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Does competition breed distortion

"WHO FAILED with Scott Darnell?" blared the front page headline in the Quad-City Times. The lengthy article that followed told the troubled life story of a 15-year-old youth from Moline who had been arrested for the rape-murder of a 10-year-old girl in rural Henry County. Confidential records, including psychiatric ones, were quoted in the account which could have been prepared only with the cooperation of authorities who were preparing to prosecute the youth as an adult.

Rock Island, Moline, East Moline and their environs on the Illinois side of the Quad Cities metro area make up the most competitive news market in downstate Illinois. The Moline Daily Dispatch, owned by the Small family of Kankakee, and the locally owned Rock Island Argus are long established afternoon papers with circulations of 36,000 and 24,000 respectively. From across the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa, the flagship of the Lee newspaper group, the Times, sells about 12,000 copies of its morning edition in Illinois. All three network affiliated television stations cover news aggressively. One of them, WQAD-ABC, nearly doubled its news staff after being acquired by the Des Moines Register. The CBS television station is owned by the Argus company.

"There are a lot of reporters floating around and the competition for news is really vicious,'' summed up Tom Smalec, a reporter for the Argus. "Sometimes," he added, "they tend to reach a little bit."

Many media competitors would react instinctively to the Times story about Darnell by either overreaching, if necessary, to outdo the original performance or by "knocking it down," the journalistic term for drenching a rival's product in cold water.

But Smalec and 13 other reporters for the Argus responded in a way that would occur only to today's new breed of young journalists. They filed a formal complaint with the National News Council. The council is a private organization that was created without punitive powers to hear grievances against the media. Most of the complaints are by subjects of news stories who claim they were treated unfairly. "We feel the story was uncalled for at this point before the case has even begun to go to trial," said the complaint. "As working journalists, we believe the Times' stories do not serve either the public interest, the rights of the accused or the reputation of our profession." The article was characterized as an "irresponsible throwback to an earlier and unmissed era in journalism." Smalec said later that it is incidents such as this one that will tempt judges to close their pretrial hearings in order to protect the Sixth Amendment rights of defendants.

'We'd do it again'

Forest Kilmer, editor of the Times, said the story documented a breakdown in the juvenile justice system. "We'd do it again," he told me. "I think the complaint was professional jealousy. We have been beating them on many stories.

No one from the Dispatch, the third paper, joined in the complaint although General Manager Gerald Taylor agreed that the Times story had been "hyped" and that unsubstantiated information would deprive the juvenile of a fair trial.

As an expression of the cutthroat competition in the area, the incident is a challenge to the accepted wisdom that a multiplicity of editorial voices is healthy and desirable. Until a few years ago, when the Times began going after circulation in Illinois, the three papers had what Kilmer has described as "a cozy arrangement," dividing up the territory and sharing news. The three actually exchanged carbon copies of their news stories with their competitors.

Cross over the bridge

This coziness faded away when the Times started making forays across the river and the other two encroached on one another's turf. No longer content with circulation in Moline and East Moline, the Dispatch opened a bureau in Rock Island, started weekly supplements in outlying areas, and purchased a "shopper" or advertising publication in Davenport itself. In the meantime the Times established separate weeklies in Rock Island and Moline.

As might have been expected, the news council declined the opportunity to pass judgment on the Scott Darnell story. The council, instead, noncommitally cited the importance of having judges and journalists who are sensitive to the pretrial publicity problem.

Lurking behind the free press/fair trial conflict is that other question: Granted that one reporter's enterprise and aggressiveness are another reporter's irresponsible behavior, would the Scott Darnell controversy be as likely to happen in a monopoly market? The Lee group, for example, is careful these days to acquire new properties only in markets without significant competition. Are the citizens better served by a single dominant editorial voice that is free to act as the arbiter of what is right and wrong for the people to know? Or are we better off with the rough-and-tumble Quad-Cities style competition even if a Scott Darnell is occasionally a victim of that kind of journalism?

34/February 1980/Illinois Issues

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