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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Richard Connor: Newspapers can still lead the way in the quest for truth

Journalism matters. Print journalism matters.

If you doubt those two statements it’s because you have not been paying attention to the news coverage about the horrific sexual abuse former sports doctor Larry Nassar perpetrated on gymnasts across this country for decades.

More than 150 women testified in court over the past few weeks about the monster that Nassar is; authorities have identified far more victims than that. The testimony detailed how USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University turned their heads at reports of the abuse.

These athletes were sent to Nassar for medical attention for their injuries. What they received was abuse of the grossest kind.

When they complained, no one cared.

No one cared, that is, until a newspaper reporter at the Indianapolis Star followed a tip and the newspaper then unleashed an investigative team to ferret out the truth in reports that Nassar was a criminal, a sexual predator enabled by a medical degree and irresponsible institutions that made no effort to stop him.

The avalanche that ultimately fell on Nassar and these institutions was a snowflake, a sliver of news that landed in the hands of reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski. The snowflake turned into a snowball that became a howling blizzard of information and outrage.

Nassar has now been sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. It’s a light sentence for his horrendous crimes.

The Indianapolis Star’s initial reporting about the way USA Gymnastics handled reports of sexual abuse inspired the courage of a former gymnast, Rachael Denhollander, to come forward with her own personal story of Nassar’s abuse.

Denhollander told the Associated Press about her reaction.

“After that article, I knew this was the time,” she said. “This is always what I knew had to be done … I was 100 percent confident there were other victims speaking up and being silenced.”

Kwiatkowski was magnanimous and humble, giving Denhollander and others credit for exposing the scandal.

“At the end of the day, none of this would have happened if not for those women coming forward and sharing their stories with the public,” Kwiatkowski said.

I admire her gracious acknowledgment of the courage of the gymnasts who put the sweet and at one time innocent, childlike faces on this grim story. But in fact nothing would have happened without the courage and conviction and financial support of the leaders of the newspaper to pursue this story to its bitter end.

Three reporters and a photographer spent months on the story, traveling to 12 states and examining more than 1,000 pages of documents and public records from 23 states to report it.

Yes, we live in a digital and online age but there is a problem with our reliance on instant news that is often reported by untrained professionals: some stories can only be properly and reliably told by professional journalists working under the direction and guidance of professional editors and publishers.

Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis acknowledged the newspaper’s role during Nassar’s sentencing hearing.

“We as a society need investigative journalists more than ever,” she said.

The much-discussed decline of the print news business poses an ominous threat to America’s constitutional guarantee of a free press; it puts our most basic liberties, our very democracy, at risk.

And it’s not just the public that does not understand the importance of this type of reporting. The establishment press and its tentacles often fail to recognize it as well. In 2016, when awards were presented for outstanding work in journalism, the reporting of the team from Indianapolis was ignored nationally.

All of us in all lines of work are often inclined to say, “awards don’t matter.” But they do matter, and here’s why: Awards and professional recognition shine a light on important contributions to the public good that inspire others to make further contributions.

But even without recognition for their work, these journalists have shown the way to others in the business. Papers in Michigan, most notably in Detroit, have exposed the putrid atmosphere that existed at Michigan State University, where Nassar was employed and where administrators looked the other way after reports of abuse.

The university’s president, Lou Anna Simon, has finally resigned but without accepting responsibility and so has the athletic director. A New York Times editorial called for the resignation of all trustees at Michigan State. It would be the right thing to do.

And rest assured, the reporting and uncovering of wrongdoing is not finished. Thank goodness.

It’s common today for many people, me included, to lament the lack of newspaper readers. “No one reads newspapers anymore,” has become a common gripe in my business and a frequent joke outside it.

But Rachael Denhollander read the Indianapolis Star, and it inspired her to slay a monster.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at rconnor@bizpress.net

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Richard Connor
Richard Connor is the owner and CEO/Publisher of DRC Media, the parent company of the Fort Worth Business Press. he also owns newspapers in Virginia. Mr. Connor held a number of corporate media executive positions before founding his own company. He is an award-winning columnist and at one time wrote a weekly column on national politics for CQ Politics, the online version of Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Quarterly.

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