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Spotlight 2.0: Child Sexual Abuse and The New York Times

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Spotlight 2.0: Child Sexual Abuse and The New York Times

By Nancy Levine

 

First published in Medium

If silence is the jet fuel of child sexual abuse, why would any media outlet keep mum on reporting related news? Why didn’t The New York Times cover news about the Child Victims Act in New York State? Does the newspaper have a conflict of interest, or appearance of a conflict?

The proposed legislation, authored and long-championed by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, would eliminate civil and criminal statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse.

In related news, the Forward reported that child sexual abuse survivor Sara Kabakov was working with Assemblywoman Markey, lobbying lawmakers to pass the the Child Victims Act. Ms. Kabakov came forward publicly for the first time in an opinion piece in the Forward, identifying herself as the then-14-year old alleged victim of former rabbi Marc Gafni, as reported by The Times in December:

“Mr. Gafni was quoted saying they had been in love. He added, ‘She was 14 going on 35, and I never forced her.’”

And this:

“A co-founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, a proponent of conscious capitalism, calls Mr. Gafni ‘a bold visionary.’ He is a chairman of the executive board of Mr. Gafni’s center, and he hosts board meetings at his Texas ranch.”

As it happens, the wife of The New York Times Publisher and Chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., Gabrielle Greene Sulzberger sits on the Whole Foods Market Board of Directors. A proxy statement shows Mrs. Sulzberger’s 2014 Whole Foods Market annual cash compensation was $422,049. And 2015 SEC reporting shows Mrs. Sulzberger held 64,666 shares of Whole Foods Market stock.

Presumably there is no causal relationship between The Times’ absence of reporting on the NY Child Victims Act and the Sulzbergers’ financial interests in Whole Foods Market. But to quell any concern about a conflict of interest, given Ms. Kabakov’s work advocating for the legislation — the enactment of which would shine a spotlight on Gafni’s published confession and Mackey’s support of him — would The Times want to pay extra attention to reporting on the bill?

The Times also has not followed up on its December story about Mackey’s association with Gafni. The newspaper did not report news of coordinated protests at Whole Foods stores in New York City and at the the company’s widely heralded first 365 store launch in Los Angeles in May.

The Washington Post covered the story: “Protesters’ problem with new Whole Foods concept: An ex-rabbi’s alleged sex scandal.” The Post and the NY Daily News reported that Matthew Sandusky, founder of Peaceful Hearts Foundation, and adopted son of former Penn State football coach, convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky, joined Jewish leaders and protesters in Manhattan, decrying Mackey’s silence about his relationship with Gafni.

The Times wasn’t shy, however, about covering Whole Foods’ new 365 store launch. Neither was any other media outlet. Bloomberg reported Messrs. Mackey and Sulzberger fêting Whole Foods’ 365 inaugural opening:

“At a recent party to celebrate 365 in New York, guests included Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey, who is also co-chief executive officer, and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. They chatted with celebrity chef David Chang over Fuku sliders and noshed on vegan chocolate cookies from By Chloe with Samantha Wasser, one of the founders of the trendy vegan eatery in the West Village.”

Meanwhile, the NY Daily News, among other media outlets, reported extensively on news about the Child Victims Act. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he would back the bill. The Catholic Church paid lobby firms $2 million to block the legislation. Hundreds of survivors and supporters marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on June 5, including New York State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) and activist Phil Saviano who was portrayed in the film Spotlight.

The Times has published items related to the Child Victims Act in the past, including a 2014 opinion piece authored by the Editorial Board: “Justice Denied for Abused Children.” In it, the Board noted that the bill “will continue to languish until Mr. Cuomo, who has been missing in action on the matter and is now seeking re-election, confronts intense lobbying by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and other opponents of reform.” So why didn’t The Times report news of Governor Cuomo’s announced support of the legislation and the Catholic Church’s $2 million payout to lobby firms?

Given the spate of news items about sexual violence, e.g., the Stanford swimmer, Sandusky, Cosby, Hastert, Baylor University, etc., why isn’t news about the NY Child Victims Act the focus of a “coverage cluster,” as part of The Times’ new editorial strategy?

On May 22, I emailed The Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and asked him why the newspaper was not covering news related to the NY Child Victims Act, making this mention:

“I am not saying there is a causal relationship between The Times absence of reporting on the Child Victims Act and the Sulzberger family financial interests in Whole Foods Market. But to assuage any remote concern about conflict of interest, I would like to invite The Times to closely consider what it deems newsworthy.”

Mr. Baquet responded:

“Only someone quite paranoid would see such a connection.”

Survivors of child sexual abuse are painfully familiar with Mr. Baquet’s response. Rule No. 1 in the Gaslighter’s Playbook: Respond to survivor’s concern with, “You’re paranoid.” Survivors of child sexual abuse have every good reason to be paranoid. Did you see the movie Spotlight about the systemic cover-up of child sexual abuse by the Catholic Church?

In the film, then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron, portrayed by Liev Schreiber, was the driving force behind the Spotlight team’s investigation of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Mr. Baron is now Executive Editor of The Washington Post and, as evidenced by The Post’s coverage of the protests at Whole Foods, still shining a spotlight on child sexual abuse. Mr. Baquet, on the other hand, shut the door in this instance, preventing illumination.

Fortunately, the culture of silence surrounding child sexual abuse is shifting. When a survivor voices a concern, and is met with “You’re paranoid,” he or she can now turn to a growing community of fellow survivors and advocates for a reality check.

In this case, I asked professors of journalism for a reality check on The Times’reporting.

David S. Allen, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee emailed:

“I would argue the [Times] needs to be open and transparent about connections. If there was no conflict of interest, it should tell people why and what it is doing to make sure corporate connections do not interfere with news coverage.”

Sandra Davidson, Professor, Curators’ Teaching Professor, Missouri School of Journalism, University of Missouri, Adjunct Professor, School of Law emailed:

“How about full disclosure — transparency? Then let the readers decide how to weigh the various factors in formulating their opinions.”

I emailed this blog post to Mr. Baquet. Our dialogue followed:

DB: Dear Nancy, Can I be frank? I get tons of reader notes, and I try to respond. But I can’t quite keep up with your various agendas. And I can’t edit The Times for you personally. So forgive me if I don’t actually check out every note you send. It is starting to feel just a tad like you are on a crusade. Best, Dean

NL: Thank you, Dean, I appreciate your candor and your response. I can assure you my only agendas are social justice and excellence in journalism, so we’re on the same side. Best, Nancy

DB: Yes, but I think you’re [sic] definition of excellence in journalism is coverage of issues you want covered as an advocate of particular causes. Mine is a little bit broader. My only point is forgive me if I don’t respond to everything. Best, Dean

I am not asking Mr. Baquet to edit The Times for me personally. Rather, I am asking him to consider covering news that affects:

  • 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys who are victims of child sexual abuse
  • more than 43 million survivors of child sexual abuse in the U.S.

Jill Tolles, a member of the Nevada Senate Task Force for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, said in her TEDx Talk at the University of Nevada, “Child sexual abuse is a silent epidemic. If this were Ebola, the whole world would shut down, and yet we’re not talking about this.” I am asking Mr. Baquet and The Times to help change the culture of silence that allows child sexual abuse to proliferate, and prevents long-festering wounds from healing.

The Stanford swimmer’s father reduced his son’s rape of an unconscious woman to “20 minutes of action,” a statement that has become a rallying cry, emblematic of rape culture. Doesn’t “She was 14 going on 35” warrant equal outrage — and follow-up news coverage?

Questions remain: Why didn’t The Times cover news related to the NY Child Victims Act? By what criteria does The Times calibrate newsworthiness — and in what ways did news about the proposed legislation fall short of the hurdle? Does The Times have a conflict of interest or an appearance of a conflict? Even if the question about conflict of interest is factored out of the equation, doesn’t this matter call for discourse rather than dismissal?

According to their statement of Standards and Ethics, “The core purpose of The New York Times is to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news and information.” Did The Times’ decision to bypass coverage of the NY Child Victims Act enhance society — or harm it by material omission?

Former Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, now media columnist at The Washington Post, scolded The Times in January for its scant reporting on the drinking water emergency in Flint, Michigan. Ms. Sullivan wrote:

“If The Times had kept the pressure on the Flint story, the resulting journalism might not have made the ‘trending’ list — but it would have made a real difference to the people of Flint, who were in serious need of a powerful ally.”

In the midst of our boiling-over outrage about sexual violence, might The Times make a real difference to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse who are in serious need of a powerful ally?

Sidebar: In December, I spoke with Mrs. Sulzberger on the phone. I asked if she had seen The Times story about Whole Foods co-CEO Mackey’s relationship with Marc Gafni. She said she had not seen it, and gave me permission to email it to her. Mrs. Sulzberger said she was vacationing with her family in South Africa, and told me I was interrupting their dinner. I wonder if she mentioned the story to Mr. Sulzberger when she returned to their dinner table.

Whole Foods co-CEO Mackey released a public statement last month, declaring his loyalty to Marc Gafni, as reported by the Forward. The Times has not followed up on the story.

New York State lawmakers ended the 2016 legislative session without acting on the Child Victims Act. Activist Gary Greenberg who formed the Fighting for Children PAC said, “Our elected officials chose predators over victims.” I wonder if the outcome might have been different had The Times decided to cover news about the proposed legislation.

Steve Buttry, Director of Student Media, the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, posted this comment on his Facebook page: “I think if a newsroom covers the opening of a store, but not the related protests, that’s a valid point of criticism, and I don’t have a problem with activists such as Nancy pointing out relationships that they think might explain questionable news judgment.”

Prof. Michael A. Santoro, Co-Founder, Business and Human Rights Journal, emailed:

“It is difficult for victims of sexual abuse to say ‘I want to be heard.’ So when this heretofore silenced community courageously steps out of the shadows and asks to be heard, we (and that includes The Times) have a special obligation to listen and to not dismiss their pleas. The community is clearly expressing that The Times’ coverage of the Child Victims Act and Whole Foods is unbalanced and hurtful to them because the paper has not sufficiently reported on their very legitimate concerns. As a society we have evolved to a point where we do in practice try to be respectful of the feelings of marginalized groups. The community is simply asking the NY Times to act consistently with its longstanding business and journalistic values of inclusion and social justice.”

Activists and leaders from the following organizations have sent a collective email to The Times Public Editor Liz Spayd asking her to address this matter: Peaceful Hearts Foundation, Horace Mann Action Coalition, Stop Abuse Campaign, Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, NAASCA (National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse), United Coalition Association, The Foundation for the Child Victims of the Family Courts, Romemu, Jewish Mindfulness Network, Fighting for Children PAC, Mike Pistorino, Phil Saviano, and Sara Kabakov.

I encourage survivors, their supporters, and anyone who cares about eradicating child sexual abuse to join community leaders in inquiring aboutThe Times’ absence of coverage of the NY Child Victims Act and appearance of a conflict of interest. Contact Public Editor Liz Spayd at [email protected].

(Please note: several people have told me they received a reply from the Office of the Public Editor, saying their office is not responsible for coverage decisions. So you will need to ask the Public Editor to address The Times’ “appearance of a conflict of interest.”)

Nancy Levine headshot

 

Nancy Levine is the author of the bestselling four-book series starting with THE TAO OF PUG (Viking Studio/Penguin Group); more than 100,000 books in print. Her background includes more than 30 years of experience in corporate recruiting and executive search.

Nancy is an advocate, activist, investigative blogger, and freelance publicist, supporting nonprofits including SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, featured in the film Spotlight), and Peaceful Hearts Foundation, founded by Matthew Sandusky, adopted son of former Penn State football coach and convicted sex offender Jerry Sandusky.

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