Exclusive rights, and wrongs

In this screengrab from the CBS Evening News clip, MV Times reporter Brian Dowd can be seen in the back outside hunched by the window. — Screenshot via CBS Evening News

This was the feel-good story of the month. We covered it, the Vineyard Gazette covered it, and other news organizations big and small attempted to cover it as well. But missing from the photos of Gwen Lynch’s smiling face and her graduation celebration in the tiny town of Gosnold on Cuttyhunk Island was the intrusion by a national network shamelessly throwing its considerable weight around. 

When we (reporter Brian Dowd and photo editor Gabrielle Mannino) were planning our coverage of the graduation, we quickly found out that “CBS Evening News” had made an “exclusive rights” deal with the Lynches to cover the graduation. Doing our due diligence, we called the school and CBS; we wanted to make sure, since it’s a complicated trek to get to the island, that when we got there, we wouldn’t be turned away. The school told us the parents had signed a contract giving CBS exclusive access to cover the graduation. Roxanne Feitel, a producer for CBS, however, told us that there were no contracts, but said CBS had “exclusive video rights.”

Arriving off the boat on Cuttyhunk for Gwen’s graduation, the school’s only and last student, we were immediately confronted by a Gosnold police officer and a security guard, Dillon Storek, who is a year-round Cuttyhunk resident and friend of the Lynch family. We told him we were with The MV Times to cover the graduation. “You’re not recording, are you?” the security guard said, as if enforcing CBS’s so-called exclusive rights “deal.”

We found out after the fact from Lexi Lynch, Gwen’s mother, that this deal was simply a verbal agreement, and carried no legal authority to keep us from covering the niche story. We say niche because for CBS, it is. Nothing says “viral headline potential” like a one-student graduation from a small island that has a year-round population of 34, according to the 2017 U.S. census; throw in a celebrity guest speaker and bam, the big dogs are all over it. 

For us, this wasn’t a niche story in the same way it was for CBS. Yes, it’s an interesting story — it’s why we would have covered it regardless of the attention celebrity Jenny Slate garnered for being the keynote speaker, bringing it into the national spotlight. Even the New York Times previewed it. But Gosnold is the seventh town in Dukes County. We went there last year with newly elected Dukes County commissioner Keith Chatinover, who made it a point to include Gosnold more in the business of the county, even if it took a four-hour journey to get there. We’ve also previously written about the challenges the town and the school will face with the graduation of its only student. Brian previously wrote about how it will become a STEAM academy in the near future, to keep the doors of the one-room schoolhouse open. The graduation was a natural continuation of our coverage, and we have a duty to include the small town in our scope of coverage.

Robert A. Bertsche, a media and First Amendment lawyer, agreed the network’s tactics were over the top. It was a public school graduation, which is a function of the school district and thus the government. Only the school or superintendent could make any kind of deal with the media barring coverage. 

“What a boneheaded thing to do to the community,” Bertsche said. “Letting CBS pretend to have exclusive coverage of a public event is just nuts.”

They teach hypotheticals like this in journalism school, but until you’re faced with it in the field, it’s hard to know what to do. To not rock the boat — no pun intended — we let it go, and said we were just shooting still photographs. They let us proceed. 

When we got up to the “Main Street,” so to speak, of Gosnold, which is comprised of a museum, town hall, school, and a church, all in the span of a block, we noticed a sea of friendly faces from other local outlets —the Vineyard Gazette, Cape Cod Times, WCAI radio station, and an independent photographer we met on our last trip to Cuttyhunk. They were all familiar faces. This was a local story with local importance.

One of the things we’ve learned to love about community journalism and small-town newspapers is the sense of camaraderie between outlets. Sure, we’re competitors, but we’re civil and have each other’s backs in the field. It’s friendly competition, which pushes us all to be better. That may sound naive, and a little Disney for some, but we like to embrace that. Even in places where the pressure and competition is palpable at nearly every assignment, photographers and reporters boost each other up, and admire one another. 

While we were all standing in front of the church where the ceremony was to be held, we noticed a trail of decked-out CBS video crew filtering in and out of the church and following actress Jenny Slate and her boyfriend. It was clear their “exclusive” coverage was in full effect, on display for all of us local journalists to see. We wanted to be able to cover the story properly. We’re all just trying to do our jobs, which is what the security guard kindly told us at the entrance to the church later in the afternoon. 

With the security guard manning the door of the church, the local outlets were told we would be the last to enter, in order to accommodate the community members there for the ceremony, something Lexi later explained was the family’s main concern.

CBS Evening News “On the Road” reporter Steve Hartman with a seat in the crowd, while other outlets were stuck outside the building.

“We were told that any photographers could cover [the graduation], but most important, we wanted to make sure the locals had room to sit down,” Lexi told me in a phone call following the graduation. The small church was overflowing. But CBS had their crew and equipment throughout the church, again because of their exclusive coverage. In the “CBS Evening News” “On the Road” segment about the graduation, reporter Steve Hartman can be seen with a seat near the front in the audience, while local community members crowd in the doorway.

We were told by Storek, the security guard, the photographers could rotate in, one by one, to get our shots, meaning stand in the crowded back door of the church for a few seconds at a time. This was another showing of the journalists’ cooperation with each other. We honored the limits, and let each other go in and out. Somehow we made it work. We still couldn’t help but be disappointed in what we were able to capture. We missed a lot of key moments. 

Access was even worse for the reporters who had to hunch around a window with their phones against the screen, strenuously taking notes and hoping for a clean audio recording. In the CBS segment, Brian can be seen doing just that in a panning shot of the audience during the ceremony. Whether there was miscommunication between Storek, the Lynches, and CBS about how to handle the local press at the door, or it was a deliberate enforcement of the “deal,” is unclear. What is clear is that the only press that was given full access to the ceremony was a national news organization with an illegitimate “verbal agreement.”

In a time when small, local newspapers are disappearing by the day, it was a harsh awakening to be literally pushed aside by a big outlet. We are all fighting for free press and hold the same journalistic vision in mind. It’s sad that a big network made us feel unwelcome in our own backyard. Community journalism is the backbone of democracy, and it should be embraced, not pushed aside. After all, CBS wouldn’t have known about Gwen, the one-room schoolhouse, or even Jenny Slate’s appearance there if it hadn’t been reported by the Cape Cod Times, and picked up by the likes of the Boston Globe and the New York Times.

In the end, CBS did what TV does with such events — aired a clip that lasted less than three minutes, and didn’t show some of the key, touching moments, such as the heartfelt speeches made by Lexi, Gwen’s teacher Michelle Carvalho, and superintendent Margaret Frieswyk, or the official citations from the Massachusetts legislature, Gov. Charlie Baker, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. They chose to focus on “the local color” of the small school and isolated island. Our coverage and the coverage of our colleagues may not have been “exclusive,” but it was well-rounded, thorough, and something to be proud of, despite our limitations.

–Gabrielle Mannino and Brian Dowd