Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Star's Ryerson Hits Back At Holladay: Labels Attack "Erroneous", "Reprehensible" and "Outrageous"

Indianapolis Star Executive Editor Dennis Ryerson hit back hard against Ruth Holladay's assertion that the newspaper's response to a photographer's medical distress in the newsroom contributed to his untimely death. Ryerson in an e-mail to Star employees launched into an attack of Holladay's account of what happened on the night Mpozi Tolbert collapsed and died suddenly. He writes:

Erroneous and hurtful information about circumstances surrounding Mpozi Mshale Tolbert's death were (sic) posted on a blog this morning and have been widely distributed. I am personally offended that a 37-year journalist would write these kind of things without following the first law of journalism: "Check it out!"

Here is the response we are providing to people asking for comment:

All of us at The Star are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and colleague, Mpozi. We feel it is imperative to correct false statements made on the internet. Any Star employee can call 911 from Star phones. In fact, employees and our security staff used Star phones to make calls that night.

It is reprehensible, frankly I find it outrageous, that somebody would use this very sad circumstance to lambaste The Star and its owners.

At this point in his e-mail, Ryerson launched a broadside attack on Internet blogs. "But that noise is what passes for fact these days in too many blogs," Ryerson said. "This is why I insist, and will continue to insist, that we set ourselves apart from that noise by providing complete, credible, fair reporting, in every section every day, in print and on line."

Editor & Publisher reported today on the Star's vehement denial of Holladay's claim that employees were blocked from dialing 911 from newsroom telephones. "Star Senior Vice President & General Manager Ali Zoibi [was prompted] to issued a firm denial," E&P writes. "All of us at The Star are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and colleague, Mpozi." "We feel it is imperative to correct false statements made on the Internet. Any Star employee can call 911 from Star phones. In fact, employees and our security staff used Star phones to make calls that night."

The Star management refused to speak to E&P beyond the facts they released in Zoibi's written statement. E&P also notes that the Indianapolis News Guild is not satisfied with the Star's response and seeks more answers. "We just don't know all the facts yet," Tom Spalding, a guild local vice president, said Tuesday. Given Holladay's hint of litigation in her earlier report, Ryerson may have been advised by counsel to limit his comments on the matter. Also, according to E&P's report, the blog Ryerson referenced in his e-mail was not a local blog but rather a nationally-known journalistic blog, Poynter.org.

For her part, Holladay has modified her account significantly on the 911 call matter in response to Ryerson's denial of her claim. She writes:

Reporters and editors were frantically trying to dial 911, but they didn't know they had to get an outside line first. That's why some had to resort to cell phones. Can you imagine trying to call 911 and getting stalled? Or calling security and getting confused questions rather than a response? No wonder people thought they couldn't call 911- they couldn't. They didn't know the procedure. Whose responsibility is that? Also, some people were told, that night, that all 911 stuff had to be routed thru security. Security was called, but that was another set of problems (lack of English skills on behalf of the person working).

In her original account, she said flatly, "[T]he setup in the newsroom . . . DOES NOT ALLOW REPORTERS OR EDITORS TO CALL OUT ON 911. Her original assertion was simply misleading. There was no formal rule prohibiting 911 calls from being made from the newsroom. If you have to dial an extra number to get an outside line on your phone system, wouldn't common sense indicate the same would be true for a 911 call? Her original account left you with the impression that all emergencies had to be routed to security, who in turn placed 911 calls. No such requirement formally existed as even she now admits. As for the cell phones used to make 911 calls, weren't some of those company-issued phones?

But she quickly points out the matter of the blocked freight elevator as EMTs attempted to taken Tolbert down the elevator. And on that point she raises a legitimate concern. She compares the current management to that under the Pulliam family. "Back in the day when the Pulliams owned the joint, an emergency protocol was taped or pasted to every secretary's desk -- that was when each department had one secretary and the newsroom several," Holladay writes. "The drill was first call 911, then call security," she adds.

Holladay asserts that she e-mailed her concerns to Ryerson and publisher Barb Henry following Tolbert's death. "I told Barbara I believed that the newsroom would be greatly helped in dealing with this trauma if, in the aftermath, there was CPR training, defibs, and a first responder. etc. I said I thought it would help the newsroom deal with sorrow, anguish and guilt," Holladay writes. "Her answer was compelling. She said there was 'sorrow, yes, but no guilt.' What did you expect her to say Ruth? "It's our fault Mpozi is dead." Let's be realistic about this.

Last year Holladay wrote a column about former IU Law School Associate Professor William Bradford, which portrayed him as a conservative victim of the law school's liberal political correctness crowd. Later, Holladay penned a column admitting that many of the orginal claims laid out in her column turned out to be untrue. She had been duped by Bradford. Has Holladay been duped by one or more of her former colleagues at the Star? Or did she just fail to "Check It Out" as Ryerson insists? Holladay definitely raises valid concerns about the newspaper's preparedness to respond to emergencies of this nature. But her original account, given what we now understand, at least appears to have been somewhat over the top.


credo said...

Holladay's "telling" is different from the "news story" by the paper raises the issue about the lack of prepareness for emergency situation by the newspaper. In certain situations, a quick response may make a difference in a person living or dying.

We often believe that corporation has a worker's best interest at heart in these situations, but not always which can lead to tragic deaths.

Holladay's telling will encourage individuals in the workplace to be more proactive as first responders, in getting adequate training to make a difference the next time..that's what Katrina was trying to teach us.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but Ruth has a long history of inaccuracies. She rarely "checked things out" while at the Star, and was the frequent target of complaints from those who were unfairly characterized in her columns. I have no knowledge of the reasons she "retired," but I suspect she was encouraged to do so as a result of the persistent allegations of unprofessional coverage, and was hitting back at the Star as a result. I'm no defender of the Star, but on this one, I'd take Ryerson's version as far more likely to be true.

Anonymous said...

The Star has a lot at stake here. I doubt Ryerson is totally wrong.

There are credible workplace safety issues or allegations involved here. Let's hope the proper agency(ies) investigate and publicly report their results.

Tolbert was one of those souls you hope you get to know once during your life. A true free spirit. Nothing bothered him. He'd be dismayed at the attention his death is getting. But he'd want us to find the truth.

I didn't always agree with Ruth's columns, but I always found them interesting. One of the posts earlier here, indicated she has a history of inaccuracies. I hope that's not true.

AI correctly observed that Ruth's story changed dramatically.

As for Ryerson's diatribe agianst blogs: I, too, was once a non-blog reader. My initial experiences were not good. But I've grown to appreciate blogs, and I read them for what they are: sharing of ideas. I don't expect the same level of professional conduct as I expect from mainstream media. That is NOT saying the blogs are not credible. It IS acknowledging that mainstreamers and bloggers operate form two different perspectives. I appreciate each perspective.

But I do not regularly look to blogs for the same reasons I regularly look to mainstream media. Night and day.

Gary R. Welsh said...

I spoke to someone who was in the newsroom when Tolbert collapsed who has no axe to grind and who personally likes Ruth. This person tells me that Ruth is flat out wrong on the timeline. "Way off" is how the person described it to me. In these situations, a minute can seem like hours, but this person assures me that it wasn't anywhere near 15 minutes from the time he collapsed until 911 was called. Ruth's source simply had it wrong.