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Alan Pergament: Channel 2's Maryalice Demler should have avoided church forum

I received a text from someone prominent in the Buffalo media community after my story ran about the negative reaction to comments made by WGRZ-TV (Channel 2) anchor Maryalice Demler at a church forum on the sexual abuse crisis in the Buffalo Diocese.

The story quoted people at the forum who thought Demler’s comments were “unprofessional” in what they termed her “insinuations” about the way whistleblower Siobhan O’Connor and WKBW-TV (Channel 7) and reporter Charlie Specht handled the sexual abuse story – without mentioning the two by name.

“You were too easy on Demler,” wrote the media member. “She should never have been there in the first place.”

My first thought was I’ve never been accused of being too easy on anyone, especially Demler. But I explained to the respected media person that I was reporting what other people said and wasn't writing a column.

This is a column, where I get to give my opinion.

I agree with the media member. Demler should never have been there.

Specht and Buffalo News reporter Jay Tokasz both knew enough to say no when asked to participate.

I am told Demler was given permission by her station to be part of the forum. She was added to the program at St. Joseph University Church near the University at Buffalo only after Specht said no to participating in the panel, titled “Rebuild My House: Going Forward in Faith Together.”

Maryalice Demler responds after comments at Catholic forum strike a nerve

Specht explained his reasons for saying no.

“As a working journalist, I didn’t want to be in a position where I was being asked to give my personal opinions,” said Specht, a former Buffalo News reporter. “I wanted my work to speak for itself.”

Demler is a very good news reader and has her share of fans. But anyone who has seen Demler speak at functions or heard her superfluous happy talk after stories knows self-awareness and reading her audience are not her strong suits.

She often appears to think people need to know what she is thinking when it would be much better for her to let the stories speak for themselves and avoid saying something inappropriate.

I wasn’t at the forum, so I don’t know what she said or if people upset by her comments were too sensitive.

As the title suggests, the forum was designed to look forward and not look back at why Channel 2 was behind Channel 7 in covering the sexual abuse story.

To her credit, Demler acknowledged the event was “emotionally charged” and that her comments as an unbiased journalist “may not have been critical enough for some attendees who are understandably very hurt and angry at Bishop Malone.”

She said she shared “the stages of her grief I have experienced as a cradle Catholic.”

She should read Specht’s reason for declining to be involved in the panel. He didn’t think it would be appropriate to share his personal feelings.

I would suspect the great majority of journalists would agree with Specht.

Lee Coppola, the former newspaper and television investigative reporter and former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s journalism program who moderated the panel, said he was trying to be fair to Demler. He said she was talking as “a faithful Catholic, not as much as an anchor.”

That is very kind of Coppola. But you can’t separate the roles. Any time an anchor or a reporter shares personal feelings at a public forum, he or she is always speaking as an anchor and a reporter.

Demler said her remarks were misrepresented. She said she attempted to explain Channel 2’s journalistic process “because I have been asked previously why we did not report on this story until after all the documents were released,” and added she couldn’t see why someone would see her comments as a criticism of Specht or Channel 7.

Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner said he heard a recording of her comments.

“The recording I experienced unequivocally supports her version of events,” wrote Toellner in an email.

The church said it doesn’t have a recording and added a Channel 2 photographer was there. Toellner declined my request to hear it, which I didn’t find that unusual since stations usually ask for subpoenas when law enforcement figures want to hear or see footage.

If Demler and her boss are right, and her comments were misinterpreted, it just reinforces why she shouldn’t have been on the panel discussing such a controversial subject.

Sister Margaret Carney, president emeritus of St. Bonaventure University, also supported Demler’s explanation. She said “there was no criticism implied” and that the anchor was just making a “factual statement.”

“It is dangerous to infer anything beyond the literal statement of the speaker,” Carney added.

That also is very kind of Carney. But with all due respect, her statement flies in the face of journalism. Context matters. It is a small leap from Demler’s pro-Channel 2 comments to implied criticism of a competitor, and I don’t blame anyone at the forum for viewing it that way.

Someone at Channel 2 should explain to Demler that what she says in public reflects on the station.

According to the November sweeps, Channel 4 has replaced Channel 2 as the local news leader.

WIVB Channel 4 climbs to the top in November sweeps

There undoubtedly are a variety of reasons, including the decision of co-anchor Scott Levin to leave for three months to work for a car dealership before returning, and the questionable way Nielsen measures audience. Some people in the TV business even refer to Nielsen as practicing “voodoo” math.

But from the response I received from my reported story on Demler’s comments, I wouldn’t totally dismiss the possibility that some viewers are tired of her act.

The next time Demler is asked to share her personal feelings in a public forum, she would be wise to look at Specht’s comments, remember this unfortunate experience and just say no.

email: apergament@buffnews.com

 

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