The same day WKBW-TV broadcast its latest scoop about the Buffalo Diocese from investigative reporter Charlie Specht, the diocese responded by calling a news conference.
But viewers didn't get to see Specht follow up his story with questions for Bishop Richard J. Malone because Specht was excluded from the event.
The decision led to universal condemnation of the diocese from media outlets in Western New York. It also led Specht's colleague Keith Radford to do something he had never done in his nearly 50 years in broadcasting: deliver a commentary.
The exclusion of Specht from the news conference Sept. 4 in the rectory of St. Joseph’s Cathedral is a new chapter in what could be a textbook on how the diocese has mishandled its response to the sexual abuse crisis and mismanaged the media.
It also gave Specht more visibility and more power.
“Absolutely,” Specht said in an interview this week. “It totally backfired. It's hard to believe it could backfire any worse than it has been for them. The whole idea that they are afraid to really be questioned in any sort of detail about their actions is reinforced when you do something like that. … People have called me and said this was a huge tactical mistake on their part because it doesn't generate a lot of sympathy for them and it makes Catholics even think, ‘Are they hiding again? Why are they doing this?’ ”
Specht obtained secretly recorded audio that the Rev. Ryszard S. Biernat leaked about conversations with Malone in which the bishop was heard calling the crisis over a relationship he said sounded like a “love triangle” involving priests a “disaster” that could force him to resign. The news conference, which was carried live by local network affiliates, came hours after WKBW posted its story online.
It is unclear if barring Specht was the decision of Malone or diocese spokesperson Kathy Spangler. Spangler has not returned an email or a text to clear that matter up.
What is clear is that the decision was a huge mistake, illustrating that the diocese was unwilling to grant the reporter who has dominated TV news coverage of the story access to ask questions.
As I tweeted last week, “any public relations person told by his or her boss to handpick which reporters can attend a news conference should resign rather than follow that order.”
If it was the bishop’s call, shame on him. If it was Spangler’s call, she should go back to college and take a public relations course in crisis communication.
The decision had some news organizations considering whether to boycott the news conference in support of Specht before deciding to attend because there was a chance that Malone would resign.
As I tweeted last week, “by excluding Specht, the Buffalo Diocese made the reporter a bigger hero.”
Specht's exclusion also led Radford to deliver an excellent 110-second commentary, blasting the diocese for trying to “manipulate the coverage” and calling it “a slap in the face to journalists everywhere, a flagrant attempt to muzzle the media.”
In a telephone interview, Radford said it was his first on-air commentary in his 48 years in radio and television news business, 32 at WKBW. He said he was asked to deliver it by assistant news director Aaron Mason.
He said he made an exception this time because he viewed seeing a reporter being excluded from a news conference as a special circumstance.
“It's probably happened, but very, very, very, very rare and I certainly think it usually backfires on that organization that does it,” said Radford. “I mean this is one particular case. It could happen to anyone … It's not the way we operate in this country.”
He added in his commentary that without freedom of the press “our democracy is doomed. It is my belief the diocese didn’t want anyone in the room who might make things uncomfortable.”
While I applaud the commentary, I would quibble with the word “muzzle” and replace it with “manage” the news.
The diocese was muzzling Specht but allowing Eyewitness News to send another reporter who understandably had less knowledge of the story, Eileen Buckley, to cover the news conference. That was more akin to judge shopping, like lawyers do when they hope to get a more supportive jurist, than muzzling the media.
By failing to allow Specht to ask questions, the bishop and the diocese looked weak and afraid of handling the truth.
I’ve written numerous times that it is difficult to understand why the improved news product at WKBW-TV hasn’t led to noticeable improvement in the station’s third-place ratings.
If anything would – and should – get the attention of Western New York viewers and spike a long-term ratings improvement, you would think it would be Specht’s award-winning TV coverage of the scandal and crisis in the diocese. The station's newscasts remained deep in third place in the ratings last Wednesday and Thursday, though it had an increase Thursday.
Specht said he doesn’t worry about the ratings. However, he conceded there was a period recently when WKBW decided to take a break from the coverage because the public and the station might have tired of it. He added that pause ended with a report on the diocese by ABC’s “Nightline” carried in July.
“It sort of sparked this whole fire like once again and now I almost feel like the public is angrier now than they ever were last year after the first revelations,” he said. “Because they’ve had a year to fix this. And somebody said to me the other day, ‘You can't even make the argument that it's better; it's actually worse than it was last year.’ So the anger that I'm noticing from viewers is almost reaching a breaking point even more than it was last year when it was more like a shock than an anger.”
Radford isn’t a believer in the ratings anyway.
“When it comes to ratings in this day and age with all the different platforms and with Nielsen dominating, I don't really have any faith in the ratings at all,” he said. “It is like going to the casino. I don't believe the ratings are what they are. I mean certainly I believe that Nielsen monitors 370 households, then I guess that's accurate. But you know there are 600,000-some households in Western New York and the reaction I get from people ... I don’t believe our audience is really as small as Nielsen says it is.
“We don't even pay attention to the daily overnights really much anymore. We just go out, do the best we can do. I think our product on any given day is as good or better than anyone else in town.”
When it comes to the TV coverage of the crisis in the Catholic Church, that couldn’t be truer.