Wednesday 21 February 2018

Irish Ambassador to US makes official complaint to New York Times - publication 'apologises' for its coverage of Berkeley tragedy

President Barack Obama receives Her Excellency Anne Anderson, Ambassador of Ireland, in the Oval Office.
President Barack Obama receives Her Excellency Anne Anderson, Ambassador of Ireland, in the Oval Office.

Greg Harkin

The Irish Ambassador to the US has written to the editor of the New York Times for an article contained in their coverage of the Berkeley tragedy.

Ambassador Anne Anderson has told the editor that the article has implied that the behaviour of the students had caused the balcony to collapse, an implication that is inaccurate and has caused "deep offence".

"In the aftermath of the tragic accident in Berkeley, resulting in the deaths of six young Irish people and the serious injury of seven others, there has been an outpouring of sympathy across the United States. All the messages we receive strike the same note: deep sadness at these bright young lives cut short, or profoundly affected by injury, and hearts going out to the grieving families," the Ambassador wrote.

"At such a time, we found some of the language in your article today (“Six Deaths in Berkeley Cast Pall on Program”) both insensitive and inaccurate. No one yet knows what caused the collapse of the fourth-floor balcony; the matter is under urgent investigation by structural engineers. The implication of your article – that the behaviour of the students was in some way a factor in the collapse – has caused deep offence.

"It is quite simply wrong to say that the J1 visa programme is 'a source of embarrassment for Ireland'.

"On the contrary, we are fully supportive of this programme and we know that it brings enormous mutual benefit. Some of our best and brightest young people participate; they come for a summer in the US on the threshold of their adult lives, and take back experiences and memories that establish life-long bonds. And they make a real contribution here; one of the messages of condolence we received yesterday put it simply: 'We welcome their energy and joy'.

"Yes, there have been isolated incidents of the type to which your article refers. But they are wholly unrepresentative: bear in mind that 150,000 young Irish people have participated in the J1 program over the past fifty years, and some 7,000 are here for Summer 2015. From all the feedback we receive, we know that the overwhelming majority of our J1 participants behave in a way that does Ireland proud.

"At this time of searing grief, the messages of condolence and offers of support which are flooding in to the Embassy and our Consulates are balm to the soul. They reflect far more accurately the feelings of the American people than does your article."

The ambassador's communication to the publication comes several hours after the company's vice president said: "It was never our intention to blame the victims and we apologise if the piece left that impression."

The New York Times issued the statement following sharp criticism over its coverage of the tragedy in Berkeley in which six Irish students died, and another seven were injured. 

President Barack Obama receives Her Excellency Anne Anderson, Ambassador of Ireland, in the Oval Office.
President Barack Obama receives Her Excellency Anne Anderson, Ambassador of Ireland, in the Oval Office.

"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," said NYT Vice President Eileen Murphy.

"It was never our intention to blame the victims and we apologise if the piece left that impression. We will continue to cover this story and report on the young people who lost their lives."

"It was intended to explain in greater detail why these young Irish students were in the U.S.," 

The prestiguous newspaper used the tragedy of a balcony collapsing to bring up negative stories about J1 students in the past.

"They come by the thousands — Irish students on work visas, many flocking to the West Coast to work in summer jobs by day and to enjoy the often raucous life in a college town at night," it begins.

"It was, for many, a rite of passage, one last summer to enjoy travel abroad before beginning a career."

The NYT - regarded as one of the world's most-prestigious papers - then displayed an incredible lack of compassion, adding that the work-visa programme used by Irish students has “become not just a source of aspiration, but also a source of embarrassment for Ireland, marked by a series of high-profile episodes involving drunken partying and the wrecking of apartments in places like San Francisco and Santa Barbara”.

The Equality Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has branded the article a "disgrace" in a tweet sent to the paper, and the article has created a storm on social media with some users describing it as “crass” and “insensitive”.

The report notes how the birthday party in Berkeley, which was taking place when the balcony collapsed, had been loud and kept neighbours awake.

The New York Times has responded to the criticism this afternoon. Public editor Margaret Sullivan offered her "sincere sympathy" to all those affected by the tragedy.

She added: "Please know that I am aware of reaction and will look into it today".

But Renua Leader Lucinda Creighton has said that the New York Times should apologise for and withdraw their grotesque article on the Berkeley tragedy.

“It is truly ghoulish that at a time where sensitivity is required in dealing with the utterly sad plight of families which have to deal with the death of young children that the New York Times, a supposedly reputable media outlet would launch such a facile assault upon the character and activities of young Irish students," she said.

"The despicable New York Times piece by contrast appears to have used the deaths of these young people to engage in a diatribe about young Irish people that the racists in the 19th century Punch magazine would be embarrassed by," she added.

US ambassador Ireland Kevin O'Malley said that the Irish people don’t feel the J1 programme is an embarassment.

"Brothers and sisters encourage one another to go on the programme when they come back. I think most people in Ireland, I’ve spoke to, are very proud of the programme and understand its benefit."

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