The Mel Simon needs 'a little prayer' story

Dateline: Fri 07 Aug 2009

Cathy Kightlinger's Talk of Our Town had an item Thursday that is a textbook case for a discussion on how to handle the illness of a prominent business leader.

Her column revealed that, during a recent Indiana Historical Society event honoring living legends, Herb Simon (an honoree) asked for "a little prayer" on behalf of his older brother Mel, 76, also an honoree and not at the event. The Simon brothers founded and own Simon Property Group, "an S&P 500 company and the largest public U.S. real estate company," according to Wikipedia. Besides that, they own the Pacers basketball team.

Kightlinger reported that Herb Simon said, speaking of Mel: "He...needs a little prayer today. He's going to be OK if we just pray for him a little bit."

Then, Kightlinger reported, that U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker, emcee, noted that Mel Simon was hospitalized. "I have permission to say Mel is fighting a real fight now," Barker said. "He's in the hospital, and he really does need prayers. So when Herb says that, it's not a figure of speech."

After Kightlinger's column ran Thursday, I received an email questioning the Star's lack of sensitivity for publicly invading the space of an invidual, no matter how prominent, who is clearly not well. The implication was that the Star has been after this story for some time:

"Star has been sniffing around the Mel Simon story - this morning's mention made me mad.

"Clearly he's ill and maybe even terminal, and the Star can't get anyone -- family, company, friend -- to say it on the record."

So, the reader implied, the Star went behind the Simons' backs and ran with comments that were made at the Historical Society event.

Exec editor Dennis Ryerson had this to say:

"Thanks for asking. This was a tough one. There were 300 people at the event, many movers and shakers as you can imagine, who heard Herb talk about his brother. Shortly after, we began to get calls. The rumors were flying as well. We then begin to hear second and third hand about Mel's condition. The Simons are signature figures in the community. They own a basketball team in the middle of negotiations with the CIB over a very important issue regarding the use of a public facility. They lead a publicly held company. They are major players. They are without a doubt, newsworthy.

"But as you know, we live by the doctrine of verification. I personally have been told by people who are in a position to know some things about Mel Simon that I highly suspect are true, but we cannot get official confirmation. We tried several sources. So we considered these things:

"Our job is to report what we can say and what we can confirm to be true.
We know that as always, we do our job and we will be criticized for not reporting all that we hear, or for reporting too much of a sensitive issue.
We do feel an obligation to get on the record important information about important people.

"So we decided to tell readers what we knew for sure, nothing more. The purpose of a column like Cathy's is to report between and behind the headlines, and to report on the comings and goings of key people, their celebrations and from time to time, their travails. So in the end we made a decision:

"1. Not to put this on page one.
2. Not even to "refer" it off of page one.
3. But to leave it at the bottom of Cathy's column, which is about people in the community, and reporting only what we know to be true.
4. We also let the family know what we are doing. There was ample opportunity for them to come back and argue that we should not take the approach we were taking. We did not hear, through their spokesman, a response. But we think we showed property courtesy.

"I would like to know more specifics from people as to why they think this is offensive. I frankly think we handled this one in an appropriately sensitive way. I'm off today and may be off tomorrow, so won't be able to do a column about this, but as the story develops, and I have reason to believe there will be more news soon, I will have opportunity to comment on it.

"Our job is to be sensitive but to report what we know, to tell people things that sometimes they may not want to hear. I would argue that we were very sensitive on this one, that we did not overplay it at all, but that we let the community at large know that a key player is very ill.

Dennis"

Les Morris, communications director for Simon Property Group, said today that he was satisifed that the story had been handled well by Kightlinger, who "did a good job of fact-checking...she called me again and again."

Especially given the fact that the Hisotircal Society event took place July 17, Morris said, he believes the Star was exemplary in holding off and seeking every opportunity to get a comment from the company before running with the item.

Kightlinger was at the event herself. (She reported on it July 24 in Indy.com, the online web site.) But she apparently had to leave before the prayer request was made.

Morris also said he was surprised that other media never asked any questions following the Historical Society event; he expected to get calls from TV or other print media, but nada.

Here is what I think: Indianapolis media is remarkably restrained and polite; Hoosiers are, for the most part, still socially conservative, and we prefer to not butt in and instead respect an individual's privacy. Especially in the case of an illness, which is obviously a private matter.

But when a public figure is ill, and prayers for his well-being are being requested in public settings, then it becomes a public story.

Ryerson's points are well-taken.

Now, where is the rest of the story?

Morris' comment: "No comment."

Comments

Ms. Cynical [unverified] said:

Oh, please! Herb asked for prayers for Mel. Sarah said he was in the hospital. Both statements said IN PUBLIC in front of HUNDREDS of people.

The Simons are BIG NEWS in Indianapolis.

The Star would have been remiss if it ignored that news. What it has ignored is the ramifications of the death or disability of Mel Simon ... what happens to the Pacers?

2009-08-07 16:00:08

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Dennis showed why the media in this town are wimps. The Simons are public figures. Herb made these comments in full ear-shot of dozens of powerful people...including, I might add, multiple electronic news producers, executives and reporters.

Kightlinger dug hard, but she should've been on page one, or well-placed elsewhere, the next morning. If the family felt the questions were ill-timed or insensitive, they could've responded as such when asked by the newspaper for a comment.

No public safety issue or sensitive matters would've been exposed with this news being made public.

In any city with aggressive media, this would been above the fold within 12 hours. Period.

So, now it's policy for Mr. Milz to fawn at the laps of the powerful, accepting whatever they spoon-feed or trickle out over days or weeks? Pathetic.

The proper way to handle this? The reporter or editor invovled, calls the Simons spokesperson immediately. The media person asks the Simon person about the Herb quote made in a public building in front of many people. The spokesperson would probably have begged off, at which point (s)he shoudl've been given a couple of horus to get back, or the story runs without comment.

Attention J-schools everywhere: file this under "What Not To Do" in your editing and reporting classes.






2009-08-07 17:33:47

ruthholl [Member] said:

Tough audience here, but I think you make excellent points.
I told Mr. Morris that (in my view) The Star traditionally has not been invasive; as I've quoted before here, Frank Caperton used to say, "The people still trust the newspaper..we are the ones they invite into their homes" etc. So no dirty pix, no dirty play.
But then when Channel 13 beat us on Jim Irsay's addictions, and IBJ scooped us on several juicy biz stories, there was hell to pay: editors were not happy, and the publisher, even less so.
I think the Steve Jobs fiasco is also instructional. That guy lied and lied about his condition -- hormonal imbalance, humph -- and it cost him credibility. Not sure how it affected his biz, tho.
SEC apparently has no stringent guidelines on disclosing the illness of a CEO of a publicly-traded company, either.
But I like your outrage. It reminds me of the way things 'sposed to be.
It will be interesting to see who breaks the story first, interms of the nature of his illness and the longterm look at Simon etc.

2009-08-07 18:43:08

hendy [Member] said:

TTT has a point. The Simons are news.

By the way, Apple stock is double what it was in January. Jobs mystery illness cost them nothing. Remember the adage about any ink being good ink? It seemed to work for him. Of course, it's also nice that he didn't die of pancreatic cancer, too.

I wish Mel a speedy recovery. Otherwise, I think the Simons, the mall business, and the shenanigans with the public financing of the Simon's sports interests are shameful.

2009-08-07 19:17:20

ruthholl [Member] said:

I was curious about any fallout on Apple. Interesting.

There is a theory that malls are dead in the water: overbuilt, no longer relevant.

IBJ has a good story about the Simons and their relationship with the city.
You are right: it's news...

2009-08-07 20:41:55

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Malls will always be relevant, Ruth. Their tenant mix may shift, but nationwide, good malls are still at 92-94% occupancy. Including Circle Centre. Anyone who doubts it social influence hasn't been there on a weekend. Smart retailers know how to merchandise to that big crowd.

I wish Mel good health, too. His social conscience is huge His philanthropy started when he and Herb were beginning their business---they know hot to give back.

It's interesting you quoted Caperton--and used the words "no dirty play." Asking questions about a prominent city leader, after his brother spilled the beans at a large public event, isn't "dirty."

And Mr. Caperton, as well as ESP and others, certainly didn't hesitate to dump on Birch Bayh and anyone else they thought stood in the way of the darling dunce Dan Quayle. Or countless other folks whose political leanings differed.

The recent Susan Bayh series was a perfect example of held-over or false rage. Not one word in that story was fresh--everything in that story has been reported elsewhere for years. And this is above the fold? Puh-leeze.

Selective application of "standards" only diminishes their true role in the community.

If you want a true barometer of that selective thought process, watch how they react when one of the city's far-right giants starts to fail: PE McCallister, et al. Or, better yet, look at how they handled the divorce of Mrs. McKinney and her famous retired Lilly CEO husband. In any competitive media market, that would've been a heyday.

2009-08-08 06:36:27

hendy [Member] said:

TTT, being compromised as a journalistic outlet is a death knell. Event after event escaped ink, for reasons both political and just plain myopia.

It shouldn't matter if it's left, or right, or whatever. News is news, but that's not what they fight for. They fight for dollars, not mindshare at The Star. Now they're vulnerable, twits, and like a 50grain bullet: not very powerful.

2009-08-08 07:47:58

Ms. Cynical [Member] said:

Ryerson said: "The Simons are signature figures in the community. They own a basketball team in the middle of negotiations with the CIB over a very important issue regarding the use of a public facility. They lead a publicly held company. They are major players. They are without a doubt, newsworthy."

and then he went on to explain how The Star missed "the news".

Verification?

How much more verification is needed than the subject's brother and a federal judge?

Let the succession speculation begin!

2009-08-08 09:32:23

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Sunday Star update:

Just finished it. It took 19 minutes.

(Sigh)

I wonder what other stories they missed? I'll find out when I get my IBJ on the way to church.


2009-08-09 05:57:38

VladTheImpaler [unverified] said:

I was recently told by a Star business reporter that the Gannett jewel doesn't care what's published in the IBJ. I think it's obvious, given the number of IBJ stories the Star has followed only days later and played up as if the Star was first to report it. Shameless. Quite sad.

2009-08-10 18:28:48

abigail [unverified] said:

There are many people who need extra prayers, on any given day, who may not have the money and position the Simons do, but are just as important.

2009-08-19 10:54:01

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