Monday, January 11, 2010

Nelda Holder, Part I, in Mountain Express; Gabriel Shaffer, Part III

In a comment below, the publisher of Mountain Xpress, points out the misspelling of his publication's name in this post.

Nelda Holder, a former associate editor of Mountain Express and now a freelancer, had an intriguing story called "Home for the holidays" in the Express's January 6 issue. It portrayed a Black Mountain family's entanglement in the legal and social services system after a son was removed from the home and the parents were charged with medical neglect.

The case was based on a complaint to DSS from an unidentified source, so apparently the parents' Sixth Amendment right to be confronted with a witness against them does not apply in this case.

Mountain Express may be the only local newspaper that can regularly devote any of the precious "news hole" to these long-form stories. But since Mountain Express uncaped crusader-reporter Cecil Bothwell, it seems even it can't afford long-form staff time for digging deeply. So we should be grateful to Holder for using her presumably unpaid time and grateful to the Express for giving her the space.

According to the editor's note, the reporter followed the "complex child-custody case" over nine months, attending court sessions and interviewing the family. The note makes clear that the current article "outlines" the family's experience and that a "subsequent article" will give more details. So perhaps we can overlook the fact that only one side of the story, the family's, gets told. Will Holder be able to get facts and quotes from medical, legal and DSS personnel beyond their testimony in court. Or will privacy laws prevent them from answering her questions?

Holder says, "The family is due to return to court in January, and after that hearing, Xpress will report in more detail on the medical, legal and governmental aspects of the case."

Holder's story was absorbing and full of human drama, but some readers (including this one) were frustrated by the reporter's inability to give more information.

One commenter asked, "What were the results of the psych. evaluations? Has lack of a primary care physician become a reason to snatch a child from it’s [sic] parents? What about folks who are in transition? Can they lose their child due to not having a primary care physician? Something is screwy here." Another asked, "Why did the pediatrician terminate services, and did the DSS have access to those records?"

Holder's answer was a little alarming: "Good questions. And the answers are illusive, but we’re working on it." Working on it?  And I hope she meant the answers are elusive, not illusive.  What happens to this story if she runs into a brick wall of "That's a confidential medical issue?" Even Mountain Express managed to dodge questions about the firing of the Caped Crusader with "That's a personnel issue."

So, today's Journalism 101 take-home questions:
Was there a pressing news reason to print the story now?
Should Mountain Express editors have held Holder's story until after the January hearing or beyond, making sure she could get the answers she needs?
Should a nine-month investigative story been a ten-month story, with Part II published immediately after Part I?

In the same issue of Mountain Express, features reporter Ali Marshall had a piece on local self-taught artist Gabriel Shaffer, who also adorned the cover.

The art critics in town (are there any?) will have to evaluate Shaffer's art, but media critics might wonder why the Express is featuring Shaffer again, after Ursula Gullow's profile of him last August. Shaffer himself also wrote an article for the paper last May. Is Mountain Express in some conspiracy to be kind to Mr. Shaffer?

Shaffer's work is being shown at Blue Spiral 1's Showcase Gallery. Marshall indicates he is part of the gallery's "New X Three: New Works, New Artists, New Year!" show, but Shaffer's name does not appear among the eight artists the gallery includes in that group. That's a picky distinction that her editor probably didn't catch.

The only other artist Marshall writes about from this show -in a sidebar - is Phil Blank, a Carrboro artist. "Blank and his wife are fans of Asheville and actually winter here," Marshall tells us.

For a newspaper whose motto is "Local matters!," the local painters in the show beside Shaffer - Luke Allsbrook, Robert Dunning and Mitchell Lonas - might wonder why they don't matter to Mountain Express. Do Allsbrook, Dunning and Lonas actually winter, spring, summer and fall here?


  1. Susan? John? Is that you?

  2. I love that Asheville has another media watchdog and critic. We need them. But if you're going to dog the media, spell the outlets' names correctly. The name is Mountain Xpress, not Express. You might call this a detail, but attention to detail is one of the hallmarks of good journalism.

    I'll only address Holder's story, since that's the one I have some knowledge of.

    Holder is being paid for her reporting efforts.

    Xpress and Holder are working on a larger story on the family and DSS — which will publish, we hope, in the near future.

    The timing of the first article was mostly driven by the limitations of the reporter and the editor.

    As to the caped crusader, your insinuations amount to unsubstantiated character attacks, something good critics avoid. You've identified yourself as someone who chose to take sides during the Bothwell/Xpress imbroglio despite having insufficient evidence. You declare eureka in determining that Xpress hid behind a personnel-issue wall, and conclude this must have been an attempt by Xpress to protect itself from the "caped crusader," when I doubt that you have knowledge on the matter (though you may have heard the caped crusader's take).

    Keep dogging us, though. But my suggestion: Stay humble and build slowly on ground you're sure of.

  3. This has nothing to do with the articles you discuss (apologies). But this seems like the right place to point out to confusing/amusing headlines in today's (Tuesday's) AC-T, both atop small articles along the left margin:

    "Mission tie-up with practice official" (Traffic jam? Kinkiness? Who has refs at pracice?)

    "Presbyterian beats UNCA women"
    (Why put the brute's religion in the headline? And why no protests -- is the campus women's movement dead?)

  4. Thank you for your careful reading of the custody story. And while your point regarding "elusive" is well taken, the difficulties of this case have made "illusive" just as correct. Again -- keep giving things a hard read.

    Nelda H.

  5. I was the poster that presented the question quoted above. You caught my mis-use of it's instead of the proper its. Good catch.
    D. Dial

  6. So, this is what you do with your time? I sense a lot of bitterness and jealousy behind your mask of self righteousness.

  7. Apparently, someone knows a lot more about the
    Ryan Baldwin saga.......hopefully Ms Holder can
    uncover the complete story (see latest comment
    on the bringingryanhome web site ).

  8. OK, Mr about your views on
    Part II of the Ryan Baldwin story and comments being received ? Is this a case of public corruption by a select clique of personnel or just a DSS/Court screwup ? How many other, non
    publicized children do you believe that Buncombe
    County DSS may have acquired in the same way during the past 10 or 20 years ? Sure would account for a lot of SSA and Federal Special Needs funds going to selected officials !