I’ve long been highly complimentary of WGRZ-TV (Channel 2) reporter-anchor Claudine Ewing.
Anyone who read my January 2017 feature calling her “arguably Buffalo’s most underrated broadcast journalist” on her 25th anniversary in broadcasting likely realizes that.
I have advocated for her to get more work as an anchor before she became the primary replacement for Ron Plants on weekends during his lengthy absence.
But even the best reporters can mishandle stories on occasion.
I couldn’t have agreed more with Sonia Hassan’s criticism of Ewing and Channel 2 for the May interview with murderer Muzzammil (Mo) Hassan. He was convicted of the murder of Sonia’s stepmother, Aasiya Zubair Hassan, 10 years ago.
In a compelling Viewpoints story in this newspaper Sunday that and should be read by every journalist, Sonia Hassan detailed the pain that the Ewing interview caused her and her siblings without naming their father, the reporter or Channel 2.
The decision not to name the father might have been so he wouldn’t get more attention.
The decision not to name the reporter or the station may have caused some readers who hadn’t seen Channel 2’s report to wonder who Sonia was talking about.
In her piece, Sonia asked why Channel 2 felt “the need” to interview the murderer and “believe that their best advertising strategy was to erect billboards with this convicted murderer and abuser’s face on them?”
She speculated that rather than Ewing’s claim that the story was done to show there is a need for more domestic violence advocates, her “true motivation” was revealed by “her cartoonish overreaction as she gasps, ‘Who could do something like this?' ”
And in her most biting criticism, Sonia said: “The better question is, ‘How could a reporter who has won awards for community service think this interview was helping domestic violence and survivors?’ ”
Asked for a response, Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner released this statement: “We revisited this story during the 10th anniversary year of its occurrence. Given the sensitivity of the topic, throughout the piece, we shared information on domestic violence resources. A week later, we did a story on the victim’s life and spoke with a domestic violence advocate. We understand the sensitivity surrounding this story for the victim’s family. We did reach out to the family but were not successful in receiving a response. We welcome their point of view and feedback on our reporting.”
The 8-minute story started with co-anchor Maryalice Demler saying the station heard from people who questioned why the murderer was getting the forum and adding that the news staff had an internal debate about running the interview before deciding to do so. It almost sounded like an apology. Before the interview ran, Ewing explained the history of the couple and the murder.
Toellner did not allow this reporter to speak to Ewing about her reaction to Sonia's article or explain whose idea it was to present the story the way it was done. Not allowing a reporter to be interviewed is a strange position for a news station to take, considering it relies on its reporters to be able to interview newsmakers to hold them accountable.
I know many reporters would have been disturbed if a victim felt harmed by a story even if the reporter felt his or her coverage was journalistically proper and sound.
I was stunned when I saw Part One of Ewing’s series, an interview with the murderer that included several strange questions, including how many knives the murderer bought before killing his wife and whether he thought of buying a gun.
I reached out to talk to Ewing after it ran in May. We never connected, partly because she went on vacation and partly because I got involved in another story. The story told over a couple of newscasts on different nights was so uncharacteristic of Ewing’s work that I wanted to know how it came about.
I also wanted to know why the murderer was allowed to make an abuser’s most common claim – that he was the victim – in Part One without any response.
It wasn’t until Channel 2 ran a story a few days later featuring Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn and Family Justice Center executive director Mary Travers Murphy that there was any balance to Hassan’s discredited, delusionary claims.
Flynn said there was “zero evidence” of any violence on Aasiya’s part and her murderer was sticking to the disproven defense he made in his trial. Murphy explained what a wonderful person Aasiya was and how domestic abusers operate.
The follow-up story with Flynn and Murphy – the one mentioned by Toellner — ran the week after the initial story. It played like a makeup call for the previous story and likely didn’t get all the same viewers as the interview with the murderer.
If Flynn and Murphy had appeared on the same night as the murderer, you could almost see how a station could think it had a legitimate story with a purpose. After all, news reporters often interview murderers on the theory that viewers can learn something.
If Channel 2 felt including Flynn and Murphy would have made the initial story too long, one way of cutting it would have been to reduce the time it gave the murderer to 15 seconds. It took about that long to realize he wasn’t saying anything new, he remained delusional and there was nothing to learn from the interview.
Channel 2 also could have cut the theatrical Ewing lines about the murderer’s beheading of his wife: “Who thinks like that? Who does that? Who does that?” It would have saved time – and saved Ewing from embarrassment.
By just allowing the murderer to speak without balance on the day it ran, the story was an atrocity. There was no point to Part One, other than to show Channel 2 got an interview with a murderer to run during a sweeps week in May.
I also agree with Sonia that the billboard of her father promoting the story on the highway seemed exploitive. Channel 2 uses digital billboards that rotate and promote eight stories, with the Hassan promo one of them. If it had to promote someone on that billboard, Channel 2 should have promoted Ewing.
A former WKBW-TV (Channel 7) reporter who now runs an organization that provides services to victims of domestic violence and abuse, Murphy is the perfect person to ask about how a TV station handled a domestic abuse story.
She was impressed by Sonia Hassan’s article.
“I thought it was perfect,” said Murphy in an interview. “It was powerful, accurate, heartfelt.”
She wasn’t impressed by Ewing’s initial interview of the murderer.
“We were horrified, horrified,” she said of victims and survivors. “My phone was blowing up from victims and survivors and family members who had lost loved ones and gone through this with loved ones. They were saying, what is the point? Giving an abuser a platform? It is nonsensical and reflects zero understanding of domestic violence and why perpetrators abuse.
“From start to finish I was appalled,” added Murphy. “It was sensational and made no sense, particularly (the defense) that this would help get more domestic violence advocates. This is absolutely, positively ridiculous. You want to help the public understand domestic violence – hear from survivors and victims and family members and domestic violence advocates. You don’t give an abuser a platform to blame the victim. It is ridiculous. It serves no purpose other than to retraumatize everybody involved in this work.”
Murphy added the murderer was taking a page out of what she referred to as the abuser’s playbook.
“One of the most popular methods of operation when it comes to abusers is to never, ever, ever, ever take responsibility for the abuse,” said Murphy. “Blame it on the victim. And that is what he has done from the moment the media gave him a platform.”
She said she was contacted by Ewing before the interview with the murderer aired to schedule an interview for the following Monday. But Murphy was unable to reach her to give her advice about the planned interview with Hassan before it aired.
“I said, ‘Yeah, we need to talk about this’ and what I would have done was try to talk her out of out of doing it,” said Murphy. “At that point, the billboard went up. She was not interested in talking with me. She wanted to schedule an interview for the following Monday. We never talked on the phone. … She went underground. She dropped out of sight.”
Murphy agreed with Sonia Hassan that the billboards were “morally reprehensible.”
After Part One aired, Murphy agreed to be interviewed after she was convinced to do it by victims and survivors.
She agreed that the decision to allow the murderer a lengthy forum to use the “abuser playbook” of blaming the victim and waiting a few days to hear from her and the district attorney was an error.
“That is not journalistically sound, and I say that as an advocate and a former reporter,” said Murphy.
Murphy added that she only agreed to be interviewed for the follow-up story after Ewing promised to do a future story with several agencies that advocate for people who are victims of domestic abuse.
Murphy said Ewing has told her that she will do that story sometime in July.
That’s the morally responsible thing to do.