The popular "Personality Parade" feature in Parade, a supplement in both Salt Lake newspapers, often deals in rumors. But it pushed innuendo to a new low on Dec. 11. A writer asked, "Is it true that a well-known U.S. Olympic diver is gay?" The response: "Sorry, but we don't know the answer to your question."
Gossip about celebrities has been a staple of newspapers for generations. No doubt it has helped lift Parade's circulation to its heady 25 million, highest among all American periodicals.But at what a price to its integrity. How can a reputable publication use a non-answer to a titillating question to in effect confess its own indifference to the reputations of a whole class of people? How can it so easily speak of its own ineptitude in nailing down facts?
-ON THE SAME DAY the Tribune carried a UPI piece about how Paula Parkinson, the former lobbyist, claimed she had had sexual relations with six congressmen, including two still serving. All six were named, although the article said none - not a single one - could be reached for comment. Parkinson made the statement on a CNN talk show on Friday night. The article appeared Sunday morning. That meant UPI had a full day to run down the whereabouts of the men named. Its failure to do so and to give them the opportunity to reply is reportage sloppiness of the first order. The pursuit of Parkinson's comments by TV and the wide press play they received show how blase we have become about sexual charges and insinuations affecting public figures.
-FOR ALL OF THE EXCESSES of our Utah media when a sensational murder trial erupts here, we haven't seen anything to compare with the coverage of a New York trial that has mesmerized the big city these past 10 weeks.
It dominates the first page day after day in the tabloids and leads the TV news shows. Bulletins sometimes interrupt broadcasts, and some testimony has been broadcast on TV live.
On trial is a 47-year-old, disbarred lawyer named Joel Steinberg. He is accused of systematically beating to death his 6-year-old illegally "adopted" daughter while his battered lover stood fearfully aside.
I have just seen the Dec. 5 New York Post, an issue destined to become a classic. One of the country's more lurid dailies, the Post gets more excited about crime than the supermart tabloids (which are now more interested in Elvis, spaceships and diets).
The Post's front-page headline, four lines of 2-inch type, screams, "Koch Calls Joel `a Monster.' " The story quotes the New York mayor, speaking on a TV talk program, as yearning to "dip him in hot oil many, many times."
Koch's off-cuff comments could have affected the trial. They concerned the judge so much, he polled the jury to satisfy himself none had seen it or been swayed by it. It evokes memories of a famous headline, "Manson Guilty, Nixon Declares," in a copy of the Los Angeles Times the cult serial killer held up to the jury in his 1972 trial.
(Nixon, then president, complaining that the press tended to glorify criminals, said that "here is a man who was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders. Yet there is a man, as far as the coverage is concerned, who appeared to be a glamorous figure." Later he issued a clarification: "The last thing I would do is prejudice the legal rights of any person, in any circumstances. . . . All the facts in the case have not yet been presented. The defendants should be presumed to be innocent at this stage of the trial." Koch did not similarly recant; that's not his style.)
The Steinberg case has not been followed closely, much less avidly, in the press of most of the rest of the country. Here it is infrequently carried in inside page items.
The national media that take their cues from the New York press have been very keen on it.
Newsweek magazine featured the story on its cover, just after the lover, Hedda Nussbaum, testified.
Newsweek often uses major events to plumb social causes. The magazine put its report on Steinberg into the framework of a discussion of family violence and especially of "why battered women feel powerless to escape."
Yet it left no room for any conclusion except Steinberg's guilt and monstrosity, despite the use of a cautionary "allegedly" here and there. The editors would better have waited until the verdict before coming to the cosmic conclusion that "if the battered women see that the cycle of abuse and dependence can be broken, maybe the next Lisa Steinberg will be saved."
-I ADMIRED THE WAY the CBS Evening News treated the story last week of the arrest by federal agents of an Army warrant officer charged with spying for East Germany and the Soviet Union.
Dan Rather put a slight emphasis on the word "suspicion" of espionage and later on "suspect" in describing the arrest. That subtle stress said worlds. It told us that no matter what the evidence against the sergeant, no matter how heinous we consider the man's conduct, it is possible for the media to convey a pretrial presumption of innocence our system of civil rights demands.