No rest for the wicked or the innocent alike

In Judeo-Christian tradition, three days are set aside for the dead to find their way to heaven.  This is also a time for the families of the departed to grieve, but to grieve knowing that members of their family or community are guarding them against prying eyes or other grave-robbers in their moment of vulnerability while they deal with the tragedy that has befallen them.  The impulse is to put on a brave face for the public, to try to keep it together, as if one should be able to shrug off such a horrible loss with nothing more than a mannerly tear or two.

Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, and the generalized addiction America has to outrage, this period of grief has been streamlined to about three minutes.

Earlier today, a terrible tragedy befell a town in Connecticut.  A young man, for reasons unknown, stormed into an elementary school in Newtown and viciously murdered 26 people – twenty of those small children, none more than ten.  This is a monstrous act, and one that we may never be able to understand.  I want to make clear that my thoughts and prayers go out to all the families touched by this horrible act – whether their children lost there lives, or merely their innocence.

Within hours of the shooting, I received emails from two different political organizations asking for my help in using the tragedy to push through laws favoring strong gun control – and donations were more than welcome.  I also received email from an organization opposing gun control, asking for similar assistance.  I have no reason to believe this is the last I will hear of these requests, but the fact that they were sent out before the dead had even all been positively identified – that their deaths were being politicized even before their bodies had gone fully cold – is also a monstrous, ghoulish act.  Less than six hours after the shootings, Mark Kelly, who is familiar with tragedy, being the husband to former Congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Giffords, issued a statement offering condolences to the families who lost children, and in the same breath calling for gun control hearings, saying “This can no longer wait.”

Forgive me for disagreeing with you, Mr. Kelly, but I think it could have waited at least a day.  I think it could have waited until the parents of the children that were lost had time to draw a breath that didn’t immediately catch in their throat.  I think it could have waited until the children who survived finished crying themselves to sleep.

I think it could have waited until the families had a little time to mourn.

We’ve become addicted to sensationalism – we’re obsessed with more, with bigger, with better.  This is the culture that produces interviews like WTNH’s Erin Logan interviewing a young girl who survived unharmed, asking her what it was like – and when the answer wasn’t as sensational as she wanted, as we have come to expect, prodded her further and asking if everyone was “…crying, scared, wanting their parents to come get them?”

Pardon the vulgarity, but what the hell do YOU think? Is it really good journalism to poke at a victim clearly in emotional shock, and demand to know just HOW freaked out everyone was? Do you really need to push a small child into making a horrible, terrible tragedy worse by recounting the screams and cries of terrified children?  Is it truly newsworthy that children in danger will be upset?

There’s a difference between reporting the news, and manufacturing the news – and inappropriate questions like that plainly cross the line.  It’s obvious that the children were terrified – what next, shall we ask for direct quotes of the screams?  Recordings of the crying?

When does it cross the line?  As far as I can see, that’s long past.  Let them react on their own schedule, Ms. Logan.  Don’t pry the gory details out of a child.  Don’t pick at the scab before it’s even started to form.

Citizen Journalism: Alive and Well

There’s an unfortunate attitude among many members of law enforcement organizations that they are themselves above the law. You need look no further than a cursory Google search on abuses of power by police officers, evidence mishandling by prosecutors, or corrupt judges to see that. Law enforcement officers are, after all, human, and just as fallible and prone to hypocrisy and excess as you or I.

Enter the rise of technology. Video recording equipment has gotten smaller and cheaper, with cameras in teddy bears to help spy on the babysitter, built into mobile phones to let you take video snapshots anywhere, and helmet-mounted cameras to record adventures. Staff Sgt Anthony Graber (MD Air Nat’l Guard) has one of the latter, and used it while riding his motorcycle on March 5th (and admittedly driving VERY irresponsibly). He was pulled over by Trooper J. D. Uhler of the Maryland State Police – not in uniform or wearing any identifying clothing whatsoever – who displayed his sidearm BEFORE properly identifying himself as a member of law enforcement, a gross violation of departmental policy. (,0,5148683.story )

Fortunately for Graber, he captured every detail of the traffic stop with his camera, and uploaded it to YouTube. The Maryland State Police found it, and executed a search warrant on his home, seizing cameras and computers, stating that his recording of the traffic stop was a violation of the Maryland Wiretap Act ( ), claiming that the interaction between Trooper Uhler and Staff Sgt Graber was a ‘private conversation’ and therefore protected under the Act.

Judge Emory Pitt Jr of the Harford County Circuit Court threw out those charges in a 20 page decision ( ), explaining not only that the Act as written did not cover this situation, but that police officers do not have an expectation of privacy when executing their duties in public, nor should they. Quote: "Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public. When we exercise that power in public fora, we should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation. ‘Sed quis custodiet ipsos cutodes [sic]’ (Who watches the watchmen?)"

Though the judge’s ruling is not binding to other judges (as it is just a circuit court), it sets the beginnings of a precedent, and is based in a solid interpretation of both the law as written and existing case histories, so it is unlikely that the ruling will be overturned in a higher court. This is the beginning of the end for opacity in law enforcement, and the rest depends on the citizens of our nation to carry this further. Would the Rodney King beating have happened if the officers involved knew there was a good chance they would be recorded, and that the recording would turn up in court? If George Holliday, the man who videotaped King’s savage beating, hadn’t been around to videotape it, or if he had been scared of police reprisal for submitting the recording, would any of us have even heard of the abuse?

There are a number of ways you can help. If you have a mobile phone with onboard camera, use it. There is software available for almost any camera-equipped smartphone that will share recorded video and sound to Youtube, Facebook, or a number of other sites. One free software package called Qik ( ) offers an option for streaming your camera’s video live to the internet and keeps a copy of the video on the site regardless of what happens to the phone – very useful if you worry about your phone being confiscated by an angry law enforcement officer trying to hide evidence of their misdeeds. Note that in this case, it would also capture the confiscation itself on video. (Full disclosure: I use Qik, but have no ownership stake in their company or any vested interest whatsoever in their success or failure.)

Video isn’t the only way you can contribute to ‘watching the watchmen’ – never underestimate the power of the written word. If you witness something happening that shouldn’t be, commit as much as possible to memory, and write down the details as soon as you can, even if it’s just a quick note. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or even coherency, you can worry about that later. Submit tips to local news agencies – you might not be an anchorman or anchorwoman on the six o’clock news, but they don’t get their stories just from being in the right place in the right time. That’s your job.

Public meetings of local governmental organizations are also worth attending, you’d be surprised at the amount of graft and other nonsense that goes on simply because nobody spares an hour or two once a month to attend a public council meeting. Be warned, though, taking an interest in local politics can swiftly turn into an interest in participating in local politics – but that’s another article.

Not every judge can be counted on to do the right thing, unfortunately. Felicia Laverne Gibson, of Salisbury NC, is currently appealing a ruling upholding her arrest for ‘resisting, obstructing, or delaying a police officer’ for videotaping a traffic stop from her front porch. ( ) The judge who issued the ruling is currently seeking re-election, while Gibson and her attorney are seeking an appeal. As a sidebar, this is a problem that can be made slightly better by participating in local elections and making sure you’re putting the right judges on the bench.

On a final note, it’s worth stating that the vast, overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are honest – they go out and do their jobs intending only to serve the public need. It’s a tough, thankless job that I wouldn’t take for any amount of money – they are not the problem. The particular nature of law enforcement, however, means that the comparatively low number of ‘bad’ cops – or even good cops that make mistakes – have a seriously detrimental effect. If a bus driver has a bad day and takes it out on you, you might be late to work. If an armed police officer has a bad day, you get another news article about an unarmed man being murdered in a subway station ( ) or another unarmed man being brutally beaten at a traffic stop ( ). This will only stop happening if law enforcement officers know that chances are good that anytime they abuse their powers, they will be watched, and the watchers will not be silenced.

"The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state." US Supreme Court, City of Houston v. Hill, 1987

News Corp, General Electric, and the Death of Objectivity

Borrowing a tradition from the government of pre-revolution France, journalism has often been called the Fourth Estate of society – the first being the clergy, the second being the nobility (government), and the third being the public at large. Journalism is most useful when it is separate from each of the previous three estates – although it is not an opponent of either the clergy or the government, it is at its best when it is free from the influence of either. For journalism to be objective and credible, it needs to be able to report on the flaws and failings of the other estates. In a sense, it protects the public from the machinations of the clergy and the nobility.

But what happens when the lines blur?

Recently, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, parent company to Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, donated one million dollars to the Republican Governor’s Association, an organization devoted to promoting the election and interests of state governors who affiliate themselves with the Republican Party. Fox News is, of course, home of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, all of which devote the vast majority (if not the entirety) of their programs preaching the virtues of conservatism and casting aspersions on liberals to a degree that approaches self-parody. Guest speakers advancing liberal viewpoints are occasionally present, but invariably dismissed as socialists, well-meaning simpletons, or simply shouted down.

Keith Olbermann, an MSNBC news anchor and longtime devoted rival of Fox News and its stars, reported on this shortly afterward, mentioning in the interests of full disclosure that General Electric, the parent company of MSNBC, had donated $105,000 to the RGA – along with an identical amount to the Democratic Governor’s Association. The fact that both amounts were identical was presented as an example of fairness and equality. According to CNN, those numbers are not entirely accurate – in the current election cycle, GE has donated $237,000 to the DGA compared with $205,000 to the RGA. Thirty-two thousand dollars, spread across an entire nation’s worth of funding, is a small enough amount so that it could be argued to be irrelevant – but even if Olbermann was accurate, that’s not the real problem – the problem is that news organizations and their parent companies are financially supporting political parties in the first place.

For a news agency to be taken seriously, its statements and commentary must be assumed to be objective. For objectivity to exist, it must be known that the person or agency making the statement be free from conflicts of interest or other forms of outside influence. For a person or a company to make a donation, especially one so large, to any person or group implies that the target of the donation is tacitly endorsed by the donator. You don’t give money to a charity that supports something you disapprove of, after all. Therefore, it can be reasoned that when news organizations donate money to a political party, they are expressing their endorsement and approval of the beliefs and activities of that party. This is the very definition of bias. If a news agency is biased, they cannot be trusted to provide honest, objective commentary on the target of their bias, just as you can’t ask a person about their lover’s personal problems and expect anything resembling an honest answer.

That Fox News is biased toward the Republican party is beyond question. MSNBC’s bias toward the Democratic Party is questionable as GE is not solely or even mostly a news organization, but it is still a troubling revelation. That mass media in general is at the whim and mercy of government or corporate interests is the horrible reality that lies at the root of the whole problem. The only saving grace is that at least many entirely different people and agencies are serving their interests by buying and selling the mass media, so there is often truth to be found by comparing the reports of rival news agencies and seeing where they agree – and more importantly, where they do not.

So where does this leave the person seeking truth? Nonprofit news organizations (a draft list can be found here: ) are not guaranteed to be free from outside influence, but as they have no shareholders to serve and no profits to worry about, chances are much better that they will be much freer from bias – or at least be honest and forthright about their bias. Nonprofit news organizations range from the tiny to the titanic, spreading their message everywhere from talk radio to the internet and everywhere in between. As I’ve written many times before, though, you should never depend on any one person or group to be your sole source of news and information – because to do so is to allow that one source to do your thinking for you as well.