BOB GARFIELD: Death and taxes. We just heard about a reporter's impact on the latter. Now a story about the former. Could there be death by journalism? Yes, contends the author of a recent book called Death by Journalism that documents a new story and its effect on a small North Carolina town. The original reports and the book's account caused such a stir that the reporter of the stories has never spoken on tape about his work -- until now. From member station WFDD in Asheboro, North Carolina, Larry Schooler has this report.
LARRY SCHOOLER: In 1998 a press release touting an upcoming adult education class caught the eye of Ethan Feinsilver, then a reporter for the Greensboro News & Record who was based in the smaller nearby town of Asheboro. The course's title immediately interested him. North Carolina's role in the war for Southern independence, a course sponsored in part by a group called The Sons of Confederate Veterans.
ETHAN FEINESILVER: They said to me: the people teaching this class have a bone to pick with the traditional way that the Civil War has been taught. You know, a hypothesis. And then when I showed up on the first day of class, at least that orientation was confirmed for me.
LARRY SCHOOLER: The course's instructor, Jack Purdue, an amateur historian known for his meticulous research and preparation, introduced the class with a prepared speech that included the following lines that Feinsilver later read in print.
ETHAN FEINSILVER: It's time to remove any racial overtones from the War for Southern Independence and portray it for what it really was -- a war over the rights of a state to secede and a people for self-determination.
LARRY SCHOOLER: Feinsilver's interest in the class grew when he learned that one class session would be devoted to exploring the wartime experiences of African-Americans and Native Americans. Feinsilver couldn't make it to the class itself, but a handout he obtained from that session gave him the hook for his story. The guest instructor, Reverend Herman White, cited a collection of slave testimonies from the 1930s which suggested that, quote, "More than 70 percent of ex-slaves had only good experiences to report about their life as a slave in the South," end quote. Feinsilver says he was surprised when both Jack Purdue and Herman White essentially confirmed that they had taught such material in the class.
ETHAN FEINSILVER: For instance saying something like you know so it sounds like you're saying that these slaves were really -- they had no problem with being slaves? I was sort of sounding a little incredulous, but really I wanted to make sure that I wasn't taking something out of context as Jerry Bledsoe says that I did -- I mean I wanted to make sure that what I was going to put in the paper was something that these guys stood behind. And they did stand behind it, very firmly.
LARRY SCHOOLER: Feinsilver led his story on the class with the following: "A course at Randolph Community College teaches that most black people were happy under slavery and that tens of thousands of black men fought for the Confederacy because they believed in the Southern cause."
JERRY BLEDSOE: His first story was almost completely false --so many incredibly, as the tapes prove, so much of it was absolutely false!
LARRY SCHOOLER: Author Jerry Bledsoe wrote a book entitled Death by Journalism on the community college course, Feinsilver's reporting and the aftermath. Hardly a day after Feinsilver's story first appeared in the News & Record's Sunday Metro section, CNN, the BBC and Good Morning America joined hundreds of other media outlets seeking comment from Purdue, the college and others involved in the class. Randolph Community College officials ultimately canceled the class saying they needed more time to study what had been taught. After months of intense media scrutiny and the cancellation of the course, Instructor Jack Purdue died of a heart attack, giving Jerry Bledsoe the title for his book. Bledsoe held both Feinsilver and the News & Record partly responsible for Purdue's death at the age of 60 because, he says, Feinsilver's reporting bordered on libel.
JERRY BLEDSOE: There's not a class probably being held anywhere in the world today that somebody couldn't go into, take one or two lines out of context, somehow - that might seem sensational - and twist those to make them definitely sensational -- and then go out and destroy the, the teacher with them. And that's what happened here.
LARRY SCHOOLER: Specifically, Bledsoe, who reviewed videotapes of all the class sessions says Reverend Herman White was not suggesting that slaves were happy. That was Feinsilver's paraphrase, one later abandoned by the News & Record in subsequent articles. Bledsoe says the context of White's remarks is critical; in this case White was trying to demonstrate that not all slaves had been abused by their masters and some had in fact fought for the Confederacy.
JERRY BLEDSOE: If they had reported that Herman White had reported the survey and how he tied it in to the class and all that, nobody would have read it! It simply wouldn't have been read. You could have reported that and that would have been fine! And journalism is not horseshoes. There are so many people now who seem to think well if we sort of hit around the stop, you know, it still counts. Well, it doesn't. It doesn't. In journalism you have to throw ringers every single time.
LARRY SCHOOLER: Bledsoe couldn't convince Ethan Feinsilver or anyone else at the News & Record to comment on the record for his book. For his part, Feinsilver says he was shocked by the international reaction to the piece and by the local uproar. A group of outraged readers even took out a newspaper ad personally attacking Feinsilver and accusing him of race-baiting. Through it all, Feinsilver stood by his reporting.
ETHAN FEINSILVER: I don't think it's the job of the media to always measure what the outcome is going to be before they report what's happening!
LARRY SCHOOLER: But Feinsilver concedes that he wishes he had better measured how a Southern town might react to an issue that had been so volatile for so long -- the legacy of the Confederacy.
ETHAN FEINSILVER: But on the other hand of course, newspaper is part of the community; newspaper can be part of a solution or helping a situation, just like it can be part of exacerbating a situation. So you do have the competing principles. But I just think you have to always kind of have both in mind, and I don't think we really had -- I didn't really have the second thing in mind when I was doing the story.
LARRY SCHOOLER: Feinsilver won't take responsibility for maliciously and deliberately harming course instructor Jack Purdue as author Jerry Bledsoe suggests; and even Bledsoe can't pin Purdue's death on the reporting of his class. But Roy Peter Clark who analyzes media ethics for the Poynter Institute says journalists must still ask themselves a series of questions about a story's ultimate effects before and after publication or broadcast.
ROY PETER CLARK: What's the journalistic purpose of my publishing this? What good will it effect in the community? Can I foresee the consequences of publication? Are any of them harmful? What are my alternatives in terms of how I play it; where I play it? I think journalists who ask those kinds of questions routinely are going to make the best kinds of judgments no matter how difficult the story is.
LARRY SCHOOLER: Since the publication of the original stories in 1998, Ethan Feinsilver has left journalism, though he says he may return. Jerry Bledsoe's book has sold sluggishly, perhaps in part because many North Carolinians want to forget this chapter of history. For On the Media, I'm Larry Schooler in Asheboro, North Carolina. [MUSIC]
"Is Anyone There?"
by Rob Wasserman