The EU

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Value of a Full Time Press

Someone noted this article to me:  "In Baltimore, No One Left to Press the Police." The issue of the article, by Mr David Simon, is that when the press doesn't keep knowledgeable people on the Police Beat (or other beats), then the government agency, or their spokesmen, get to bamboozle the public.

Mr Simon should know about this, having been a Police Reporter for the Baltimore Sun before retiring to write. He is also the co-author of The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. The Corner is over ten years old, but is probably still relevant to inner city life today. It is about the goings on within a block in any direction of a particular street corner in Baltimore, MD--about the people and what they were doing to improve themselves or deal with the problems they had with drugs. Reading the book, which I enjoyed, was were I first learned that people were going into abandoned apartments and ripping out the copper pipes and copper wires and selling the material for scrap to pay for drug habits.

But, back to the article.
On Feb. 17, when a 29-year-old officer responded to a domestic dispute in East Baltimore, ended up fighting for her gun and ultimately shot an unarmed 61-year-old man named Joseph Alfonso Forrest, the Sun reported the incident, during which Forrest died, as a brief item. It did not name the officer, Traci McKissick, or a police sergeant who later arrived at the scene to aid her and who also shot the man.

It didn't identify the pair the next day, either, because the Sun ran no full story on the shooting, as if officers battling for their weapons and unarmed 61-year-old citizens dying by police gunfire are no longer the grist of city journalism. At which point, one old police reporter lost his mind and began making calls.

No, the police spokesman would not identify the officers, and for more than 24 hours he would provide no information on whether either one of them had ever been involved in similar incidents. And that's the rub, of course. Without a name, there's no way for anyone to evaluate an officer's performance independently, to gauge his or her effectiveness and competence, to know whether he or she has shot one person or 10.
The Sun wasn't doing its job and the Police were holding back information, information that Maryland law said should be released. Mr Simon is angry about all this.
Half-truths, obfuscations and apparent deceit -- these are the wages of a world in which newspapers, their staffs eviscerated, no longer battle at the frontiers of public information. And in a city where officials routinely plead with citizens to trust the police, where witnesses have for years been vulnerable to retaliatory violence, we now have a once-proud department's officers hiding behind anonymity that is not only arguably illegal under existing public information laws, but hypocritical as well.

There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic than it is transformational.

Well, sorry, but I didn't trip over any blogger trying to find out McKissick's identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against officers. And there wasn't anyone working sources in the police department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.
It seems that every week I read in The Lowell Sun about this or that effort to obtain access to government documents--documents that an informed citizenry need in order to be fully informed and thus able to vote intelligently about issues. Elections should not be about who you like the most, but about who is or will do the best job for the Commonweal.

Much as I like blogging and much as I appreciate the hard work and skill of my fellow bloggers, it is the professional reporters who are the first line of defense when a government agency clams up. Here is hoping that our newspaper sticks around for a long time.

Regards  --  Cliff

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