Archive for category: Journalism

The endgame for American civic responsibility. Pt. I

14 Aug
August 14, 2014

I’m going to write something fresh about Ferguson, Missouri, and the once-extraordinary notion that law enforcement officers — uniquely authorized, trained and armed as they are to use lethal force against American civilians in peacetime as is necessary to serve the commonweal — need not be identified when they have in fact taken a human life.  The notion that police officers are entitled to anonymity after such an action is not merely anti-democratic; it is, in fact, totalitarian.  The idea that a police department, with all of its resources and sworn personnel, might claim to be unable to protect an officer from retribution, and therefore employ such anonymity to further protect the officer from his citizenry is even more astonishing.  And any police agency showing such institutional cowardice which might then argue its public should continue to come forward and cooperate with officers in police investigations and to trust in the outcome is engaged in little more than rank hypocrisy.  After all, if an armed and sworn officer — backed by all the sworn personnel of his agency, by the power of its prosecutorial allies, the law and the courts — is afraid, then why should any witness or party to any crime, unarmed and unallied as they are, be asked to come forward and participate publicly in the process?

It would be nice to think that this new notion of frightened and vulnerable police officers, taking life anonymously and then hiding behind claims of imminent and actual threat, is some fresh hell of sudden origin, and that this Missouri police department is alone in having lost its moral compass.  Not so.

As Orson Welles famously pointed out, police work is only easy in a police state.  And there is a temptation — in these days of shrinking institutional journalism — on the part of much larger law enforcement agencies to make their jobs very easy indeed.  Before we get to Ferguson and the present tragedy, indulge me by reviewing a twelve-year-old opinion piece, written for the Baltimore Sun in the wake of a shooting by a special agent that the FBI field office declined to identify:  From the March 12, 2002 edition of that paper:

Here’s  A fundamental truth about police work in America:

In this country, only a law enforcement officer has the authority to use deadly force against fellow citizens in time of peace. As a well-armed society, we find it necessary to arm our law officers as a consequence and to accept that they will have to use those weapons as an act of personal deliberation.

This is an extraordinary right. But on foot patrol, in a radio car, on drug raids or during car stops, there can be no body politic to deliberate such matters. It comes down to a solitary civil servant reaching for the right decision in a terrifying instant. We train people for that instant. We pray that they act correctly.

One other fundamental truth about police work was absolutely clear to nearly everyone, save for the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore office and, perhaps, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland:  If American citizens grant law officers the right to carry and use firearms with deadly force, it comes with an equal measure of responsibility.

When a firearm is used in the line of duty, an individual and an agency are both responsible for that action.
If a law officer exercises his right to lethal force, his actions are accounted and declared to the public he serves. He does not hide behind an arbitrary grant of anonymity; he is publicly identified as an acknowledgment that when he accepted the extraordinary rights granted to a law officer, he also accepted the responsibilities.

The recent shooting of an unarmed suspect by Special Agent Christopher Braga, 35, of the Baltimore field office of the FBI during a traffic stop in Anne Arundel County seems, at first glance, to be a tragic failure on the part of that agency and of one agent in particular.

Yet initially, the FBI resisted all efforts by the public to identify Special Agent Braga. The U.S. attorney for Maryland remained mute. They held to this policy for a week. And when the FBI released the agent’s name, officials said they did so only because local newspapers, having obtained the information from other sources, were forcing their hand.

Yet every other police agency in this country understands that when one of its officers uses deadly force, it is an action that demands accountability to the public.  Moreover, many of those agencies — if asked — would also provide information indicating whether a specific officer had been involved in past shootings and, further, whether any citizen complaints against an officer for excessive use of force had been sustained by administrative review. How else for the public to know whether a problem might exist with a particular officer?

Local FBI officials said they were following a bureau-wide policy in refusing to identify the responsible agent. Perhaps, but the policy is both wrong and contemptuous of the citizenry the FBI seeks to serve. Beyond that, the agent in charge of the Baltimore office suggested that the anonymity of agents needs to be maintained to protect them from possible retribution.

Remarkable.

Maryland troopers, federal ATF agents and Baltimore police officers who every day police some of the toughest terrain in America are routinely identified by their agencies when they exercise deadly force. Are all of those law officers at lesser risk than FBI agents? And what about ordinary citizens asked by law enforcement to assist their efforts by testifying openly in criminal courts, knowing that they can be identified publicly for doing so.

Even as the agent was finally identified, FBI officials couldn’t help but reveal just how self-serving and ethically bankrupt their policy actually is. Lynne A. Hunt, the head of the Baltimore FBI office, noted that Special Agent Braga is a former Marine officer, a decorated Persian Gulf war veteran and a trained member of an FBI tactical team. Adding that Special Agent Braga is a husband and father of three young children, Special Agent Hunt said she did not want him to be perceived as a “faceless agent.”

She thereby made it clear that when the FBI believes that information about an agent involved in the shooting of a citizen might be perceived in a positive light, she and the bureau stand ready to provide it. Presumably, if the agent involved had no military service, a spotty record with the bureau and a divorce from a childless marriage, then faceless he might remain.

Given that the FBI’s actions in this matter have suddenly gone from a blanket declaration of policy to a belated attempt at spin, how is the public to believe that the bureau’s review of this matter will lead to a full airing of facts? Can this same Special Agent Hunt be relied upon to reveal the full facts of the probe, or will we hear from her only when certain facts serve her agency’s interest?

If FBI officials here wish to retain the right to exercise deadly force against Maryland citizens — as well as the respect of that citizenry — they, and the U.S. attorney who oversees them, will take a hard look at their performance in this matter. And they will find a way to achieve the kind of public accountability required of all other law enforcement officers.

*       *       *

When that op-ed ran a dozen years ago, the FBI’s effort to cloak its agents in anonymity was a unique affront to accountability and the public’s right to know in my state.  But not for long.  In part two, we’ll revisit the Baltimore Police Department less than a decade later, following the U.S. Justice Department down the same ugly road. And if you think such criticism as offered above gave the FBI the slightest pause, think again.  Justin Fenton, currently of The Sun, tells me that he is still waiting for the local field office of the bureau to properly identify the agents who killed a citizen in Owings Mills, Maryland back in April.  The citizens of Maryland are still not allowed to know the identities of the federal agents who kill them, to evaluate the service histories or past behavior of those agents, to know whether this is the first time an agent has used lethal force or the tenth.  For the FBI, police work in these United States has been made very easy indeed.  On to Part II, seven years down this bad road, where the same virus infects local law enforcement:

Libel per se – UPDATED TWICE

02 Jul
July 2, 2014

UPDATE:  12 p.m., July 4

I am informed that the Huff Post piece has now removed the reference to my having been fired.  Instead, apparently, my revenge was had upon editors who spiked one of my articles because my writing wasn’t “Dickensian” enough.  They never said anything of the sort to me or anyone else, and that is not actually the reason that particular article was spiked.  I carefully related the actual sequence of events to Dr. Williams in my April memo as a discussion of  that particular article and its fate features throughout her manuscript, but no matter.  With regard to the Huff Post essay at least, I am libeled no more and I thank the author for her apology at the bottom of the essay.

A brief word on the non-performance of the Huffington Post in this matter, on their publishing ethic, and on the manner in which this institution conducts its business:

The abdication of editorial responsibility in the case of aggregated sites such as Wikipedia or barely-edited copy dumps such as the Huffington Post is one of the sad retrenchments in news distribution and commentary.  The ethos of such entities — hey, we don’t write the stuff; we’re just the blackboard it’s scrawled upon —  sounds at first to be an ennobled argument for an open and unfettered marketplace of ideas, where some unseen hand of libertarian idealism ensures that better notions triumph over bad ones, and the lies are all, in the end, run down and brutalized by more powerful truths before much harm is done.  Demagogues from Huey Long to Joseph Goebbels have an answer to that naivete; shit, John Kerry will sell you a used Swift Boat if you’re credulous enough to believe such tripe.   These policies are not ennobled.  They are craven.  They allow web entities to profit off the slanders, provocations and irresponsible claims in the real-time battles that make their sites central and profitable to every argument. Lies and cheap provocations become as essential to the dynamic as the truth, and accuracy and falsehood are accorded equal honor.  It’s yellow stuff indeed.  

Some of the best and most courageous journalism that I’ve witnessed involved the decision by good and careful editors NOT to publishing something incomplete, or inaccurate, or ethically impaired.  Such things seldom happen with our present internet.  Instead, the editors of the Huffington Post are not only untroubled at the thought of unknowingly participating in a libel, they prove comfortable with maintaining that libel even when its falsehood is known.  They throw up their hands, cry that we shouldn’t shoot the piano player, who’s merely playing the music of others.  As if carrying a lie about another citizen to a mass of people isn’t still the tort of libel and a thoroughly scumsucking thing with which to be engaged.

UPDATE:  2 p.m., July 3

Today, I spoke with the director of Duke University Press.  He informs me that Dr. Williams’ book, which had been sent to the printer without any changes since I viewed the manuscript three months ago, is now on hold while the publisher consults with its author and with legal counsel.  Given that this gentleman was coming to this issue suddenly and without prior knowledge, and, too, that some time is required to reach people, gather information and address complicated matters, I’m inclined to leave it here and keep the details of my conversation private.  At present, I am content to believe that Duke University Press is trying to address the issue.   More to come.  Or not.  Hard to know. 

ORIGINAL  TEXT:  July 2

The permanent churn of the internet is such that if you allow a dishonesty to stand for more than a moment, it will be endlessly repeated as fact for as long as there are humans left to link to it.   We all sense this.  And even so, for some falsehoods, we have to laugh and let it ride; the stakes just aren’t that high.

But every now and then comes a moment when — as someone who counted himself as a professional reporter for some certain years — I find myself stunned, like a cow with a sledgehammer, to see just how indifferent another practitioner is to any basic responsibility and ethics.

In this instance, the practitioner is an academic author, Linda Williams, who has published a book of themes and arguments relating to a television show I once wrote and produced, “The Wire.”  Her book, published by Duke University Press, is currently being hawked as new books always are, and Ms. Williams has written a piece for the Huffington Post, which appears on that site today as part of that publicity campaign.  For obvious reasons, I will not link to it because of the libel contained therein.

Understand, it is not merely an error.  Everyone makes mistakes.

The reason that I can attest that this is no mere error is that a few months ago, Duke University Press sent me a galley of the book and asked that I look at it.  As I explained to them, I am without public opinion as to Dr. Williams’ thoughts and theories regarding “The Wire.”  She is welcome to all of them.  I do, however, find myself capable of opinion on any narrative that suggests I was at any point unethical as a newspaperman.  Those years matter to me to a much greater degree than how anyone might view my later performance in the entertainment industry.

And indeed, embedded in the original manuscript was a theme, conjured from god knows where by the author, that I had been fired from the newspaper after a falling out with editors that involved an ethical breach on my part.

I don’t know how else to say this:  There was no ethical breach.  No lapse in any ethical standard of journalism was ever suggested or referenced in any of my work, even by those editors with whom I had deep and fundamental disagreements over the direction and priorities of the newspaper.  No ethical question was ever raised by those editors with me, nor with any of my immediate supervisors.  Nothing of the sort was ever discussed or brought to my attention in any way, ever.  It.  Just.  Did.  Not.  Happen.

I was not fired at all.  In fact, because of more philosophical disagreements, I elected to leave the Sun voluntarily in November 1995, taking a buyout with about 120 other newsroom employees who were offered a year’s salary and benefits to leave the newspaper.  Further, when it became clear to the editors in question that I was determined to depart the paper, one of them, Mr. Marimow by name, came to me in the last hours of the buyout window and put a slip of paper in my hand.  It promised a $5,000 raise immediately if I would withdraw my buyout papers, and a second raise in the subsequent fiscal year.  I thanked him, but noted that my differences with him and with Mr. Carroll were not really about money, and I left the paper.

And yet, here I am in the Huffington Post today under the byline of Dr. Williams, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley:  “Thus did David Simon have his sweet revenge on the bosses who once fired him from the Baltimore Sun…”

Again, I conveyed all of the above corrective facts to Dr. Williams and her publisher both, in writing, by early April.  I wrote that they should look at the material and endeavor to do the proper and responsible thing.  I did not hear back from them.  I do not know if substantive changes have been made to the book manuscript.  I only know that I am nonetheless, in today’s published essay, someone who needed to be fired from his newspaper.

Being fired from any job certainly implies cause.  It is defamatory on its face.  And when a writer is informed in advance of the facts and chooses to publish such a claim regardless, it meets the definition for libel, and actionable libel even of a public person.

Today, I’ve written to my original contacts at Duke University Press, asking, in effect, what the fuck.  I also attempted to correct the record using the disembodied and bureaucratic uselessness that is the Huffington Post’s corrections and legal inquiry forms.  Nada.  No replies.   No follow through at all.  As of a few moments ago, the lie stands, comfortably, amid the warm breezes of a web where truth is always late to the picnic.

There is a presumption that the academy — with its research standards and its intellectual rigor — is ever superior to the slapdash, first-draft-of-history half-assedness that is daily journalism.  We made mistakes in print all the time.  Yes, we did.  But if someone sent me corrective material months in advance of publication and I still managed to print a libel without regard to that material, I would have been, well, fired.  And I would not have complained.

Columbia Journalism Review: Free For All

05 Jun
June 5, 2012

For the last few days, I’ve been heartily engaged in the comments section of a couple CJR items that originated from the New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s travails.  I advocate for the industry-wide adoption of online pay walls to sustain high-end journalism. Others regard this as a disastrous suggestion.

As the comments began to pile up, I saw some insight and a lot of argumentative fallacy.  People do love to call names.

Read more →

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