A Troubled Transition

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism and its new curator certainly make strange bedfellows. For years, the foundation, one of the world's most distinguished institutions in its field, has sought to protect core journalistic values from the corporate grasp of media conglomerates. Former curator Bill Kovach, who left last summer, was much-admired for his outspoken stance against the disorienting influence of corporate control. In particular, Kovach and other distinguished critics have pointed out that such corporate influence has led to an increased fusion of entertainment, business and editorial content, as well as an increased reliance of facts gained through speculation rather than from responsible, investigative reporting.

In a controversial decision last month, Harvard filled the vacancy left by Kovach by naming former Detriot News editor Robert H. Giles the foundation's new curator. It was a questionable appointment, preceded by several letters of protest. Giles achieved notoriety among some reporters for his anti-union position during a bitter 1995 strike at the Detroit News. Former Detroit News reporters also contend that, under Giles, the paper published biased and slanted accounts of the strike. Based on independent reviews of the Detroit News' coverage, these accusations seem at least partially valid.

But particularly troubling is Giles' longtime association with Gannett, Co., the newspaper publishing giant that has received widespread criticism for promulgating a corporate brand of journalism that often clashes with traditional reporting values. According to critics, many Gannett-owned papers, including those under Giles' editorship, have cut back on original news coverage and have adopted design formats that put more emphasis on "soft" news. Gannett editors also frequently move from paper to paper, meaning that they lack the time to develop a deep familiarity with the local community. These practices almost inevitably lead to the kind of second-rate journalism the Nieman Foundation has actively decried.


To be fair, Giles has an extensive resume; in addition to being a former Nieman fellow, he has served as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and has worked as an editor at several major newspapers in Detroit and Rochester, N.Y. And many well-known members of the media have vouched for Giles' editorial integrity.

Still, the Nieman appointment causes us to wonder where Harvard places its priorities. No formal search committee was convened to evaluate the candidates. Protests over Giles' candidacy delayed the formal announcement by three weeks, but seemed to prompt little more than one extra meeting session after the decision was virtually made. And we are troubled that Harvard has made the decision to cuddle up to the Gannett media empire.

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