Thursday, April 20, 2006

Great journalism

by Brendan Fitzgibbons, DI columnist

In the realm of journalistic excellence, few award-winning stories are uplifting pieces. Journalism awards like the Pulitzer Prizes are usually awarded for a newspaper's coverage of natural disasters or scandals. The New Orleans Times-Picayune won the award this year for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and in 2003, the Boston Globe won for its reporting of the Catholic Church sexual-abuse scandal.

For the most part, these award-winning and necessary stories are tales of exposed corruption, investigative breakthroughs, and public-service accommodations. An old journalism adage comes to mind: "Afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted."

So in the midst of Iowa City's post-tornado cleanup and reconstruction, I think it's important to take a minute and examine why independent, relentless journalism, great journalism, isn't simply a welcomed advantage to a free society but a lifeline for humanity.

The great reporting on the tornadoes that struck Iowa City came in many different forms and from many different sources. But I'm going to specifically look at The Daily Iowan's coverage of the tornadoes' impact on tenant and landlord relationships.

Disclaimer: I write (obviously) for the DI, my friends write for this paper, I have a great affinity and respect for many of the reporters here, so I'm going to be biased. My apartment was also affected by the tornadoes, and I had a tumultuous encounter with my landlord, Apartments Downtown. But because I don't really believe in the notion of objective journalism, I'm letting myself off the hook.

Through experience, I've found out that breaking a lease from your landlord is a muddled and confusing mess. The roof of my unit, 308 South Gilbert, was significantly damaged by the tornado. There was a gas leak, glass, brick and fallen roof debris every where, and for three days, there were pink signs on my building stating that entering the premises could result in injury or death.

Fortunately, I'd been checking the DI website over the weekend, and they had several articles offering instructions for tenants if their building was significantly damaged. Here's a letter to the editor from, Eric K. Fisher, supervising attorney from the UI's Student Legal Services, outlining tenants rights.

I followed the advised track from the DI and UISG and visited with Student Legal Services twice in the last three days. Our conversations were confidential, but I can say that meeting with legal counsel, whether at the university or otherwise, is a must for anyone who has questions about their living situation. The top story in today's DI is about the struggles many students are having in breaking their leases and getting fair treatment from property company. Today's editorial also follows up on the issue. The editorial calls for students to take responsibility to seek out their options as a tenant before reaching an agreement with landlords.

I couldn't agree with this statement more. It's your responsibility to know your rights, and no one will do it for you. However, I am going to take issue with the part of the editorial that says, "The apartment-management companies in Iowa City are not out to maliciously defraud students."

It is in the best interest of property-management companies such as mine, Apartments Downtown, which owns 1,500 units in Iowa City, to stifle and confuse you about your rights as a tenant. When I talked to a representative from Apartments Downtown on Tuesday, he argued that my complex was fine, accused me of trying to break my lease only because I wanted the money and to get out of class for the rest of the year, and intimidated me by threatening to counter-sue me if I was to take any legal actions against them.

By the end of our conversation I lost my cool with him, which I regret, and asked him how he sleeps at night. There is nothing that bothers me more than large, powerful entities such as Apartments Downtown, which preys on the misfortunes of others. Anyone familiar with Apartments Downtown, formally known as AUR, knows that this is a company who thrives on overcharging students and ripping them off on their deposits. Why do they do it? Because nothing is stopping them.

Enter great journalism. Journalism is one of the last remaining checks we as a society have on companies like Apartments Downtown. While none of the DI's coverage specifically targets Apartments Downtown, just by following student's conflicts with landlords, and informing them of their rights, they have done a tremendous public service to students and citizens. If I could give you a Pulitzer, I surely would.

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