would have told them there wasn’t.

      I really think you’re being too cavalier about the superintendent’s ethical and legal obligation to maintain confidentiality. We all understand there are certain things doctors and lawyers can’t say no matter how much unfair criticism is being directed their way. This may be in more of a gray area, but it’s essentially the same thing.

  21. Harrybosch

    Got nuthin to add, but mega-kudos on the headlines “WWJD?” and “More on Taunton and Jesus.”

    Both made me smile.

  22. O-FISH-L

    Where is the alleged second problematic sketch by the child if it’s not about the crucifixion sketch? Of course it’s about the crucifixion and the secular teacher union types who find Christianity revolting.

    Since when has it been a “cry for help” for a youngster to want to be like Jesus? I hope the father sues for millions. No surprise that the Globe leads the media acrobats attempting to kill the story. The father may not be able to match the PR skills of a superintendent with a Ed.D, but the fact that the child’s “cry for help” was only heard a week before Christmas, says it all.

  23. Newshound

    My view is that this blog started off to view the actions of the newspaper and the school superintendent, and of course, the child, the parent, the teacher, religious freedom, cries for help if such exists, are all part of the overall evaluation.

    But, it appears, that while the newspaper may have been well intended to publish what seemed like a horrible and absurd abuse of power against a child for what most of us view as innocuous, in more careful evaluation many of us would have held the story or been more careful about identifying the child.

    If a parent walks into a newspaper office announcing that their own child has been erroneously accused of wrongdoing, or had been erroneously suspected of having mischievous thoughts which were evaluated by professionals, it is a story to consider very carefully before publishing.

    Put more simply as another example, if a parent enters a newspaper office and says their child was mischievous because he set the dog house on fire and as part of the punishment wants it published in the newspaper . . . Absolutely not.

    Similarly, if a child is dealt with in school for being disruptive, or isn’t doing well with grades, we expect professional treatment, but in any case we don’t expect the teacher or superintendent to provide a public report on a private matter.

    This blog started with the question too, about the irony of the superintendent, of which many in general are rather careful about releasing information legally in the public domain, but questioned when it came to a test between a child’s privacy and her defense we wonder which route was in her heart when she chose her path. She was put in a position to be compliant with the Boston Globe reporter, and what she said was very revealing about the other side of this story to satisfy to some degree the curiosity of public opinion, but her defense may well expose her to criticism of her professional approach and potentially could open the door greater to financial exposure to the city – – – and we all know, even in good times, there is never enough money for education.

    My view is that the initial purpose of this blog was to comment on whether the newspaper editor and the school superintendent were prudent. No question, to some degree, this was a trick test given the amount of thought required under chaotic conditions, but I wouldn’t give either a very high grade even though intentions on the surface may have appeared well meaning.

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