There’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.