Friday 30 September 2016

Former President McAleese slams New York Times' for 'sense of sociopathic disassociation' in coverage of J1 students

New York Times Public Editor says newspaper made 'some pretty bad mistakes'

Denise Calnan, Greg Harkin, Lise Hand & Ralph Riegel

Published 18/06/2015 | 02:30

Mary McAleese
Mary McAleese
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

The Taoiseach, Tanaiste and former President Mary McAleese have strongly criticised the New York Times coverage of the Berkeley tragedy.

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Ms McAleese slammed the paper for the 'sense of sociopathic disassociation from the actual reality' in an article linking the Berkeley deaths to a stereotype of the Irish as drunken party-goers.

While the Taoiseach described the coverage as “very disappointing” and “surprising”.

Tanaiste Joan Burton urged The New York Times to remove the which she claimed was both "a shame and shocking" in its treatment of Irish students following the Berkeley tragedy.

The newspaper has come under fire since the article following the deaths of six young Irish students as a result of a balcony collapse, in which it claimed that the J1 student visa programme had been “not just a source of aspiration, but also a source of embarrassment for Ireland”.

 The Labour leader, who said she is a reader of the US paper, claimed the offending article fell far below the standards people normally associate with the newspaper.

Two men participate in a special Mass for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Oakland, California June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Two men participate in a special Mass for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Oakland, California June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Father Aidan McAleenan, an Irishman who has a Parish in Oakland, speaks during a special Mass for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Oakland, California June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
The sun sets outside the Cathedral of Christ the Light, prior to a special Mass for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse, in Oakland, California June 17, 2015. Three men and three women in their early 20s, including an American friend of the Irish students, died in the collapse, and seven others were hospitalized. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Claire Raftery, a former Dubliner now living in San Francisco, plays the bagpipes prior to a special Mass for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Oakland, California June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
A man looks up while others pray during a special Mass for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Oakland, California June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Claire Raftery, a former Dubliner now living in San Francisco, stands during a special Mass for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Oakland, California June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Neil Sands, President of the Irish Network Bay Area, attends a special Mass for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Oakland, California June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Claire Raftery, a former Dubliner now living in San Francisco, plays bagpipes before a special Mass for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Oakland, California June 17, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Mourners lay candles during a vigil for six Irish students Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)
Mourners hold candles during a vigil for six Irish students Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)
A mourner cries after placing a candle at a vigil for six Irish students Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. The six Irish students died when a balcony collapsed during a party. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)
Mourners stand by during a candlelight vigil for six Irish students Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)
Candles illuminate a picture of Niccolai Schuster during a candlelight vigil for six Irish students Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)
A flag of Ireland, flowers and a sign are shown at a shrine left for victims of the Library Gardens apartment building balcony collapse Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A man who did not give his name looks at photographs, cards and flowers from a shrine for victims from the Library Gardens apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, Calif., Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Flowers and cards are left for victims from the Library Gardens apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, Calif., Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

 "The New York Times is a newspaper with an extraordinarily high reputation right around the world."

 "It is a newspaper that I often look at. I really feel this falls well below the standards I would expect of The New York Times."

 "In my view not only should there be a (proper) apology - to be honest, I thought the apology (offered) was rather mealy-mouthed - and I think it should also be taken down from the online edition."

 "From an editorial policy point of view the reaction to me has been far from sufficient. I think it was both a shame and a pity that they should have characterised Irish young people on a J1."

 "I was once young enough to be on a J1 and I can recall how exciting it was and how horrific that accident which happened was for all those lovely young people who were out for summer work and the American experience."

 "This falls well below the standards of acceptable journalism. I do hope they will review their editorial policy in relation to this."

 The Tanaiste said she had met a group of young Pittsburgh students in the Dail yesterday and they expressed their shock at what The New York Times had written.

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, Mr Kenny said, “This is a tragic incident and I was very disappointed to see the tone of the article written by the New York Times, and surprised at them”.

He added,“I was surprised at the New York Times, such an eminent newspaper to write an article like that. They know well the impact and the value of J1 visas, the extraordinary opportunity it gives to so many thousands of Irish students over the years, to go to America and understand the bigger world out there and the excitement it creates.”

British prime minister David Cameron offered his condolences to the Taoiseach on the tragedy, following the bilateral meeting in Downing Street.

"I would like to express my condolences to the friends and families of the six Irish people who were killed in the tragic incident in California earlier this week. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and to their friends," said Mr Cameron.

Ms McAleese - herself a J1 student in San Francisco in the early 70s - said she finds the article 'utterly offensive'.

Speaking on RTE Radio One's 'Today with Sean O'Rourke', Ms McAleese described the six victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse as 'young people who worked hard, studied hard'.

“[This is] journalism at the absolute worst end of the spectrum, indescribably constructed in every way," she said.

“What bothers me most is the sheer absence of human empathy, the sense of sociopathic disassociation of the actual reality from the true story of these parents, the brokenness of these children’s bodies and the poor little children fighting for their lives.

“I find the article utterly offensive, so insensitive that I would say it lacks any sense of human empathy or feeling or any sense of grief. "There is no understanding whatsoever of the grief of these families, the pain, the suffering, the cruel suffering they’re enduring, with no focus on the obvious context which was about the balcony which should not have collapsed," she continued.

“A balcony that people were standing on so innocently, so trusting… instead we get a rehashed copy and paste story about a number of incidents involving J1 students.

“At this moment in time there are tens of thousands of Irish students abroad and there’s not a word about them. Why? Because they are a credit to us – in everything they’re doing, they’re a credit to us.

Ms McAleese paid tribute to the young people named as Irish students Eimear Walsh, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller, Olivia Burke and Eoghan Culligan and Irish-American citizen Ashley Donohue.

“These are young people who worked hard, who studied hard, who were brilliant at sports. Before they reached the age of 21 they had a catalogue of things they had accomplished already that their parents could only have taken pride in," she said.

“The pain, the anguish, the grief, the grief stretching out in those years to come, that unquenchable grief.

Ms McAleese also wrote a strongly-worded letter to the New York Times in the Irish Times, in which she wrote: "Shame on you".

But the 'New York Times' says it won't remove the offending article from its website despite the backlash both here and in the USA over it.

The piece, uploaded to the paper's website just hours after the deaths of six students, caused uproar yesterday.

The journalists who wrote the article said the J1 visa programme "that allowed for the exchanges has in recent years become not just a source of aspiration, but also a source of embarrassment for Ireland".

Read more: 'I just can’t put it into words'- J1 students in Berkeley in deep shock

They went on to say the Berkeley deaths came after "a series of high-profile episodes involving drunken partying and the wrecking of apartments in places like San Francisco and Santa Barbara".

Equality Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said the paper had focused on a "national stereotype" adding: "If that had been victims from any other nation would they have written an article like that? It's disgusting."

Eileen Murphy, vice-president of communications at the newspaper, said the story would stay on the website.

"We understand and agree that some of the language in the piece could be interpreted as insensitive, particularly in such close proximity to this tragedy," she said.

"It was never our intention to blame the victims and we apologise if the piece left that impression."

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said this morning she believes the New York Times newspaper team were ‘couching their words very carefully’ in their apology, but said she cannot ‘tell the Times what to do’.

Speaking to Newstalk Breakfast, she said she agreed the newspaper ‘made some pretty bad mistakes’ and said it was explained to her that the article was a ‘second-day story’ so they attempted to ‘go more deeply into another angle or to examine the visa programme’.

“I think the New York Times made some pretty bad mistakes with this story and, yes, I think it was insensitive and not handled properly,” Ms Sullivan said.

Read more: Picture shows remaining wooden 'stumps' of balcony following Berkeley tragedy

“I think the Times institutionally and the editors and reporters were couching their words very carefully [in the apology], I would like to go a step further myself and say that I agree it was insensitive and that the complaints are very valid.

“I would like to explain quickly that as the public editor I don’t write or edit stories, I am an independent readers’ representative, so I can’t really speak for the paper and I’m speaking for myself.

“it was explained to me,” she continued, “that it was not the first day that the story went up online, it was kind of a second day approach story. I don’t think that was an excuse and I don’t think that it was appropriate but that’s the, I guess you could say, reason for it. You know, to go more deeply into another angle or to examine the visa programme. “

Ms Sullivan said she has been corresponding with the reporter in question and he ‘readily admits he handled it poorly’.

“I definitely know [the article] added to the great pain of this tragedy and that’s extremely unfortunate and I personally feel very sorry about that.

“I’ve emailed with Adam, the lead reporter on the story, and I’ve spoken directly to the national editor Alison Mitchell, they are two of the key people. Adam readily admits that he handled it poorly and I think everyone agrees there are things in the story that should never have been there.

“As a mother of two children in their early twenties, I do understand, or can begin to understand perhaps, to understand how painful this is. I think this is very unfortunate and I am very sorry,” she continued.

“I can’t tell the New York Times what to do, I can only make observations on this.

“I have made such an apology and I cannot tell the Times institutionally what to do, it’s not in my role.

Read more: Friends and family united in grief at special mass for Berkeley victims in St Mary's College

Ms Sullivan said she woke up to ‘uproar’ on social media site Twitter and hundreds of tweets directed towards her. She also said she received approximately 400 complaints by email, which she deemed to be a ‘high volume’.

“There was great pain in these pieces of correspondence, the sheer pain and tragedy of it and the insult people felt was coming through very clearly.”

Paul Finnegan, who runs the New York Irish Centre in Queens, also said the article was "highly inappropriate".

"Once again here is an article which plays on the bad stereotypes of Irish people when there are so many good ones.

"The vast, vast majority of people who come to the States on the J1 visa programme are wonderful representatives of Ireland," he said.

"This was a terrible tragedy and the whole of Irish-America is mourning with the families."

Irish Ambassador to the US Anne Anderson wrote to the newspaper describing the language in the article as both "insensitive and inaccurate".

"The implication of your article - that the behaviour of the students was in some way a factor in the collapse - has caused deep offence," Ms Anderson said. She also denied that the J1 visa was a "source of embarrassment" for Ireland.

"We are fully supportive of this programme and we know that it brings enormous mutual benefit . . .

"Yes there have been isolated incidents of the type to which your article refers. But they are wholly unrepresentative..."

Equality Minister Aodhan O’Riordain rubbished the newspaper’s apology and dubbed it as ‘offensive’ online.

“Your attempt at an apology for your offensive Berkeley article is pathetic,” he wrote on Twitter.

“It’s clearly futile appealing to your better nature.”

The American Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O'Malley said the J1 programme was one of the cornerstones in ensuring that the strong bond between Ireland and US.

He said the scheme builds on a person-to-person level what governments sometimes cannot do.

You can donate to the official victims' families fund set up by the Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre in San Francisco here

The account has been established to raise funds for the students affected by the tragedy - tax-deductable donations will be used to support and assist the immediate needs of the families and students in Berkeley

Irish Independent

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