Tag Archives: William Freivogel

First Amendment is no refuge for Clippers owner’s remarks

Editor’s note: This is an opinion article from William H. Freivogel, publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.

Whether viewed from a legal, moral or ethical vantage point, the lifetime ban that NBA commissioner Adam Silver imposed on racist Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was just and correct.

After Silver announced the punishment, the Twittersphere exploded with claims that the NBA had violated Sterling’s First Amendment right to free speech.

The problem with that argument is the first word of the First Amendment: Congress. “Congress shall make no law” means the government can’t punish people for their speech. It doesn’t mean a corporation or private groups can’t fire people for saying something stupid and hateful.

Ethicists, who fancy having a corner on the truth, may disagree. Al Tompkins, from the Poynter Institute, was quoted on NPR this week asking, “When does newsworthiness trump privacy?”

There is an easy answer to this naïve rhetorical question: At least since Bill Clinton, and arguably since Justice Louis Brandeis and his law partner Samuel Warren came up with the right to privacy more than a century ago because they were offended by gossip columns about the lavish blue-blood parties thrown by the Warrens.

And all that was long before social media and gossip sites such as TMZ demolished the boundary between private and public. As Silver pointed out, even if Sterling made the comment in a private phone call to his girlfriend, the views are his and are public. And remember, Sterling is a public figure who must realize he sacrifices some of his privacy for his celebrity.

Still, Tompkins asks, “Doesn’t he have the right to say what he believes no matter how reprehensible without fear of someone recording it and putting it online?”

Sure, he has the right to say it. So, too, does the NBA have a right to kick him out for saying it.

Building an ethical argument in favor of protecting Sterling’s privacy is ultimately self-defeating and offensive. In a country tarnished by slavery, segregation and bigotry, can it be possible that ethics requires society to protect a racist behaving like a 21st century plantation owner?

Sterling might be able to assemble some legal arguments challenging the NBA’s attempt to force him to sell the team. But those efforts are likely to be fruitless, because the NBA’s constitution seems to say the league’s decision is final and owners have waived their right to challenge it in court.

The telephone conversation with V. Stiviano may have been recorded illegally if Sterling didn’t consent.

But just as news organizations print documents illegally leaked by Snowden and Assange, they also print newsworthy recordings that may have been illegally taped. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there is a First Amendment right to broadcast illegally recorded conversations.

But does this gossip qualify as news, especially when Russia is seizing eastern Ukraine and people are dying in Syria?

The question answers itself. The Sterling comments have been the most-commented-upon news story of the week.

The nation’s ugly racial history has determined that America’s is destined to struggle with race – even if the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decisions show it is tired of the struggle.

One encouraging sign is that society exacted the maximum punishment on Sterling as an automatic reflex, just as it had last week when Nevada rancher and Tea Party “hero” Cliven Bundy started talking about blacks being better off when they were slaves picking cotton.

We sometimes forget how little time separates us from our institutionally racist past. Those now retiring went to kindergarten at the time Brown v. Board of Education was just desegregating the schools. We lived through segregation and remember that most white parents then disapproved of interracial dating and marriage.

It was only 50 years ago that the Civil Right Act forced restaurants and pools and employers to admit blacks. It may take another 50 years – or more – before we can escape the ghosts of Sterling and Bundy.

Journalism’s infatuation with Glenn Greenwald

Editor’s note: This is an opinion column by William H. Freivogel.

The journalism world’s embrace of Glenn Greenwald and his advocacy reporting is now complete with the award of the Pulitzer Prize to the Guardian for Greenwald’s disclosure of Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency secrets.

As with many youthful infatuations, the journalism world has rushed headlong into this relationship without listening to the alarms that surely went off in the heads of veteran journalists. Some journalists may be ambivalent about Greenwald’s ethics, but not ambivalent enough to withhold journalism’s top prize – or even to publicly debate whether it should have been awarded to his former newspaper.

The Pulitzer’s rules are broad. They require adherence to “the highest journalistic principles,” which are explained as “values such as honesty, accuracy and fairness.”

Did Greenwald live up to the highest journalists principles?

The Society for Professional Journalists’ code of ethics requires that journalists “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.” The Association Press Managing Editors state that “the newspaper should strive for impartial treatment of issues and dispassionate handling of controversial subjects.” The American Society of Newspaper Editors demands “impartiality” and states that “every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presently fairly.” National Public Radio demands its reporters adhere to “impartiality as citizens and public figures. … We are not advocates.”

Yet Greenwald is unabashedly and proudly an advocate who ridicules traditional journalistic ethics, as well as those, such as Bill Keller, the former New York Times editor who espouse those ethics.

As Greenwald put it so very elegantly: “If the U.S. government said you shouldn’t publish this, and you shouldn’t publish that, and you shouldn’t publish this other thing, because to do so will endanger national security, Bill Keller proudly said the New York Times didn’t publish it. He was … beaming, like a third-grader that had just gotten a gold star from his teacher.”

In addition to ridiculing Keller, Greenwald said he was fundamentally dishonest and “deceitful” for trying to be impartial. Greenwald calls instead for “a looser, more passionate form of new media reporting.”

He is passionate.

At the time his first stories were published a year ago, Greenwald made overblown claims about what he had found. He maintained that the NSA could “monitor every single conversation and every single form of human behavior anywhere in the world.” He also stated that “the claim that current NSA spying is legal is dubious in the extreme.”

In fact, the NSA program primarily collected metadata, not the content of telephone calls – a distinction many critics missed – and it had been approved by Congress, the president and most courts.

Don’t misunderstand. The Washington Post’s Pulitzer was well-deserved. The Snowden revelations printed in the Washington Post and the Guardian were clearly the biggest news story of the year. And that’s what the Pulitzer is supposed to reward.

The Snowden disclosures are more important than the Pentagon Papers. Disclosure of current abuses of privacy is more significant than a multiple-volume history of the Vietnam War.

The Snowden leaks forced President Obama to admit that the data collection had not been as effective as claimed in stopping terrorist incidents. And it has forced the president to call for reforms – although having phone companies hold onto metadata instead of the government may be insignificant.

All of these are strong reasons to justify giving the Public Service Pulitzer to the Post – and possibly the Guardian.

Nor have many Greenwald critics provided good reasons for denying the Pulitzer to the Guardian. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called Snowden a “traitor” and Greenwald an “accomplice,” for example.

Snowden is not a traitor, and Greenwald is not an accomplice. Snowden probably violated the World War I-era Espionage Act by disclosing government secrets he was sworn to protect. But that’s not treason. And Greenwald’s reporting of the government secrets is exactly what the press is supposed to do when it comes upon secret government practices that the American people should know about. In some ways, Greenwald harkens back to such icons as I.F. Stone, the legendary leftist critic of the American military. But Stone never won a Pulitzer for news reporting.

Greenwald, by turning his Rio residence into a repository for Snowden’s documents and parceling them out to news outlets, has skated close to the line of accomplice. But he has taken care to play a journalistic role in connection with the stories based on the documents he was distributing.

Nor have ad hominem attacks on Greenwald been persuasive. Some critics pointed out that he spoke to Socialist groups and took anti-Israeli positions. Tom Hicks, the Pulitzer-Prize winning national security reporter, tweeted recently, “Glenn, any comments from you or Edward Snowden on the recent round of media shutdowns in Russia?” This may be clever, but it has nothing to do with the substance of the disclosures.

What matters is whether the journalism community, in its crush on Greenwald and Snowden, has forgotten first principles.

Greenwald’s call for more transparent, passionate reporting has more emotional appeal than traditional journalism’s call for objectivity, impartiality and disinterested observation. Greenwald’s are hot words; traditional journalists are stuck with cold ones. He and his fellow advocates, such as Jeremy Scahill and Amy Goodman, may be winning the debate.

But Keller had some good advice for Greenwald last year.

“Humility is as dear as passion,” he wrote. “So my advice is: Learn to say, ‘We were wrong.’ ”

Journalists, like everyone else, are in dangerous territory when they believe they have a monopoly on the truth.

GJR publisher highlights undisputed points

Editor’s note: This post has been updated.

Top editors of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have written a letter to the editor of the Gateway Journalism Review taking issue with a recent story about the paper’s “Jailed By Mistake” investigation.

The GJR is publishing the entire letter to provide the newspaper a full airing of its views and because the letter is an extraordinarily detailed defense of a major newspaper project.

The letter does not complain of inaccuracies, but rather the GJR’s “absence of analysis, its lopsided ‘he said, she said,’ nature of reporting.”

A legendary editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch advised young reporters in the 1970s and 1980s to never overwrite their facts. Over four decades of reporting, the wisdom of that advice became apparent to this reporter – hence the inclination not to draw broad conclusions.

Nevertheless, amid the “he said, she said” claims, many important points are uncontested:

  • Post-Dispatch reporters Jennifer Mann and Robert Patrick are enterprising, crusading reporters who strongly believe their stories are accurate, true and important.
  • Mann and Patrick identified scores of cases where innocent people were mistakenly locked up for days because actual criminals – often relatives or friends – had used their names as aliases.
  • Locking up innocent men and women is a fundamental injustice and an important story that warrants close attention from judges and prosecutors.
  • Stories Mann and Patrick wrote in 2012 that disclosed the first cases of mistaken jailings also uncovered serious problems in the city’s method of identifying people unjustly imprisoned.

It also is uncontested that:

  • About half of the 100 cases identified by the Post-Dispatch were 5 years old or older; only about a dozen related to the past two years, during which time police made about 60,000 arrests.
  • Post-Dispatch editors refused to pay the $750 to $1,000 required to obtain computerized records that could have updated their story.
  • The Post-Dispatch did not talk to most of the 100 people who the paper said were wrongly jailed. It talked to about a dozen defendants or their lawyers. One person whom the Post-Dispatch did not talk to initially, Cortez Cooper, never had been jailed.
  • The paper has not reported the detailed challenges that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce has mounted to several of the paper’s examples; instead, the paper has disputed the prosecutor’s findings in a letter to her.

Resolving disputed claims about individual cases is impossible because the answers depend on records closed to the Post-Dispatch and GJR. It would take an official inquiry, with access to the court records, to clarify the dimensions of the threat to the justice identified by the Post-Dispatch’s stories.

In addition to the Post-Dispatch letter, the GJR is publishing a response from the paper’s main critic, Eddie Roth, Mayor Francis Slay’s deputy chief of staff and a former Post-Dispatch editorial writer. In addition, Gateway Journalism Review is publishing a letter from prosecutor Joyce. The GJR invited Roth and Joyce to respond because of the detailed criticisms of them in the Post-Dispatch letter.

William H. Freivogel

Publisher, Gateway Journalism Review

* * *

An earlier version of this story stated that one uncontested point about the series was that “Mann had urged her editors to pay” the $750  to $1,000 for the computerized records. Mann has since written an email to Gateway Journalism Review stating that she supported the newspaper’s decision not to pay the amount requested by the police department.

Letter to the editor from Post-Dispatch takes issue with recent GJR article

March 7, 2014

Dear Mr. Babcock:

We had trusted that the Gateway Journalism Review’s recent article, “Social Media Campaign by former P-D writer alleges P-D mistakes in series about mistakes” (Winter 2014), by publisher Bill Freivogel would finally offer a fairer and more complete assessment of our “Jailed by Mistake” project than your previous online efforts. Instead, we unfortunately found a disappointing lack of critical thinking, balance and independent reporting.

The most disturbing failures of the article were its absence of analysis, its lopsided “he said, she said,” nature of reporting and its author’s willingness to accept without question assertions and spin by the very public officials who oversee operations that mistakenly put innocent people in jail. They are not neutral observers.

Let us be clear just in case some of your readers may have been confused by Mr. Freivogel’s language that the newspaper “at first stood by its stories,” as if we don’t any longer. The Post-Dispatch still stands by its stories and its reporting. In fact, we remind Mr. Freivogel and your audience of our investigation’s key and indisputable findings – all of which were prominently displayed in our main article:

• Police failed to verify the identity of people they arrested, especially those who provided someone else’s name. In almost every wrongful arrest found, police and other officials overlooked a fingerprint report warning that they either had the wrong person or someone who used an alias.

• The protests of those wrongly arrested often were ignored.

• Officials failed to differentiate between the people who gave false names and the people who suffered for it.

• Authorities played down the cases where their own mistake caused a wrongful arrest.

• Officials failed to correct errors in records, setting up repeated wrongful arrests and leaving authorities unsure of who they were holding or who committed which past crimes.

We’re not sure why neither Mr. Freivogel nor the critics he cites avoids discussion of these recurring systemic problems. Instead, Mr. Freivogel’s reporting relies largely on the comments and complaints of mayoral aide Eddie Roth, who had been Mayor Francis Slay’s point man on the wrongful-arrest issue.

Mr. Freivogel also repeats an initial broadbrush claim to him by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce about errors in the story based on a “survey” of 10 percent of the cases and repeats Mr. Roth’s criticism that the Post-Dispatch has not reported her claims. But he fails to note that she made no such claim to the newspaper. Mr. Freivogel also seemingly did no research on his own, even though the reporters provided him with names and criminal case numbers of mistake examples, and the newspaper’s detailed response to the handful of cases that Joyce’s office did single out and submit in a letter to the newspaper.

Mr. Freivogel also accepted unchallenged a public official’s claims that records exist to dispute the newspaper’s results, but the newspaper, and by extension the public, “does not have the legal authority or legal access to the documents needed to verify the accuracy of the documents you are representing to the public.”

Ms. Joyce says that a newspaper project based on public law enforcement and court records is wrong, but then says that the proof of error is in law-enforcement records too secret to reveal. Moreover, in our particular project, the reporters had turned over their findings to Ms. Joyce and other officials weeks before publication, hoping for a well-informed response rather than stonewalling. And, as we have pointed out to Ms. Joyce, certain case-specific information that actually was provided to us beforehand proved to be erroneous. Moreover, the circuit attorney has turned down more recent requests to sit down and go through the cases with her or her staff.

Mr. Freivogel also passes along Ms. Joyce’s call for an audit of the newspaper’s methods and findings, without asking her why she has made no effort to correct errors or whether she would agree to submit to a similar audit. Any audit without disclosure of more records in their control would be folly.

Mr. Freivogel twice repeats Mr. Roth’s claim of our “grudging” approach to correcting errors, specifically in the case of Cecil and Cortez Cooper. We followed and continue to follow standard corrections procedures. As we have said before, we stand ready and willing to correct any factual errors in the stories, but we do need documentation and accurate evidence to do so. That’s not grudging; that’s common sense.

Moreover, the Cooper correction was made in the traditional way, running on page A2 of the newspaper. We also updated and corrected online versions of the story. But Mr. Freivogel apparently didn’t bother to verify Mr. Roth’s claim.

Speaking of the Cooper case, let’s set a few things straight. We made and acknowledged a significant error by saying Cortez Cooper had been held in jail on brother Cecil Cooper’s drug charge. Cortez’s name had appeared on arrest records because his brother had used his name before being released on pending charges. Despite a fingerprint report within 21 hours showing that the wanted man was really Cecil, an arrest warrant was issued two months later for Cortez. Police arrested and j ailed Cecil for 36 days under the name of Cortez. The real Cortez ultimately had to go to court to get his name released from the case by a judge. Our error was in not discovering that the “Cortez” officials had listed in the arrest warrant and jail records was not the real Cortez whose name was cleared by the court. To this day, it is unclear whether police and jailers at the time knew they had Cecil rather than Cortez in custody.

Unfortunately, those inaccurate law-enforcement records continue to dog Cortez, who has no arrests of his own. As our follow-up story explained, when Cortez went to police headquarters to see if his record had been fixed, police put him in handcuffs. They released him only after he produced the judge’s earlier order.

While we deserve scrutiny for the error, we note some oddness in Mr. Freivogel’s focus on the Cooper case. He describes that particular case as “cited prominently” in our original story. There is no excuse for any error wherever it is in a story, and we goofed on this specific case. But “cited prominently” seems a bit overstated. The Cooper brothers were mentioned in two paragraphs of a 145-paragraph main story (paragraphs 44 and 45) and as one example in a chart of about 100 cases.

Who was prominent in our story – and somehow never mentioned at all in the GJR article or in public officials’ criticism – was Shannon Renee McNeal, the bus driver who was featured in our story and who in 2009 was taken away from her children, arrested and jailed under a felony drug warrant intended for another woman who had died seven months earlier. Not only did our series lead off with McNeal’s tale and photo, we also included a separate sidebar on her. In fact, Mr. Freivogel’s article also failed to mention even once any of the four additional people whom we did prominently profile in our package.

Nor did Mr. Freivogel apparently talk with some of the unbiased court officials in the story who had firsthand knowledge of mistaken jailings. As far as we know, Mr. Freivogel did not speak with Judge Michael David, who freed Sylvester Williams from jail in another man’s drug-related case after noting that “even a casual review” of their photos “would clearly indicate to any person (even one of limited mental capacity) that these are not the same two people.” Nor did he apparently speak with Judge Joan Moriarity who released the 10-fmgered William E. Willis whom she determined was not the eight-fingered William L. Willis charged in a vehicle theft and burglary.

Late in the article, Mr. Roth says that the newspaper is uncomfortable “with the give-and-take of serious social media,” but Mr. Freivogel doesn’t critically examine that claim either. He fails to note that the only social media being utilized in Mr. Roth’s personal PR campaign is Mr. Roth’s private Twitter and Facebook accounts, or note that Roth’s Facebook page is largely private. Mr. Freivogel might have asked why the city’s officialdom and its official social media apparatus have been mostly silent about the story and the issues raised.

In the words of Joseph Pulitzer, Post-Dispatch reporters and editors will continue to “never tolerate injustice” and “never lack sympathy for the poor.” We have and will continue to hold officials accountable. We have and will continue to diligently investigate any claims of errors. In sum, we stand squarely behind our stories.

We are sorely disappointed in your latest reporting effort on the subject. We hope this response fills some gaps and provides important information excluded from your winter issue.

The attacks on our series have been limited to two sources directly involved in the government operations in question. The public, through social media or other elected officials, has not shared in their criticism.

Sincerely,

Gilbert Bailon, Editor

Adam Goodman, Deputy Managing Editor

Social media campaign by former Post-Dispatch writer alleges mistakes in series about mistakes

The “Jailed by Mistake” project published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this past fall had all of the earmarks of enterprising journalism in the public interest.

The series grew out of a letter that prisoner Dwayne A. Jackson sent the Post-Dispatch in January, 2012, complaining that he had spent three months in jail after St. Louis police picked him up on criminal charges against another Dwayne A. Jackson.

Jennifer Mann and Robert Patrick reported on the miscarriage of justice against Jackson, then started digging and filing Sunshine Act requests – all the while covering their daily beats. By the time the project went to press Oct. 27, the Post-Dispatch reported that 100 people had been arrested in error over the past seven years and spent a collective 2,000 days in jail.

In many instances, one family member with criminal trouble would use the identity of another family member or a friend. The aliases resulted in a welter of police and court records that were hard for police, prosecutors, judges and reporters to sort out.

The stories garnered national attention in Slate, which wrote: “The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has been doing some great work lately reporting on the number of mistaken-identity arrests in that city.” The St. Louis American praised the series and said it should win a Pulitzer. KTRS-AM morning host McGraw Milhaven interviewed Patrick for 15 minutes, saying the stories were “scary stuff” and “great work.”

The series seemed to epitomize Joseph Pulitzer’s “Platform,” published every day in the Post-Dispatch, to “never tolerate injustice” and “never lack sympathy with the poor.”

But in the months since publication, a former Post-Dispatch editorial writer who went to work for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay meticulously documented what he thinks were mistakes in the series about mistakes. The top Slay administration official, Eddie Roth, has gone about it in an unorthodox way: publishing a series of criticisms on his Facebook page running even longer than the original series.

The Post-Dispatch at first stood by its stories. Then, after Gateway Journalism Review published a story in November about Roth’s questions, the paper acknowledged an error. Cortez Cooper, whom the paper had cited prominently for having served 36 days in jail for a charge against his brother, turned out not to have served time.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce joined the criticism. After auditing 10 percent of the Post-Dispatch’s 100 cases, she concluded that the paper had overstated the days wrongfully served in jail by 550. She said she assumed there were similar errors in the other 90 percent of the cases, which would substantially lower the number of days reported. In a Nov. 26 letter to editor Gilbert Bailon, she called for an independent audit of the stories’ accuracy.

Bailon said nothing about an independent audit in his Dec. 11 response. He provided the paper’s timelines on the cases that Joyce had singled out. He said the paper stood “ready and willing to correct any factual errors” but would need to see the documentation of the mistakes.

Joyce responded with a letter of her own stating, that she couldn’t make confidential records available to the paper: “…your reporters’ conclusions have a significant potential to be inaccurate … because they lack access to the information required for this analysis. … The Post-Dispatch does not have the legal authority or legal access to the documents needed to verify the accuracy of the documents you are representing to the public.”

The letters between Joyce and Bailon concentrated on several cases where Joyce said prisoners were jailed for their own parole or probation problems, not mistakenly for relatives’ charges as the Post-Dispatch had reported.

In one case, Joyce wrote that Jason Thomas was held 117 days on his own “parole hold” rather than for a charge against his brother Daniel, as the Post-Dispatch had reported. Bailon responded by saying that the Department of Corrections had told the paper that Jason’s parole never had been revoked, so “there was no parole violation to hold him on.” Joyce acidly replied to GJR that she stood by her claim, and that “we understand the difference between a parole hold and a parole violation.”

A “parole hold” means a criminal convict is being confined because of suspected parole violations. A person on parole hold can be lawfully detained pending a parole revocation hearing, even if parole ultimately is not revoked.

As Joyce wrote to GJR: “We have access to all sources of data, including many that are not available to non-law enforcement personnel. We have the legal expertise that allows us to accurately interpret the data.” The Post-Dispatch does not have access to confidential court documents needed to paint the entire picture of a case, she said.

For their part, Mann, Patrick and their main editor on the series, Pat Gauen, said in an interview at the newspaper’s headquarters in December that Joyce and Roth stonewalled them on records and refused to deal with them seriously on the story. They called Roth’s Facebook venue a “one-sided outlet where you can say whatever you want to say.”

The real injustice, said Patrick, is “it seems … you are guilty of being who they say until you prove otherwise. … A lot of people will walk around with a record of a court order … if (the police chief) is saying that is what you have to do … we have a problem.”

Lawyer-Journalist

Roth is a lawyer and former St. Louis Police Board president who decided a decade ago to switch to journalism. After a stint at the Dayton Daily News, he worked on the Post-Dispatch editorial page until 2011, when he joined the administration of Mayor Francis Slay. He is the mayor’s director of operations.

Few newspaper investigations are put under the microscope like this one by a person who knows both the law and the conventions of journalism.

Here are the main criticisms that Roth and Joyce have made:

  • The Post-Dispatch did not talk to most of the 100 people whom the paper said were wrongly jailed. The reporters said they talked to the defendant or lawyer in about a dozen cases. One who wasn’t interviewed, Cortez Cooper, never was jailed as the series stated.
  • The characterization of the system as “broken” was “false and inflammatory,” Roth said. The paper’s own data show errors to be rare and declining significantly. “The P-D used every trick in the book to obscure that reality,” wrote Roth, who added: “Why? Because a story about a system that works well and steadily improves under difficult circumstances … isn’t big news.”
  • The Post-Dispatch’s methodology was flawed. Reporters could not get access to relevant confidential documents. The stories were heavily based on police and court records that prosecutors warned before publication would lead to factual errors.
  • The series accused top city officials of blaming the victims and exhibiting indifference based on statements taken out of context.
  • The newspaper switched the burden of proof for its story to the city by saying it would report what the public records showed unless the city was able to refute the records.
  • The one correction that the paper eventually made was grudging.
  • The newspaper has never reported that Joyce says its numbers are exaggerated. “To this day, the Post-Dispatch has not told its readers that the chief prosecutor for the City of St. Louis has found profound errors and exaggerations,” Roth said.
  • Some of the paper’s claims were stated as facts without attribution or qualification, even though they were based on sometimes faulty records.
  • The paper mischaracterized a lawsuit it cited in suggesting there could be “hundreds” of mistaken arrests. The paper said lawyers were “planning a class action,” even though the court already had turned down class certification.

The Numbers

Most of the Post-Dispatch’s 100 cases were older ones. Roth said half were five years or older, and only about a dozen related to the past two years. That is out of a universe of 30,000 arrests a year.

“The reporters found fewer than one case a month in 2012, and about one case every other month in 2013 – a steady and marked improvement in the system over the five-year average,” he said.

Mann and Patrick said one reason there are fewer recent cases is that their Sunshine Act request covered the period up to early 2012, and that the cost of obtaining computer records for 2009-2010 was deemed excessive.

Post-Dispatch editors decided not to pay about $750 to $1,000 to obtain some 70 computerized records for that period, even though Mann urged the editors to obtain them.

Gauen said he didn’t regret the decision made by other editors not to pay for the records. “I’ll stand by the decision,” Gauen said, adding: “I don’t think they are that important.” He said the project never was driven by the magnitude of the numbers.

One factor in the debate over the numbers is a lawsuit pending in federal court on the issue of wrongful imprisonments. The stories reported that lawyers “planning a class action” claim to “have discovered more than 80 wrongful arrest cases with their own research and believe the actual number could be hundreds.”

Roth maintained that the “reporters used the specter of a ‘class action’ to create the impression of a vast trove of cases that might be coming before the federal court. If the reporters knew that the request for class certification had been denied months earlier (and, indeed, had been found ‘futile’ by the federal court) they should have informed their readers.

Patrick said, however, that the lawyers in the case acknowledge they asked for class certification too soon and are planning to file a new class-action case. He and Mann emphasized they were extremely conservative in their investigation and suspected the number of people wrongfully jailed was considerably higher than the 100 they reported. If the city had provided the information it sought, they would have been able to better verify their numbers, they said.

At a hearing in early January in the court case, U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig said in court that the city had clearly been negligent in the case of Cedric Wright, who spent 58 days in jail in 2011 on another man’s charges.  The other man apparently had used Wright’s name as an alias. The city knew that one of three charges against Wright was bogus but didn’t take the next step of freeing him from two related bogus charges.

Roth said he couldn’t comment on the particular case but said, “People make mistakes. The mistakes are infrequent. We regret every one of them — as evidenced by a system that fundamentally is high performing and constantly improving.”

On the burden of proof issue, the reporters and editors say they didn’t switch the burden to the city officials. They said they simply wanted to give city officials time to respond to their evidence.

But Joyce told Bailon: “If the Post-Dispatch is adopting a standard where such complex and historical data is published as fact unless corrected by this office, I can only believe that such a standard will lead to further inaccuracies.”

The Case of Cortez Cooper

Roth points to Cortez Cooper to illustrate several criticisms: the failure to talk to defendants, the absence of attribution for important claims and the grudging approach to correcting errors.

The Post-Dispatch’s original story stated without qualification:

“Earlier this year, Cortez Cooper spent more than a month in jail because his brother, Cecil Cooper, used his name during a drug arrest before being released pending charges. Despite a fingerprint report within 21 hours showing that the wanted man was really Cecil, an arrest warrant was issued two months later for Cortez. He was jailed for 36 days.”

Roth said this statement should have been attributed because it was based entirely on records, and the newspaper had acknowledged in a disclaimer that the records “can be inconsistent or inaccurate.”

The Post-Dispatch editorial page contacted Roth the day after the story ran to ask why Cortez Cooper had been wrongly jailed. (The editorial page ended up not writing an editorial.)

Roth and Joyce determined that the claim was wrong, and the Gateway Journalism Review brought the Cooper case to Bailon’s attention. By this time, Patrick had made contact with Cortez, and he said he never was jailed.

Cortez and his mother went to police headquarters with Patrick tagging along. Police, once again confusing one Cooper for the other, handcuffed Cortez. He was released after a short time when he showed police a court paper explaining the situation.

Patrick’s front-page story the next day focused on the problems Cortez had at police headquarters. Under the headline, “Man battles to free himself from St. Louis police paperwork glitch,” Patrick reported the Cortez faced “another episode in the record-keeping system that contributes to a wrongful arrest problem, outlined in a Post-Dispatch investigation published Oct. 27. The paper reported that at least 100 people had spent more than 2,000 days behind bars on wrongful arrests, based on available records over about five years.”

The story then included these paragraphs, which Roth views as a grudging, confusing correction:

“Eddie Roth, operations director for Mayor Francis Slay, … challenged the story’s characterization that Cortez Cooper had been wrongly held for 36 days in the drug case against Cecil Cooper.

Neither he nor other officials would provide proof to contradict what was otherwise clearly stated in jail records and police arrest logs: that Cortez was arrested and held on a warrant that turned out to be intended for Cecil.

Interviewed for the first time Monday, Cortez Cooper acknowledged that he was never jailed.”

The day after the story and correction ran, McGraw Milhaven interviewed Patrick on KTRS radio for 15 minutes. Much of the interview focused on Cortez Cooper’s problems. Patrick did not mention that the series had mistakenly said Cortez was jailed. Patrick said he did not mention the error because Milhaven was interested in the rest of the story about Cortez being handcuffed at police headquarters.

Based on Patrick’s account of what happened to Cortez, Milhaven remarked, “It sounds to me like these people were just walking down the street and the cops said, ‘Hey, you, we want to talk to you,’ and they arrest the guy thinking it is somebody else.”

This is exactly what St. Louis public officials say is not happening. Susan Ryan, a public relations consultant for Joyce, said in a videotaped interview with the Post-Dispatch before the series ran that it was important for citizens to know that the average person “isn’t driving down the street and being stopped and arrested for something he didn’t do.”

She said that, in the main cases the Post-Dispatch reported, the person wrongly jailed already was in the criminal justice system.

Asked if she meant that people with criminal records should be treated differently, Ryan responded: “I’m not saying that at all. I think that all three agencies would tell you that they take this very seriously, and they don’t want anybody wrongly arrested.”

Callous Indifference?

The Post-Dispatch cited Ryan’s comment as a sign that city officials’ attitudes had hardened after the initial stories in 2012, when Roth and others talked about the importance of avoiding any mistakes.

The suggestion of indifference offended Roth from the moment the series hit the street with a front-page read-out headline quoting him saying: “I don’t worry about this.”

The quote got a lot of attention. The Huffington Post reported that “of the public officials interviewed for the piece, Eddie Roth, a senior aide to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, comes off the most callous.”

The St. Louis American said Roth looked like a “callous, ignorant jerk.” Later, the American suggested that Roth’s New Year’s resolution should be: “I resolve to start worrying about the fact that the city whose operations I direct has a record of arresting and incarcerating the wrong people, leaving actual criminals at large.”

Roth complained immediately to the Post about the quote, and it added a sentence: He said he has faith in the system’s ability to correct mistakes.”

The Post-Dispatch reporters and editors were split on whether to add the sentence. Mann opposed the addition, arguing that Roth would claim – as he did – that it was an admission of error. Gauen decided to add the sentence out of an abundance of caution.

“I don’t think it changed anything,” he said.

But Roth still thought the paper misrepresented what he said. Here is what he said:

“We like stuff done right. And so … we don’t like to see things that might not be right. Even though we can look at this and say the chances of a citizen getting mistakenly caught up in the system is almost to the vanishing point in its rarity, we understand how important this is to the process, and we don’t like any of them. We don’t want there to be any. So, if we see any, we don’t like it.

“We take some comfort — I take some comfort — in knowing we have a really excellent system, with really dedicated people. I don’t worry at night, and worry is kind of my main form of fitness exercise. I worry about a lot of things, I don’t worry about this even though I know it is imperfect…. But I don’t like to get any of them wrong, and the idea that anybody would spend one minute more in jail then they are required to is not something that is satisfactory to me.”

Misdirection?

Gauen called the claims by city officials “baloney” and “misdirection” designed to distract from the serious injustices the paper uncovered. He said he was “flabbergasted there is not more interest in fixing the problem.” Mann added that the city had not yet obtained mobile fingerprint devices for district stations, a step that could address the problem.

Said Gauen: “I think that their attempt to spin this thing has embarrassed them, and they are withdrawing. They are very resistant to representing their point in any serious way. … I have the impression that Jennifer Joyce is done … that they have declared victory and left the field.”

He added: “These are people who have their own agendas” who take any “shred that we were wrong” as an excuse not to “look any deeper” at the problem because they “don’t want to see anything deeper.”

Gauen also said “… the records are wrong. Nobody seems to have an interest in going back and fixing the records. … They never suggested they had any remorse” for giving people like Cortez Cooper a criminal record.

Roth responded that “the Post-Dispatch reporters came to us with questions not about errors in records, but about whether people were being jailed by mistake. That’s what the reporters asked about. They called their exposé: ‘Jailed by Mistake.’”

Roth said Gauen’s statements were “angry words, not words of a measured, thoughtful editor. This is a major reason why Post-Dispatch readers deserve, as the circuit attorney has recommended, an independent evaluation of the reporting and stories.”

He added that “the editors and reporters are offended at having been publicly confronted with their errors and omissions. They also appear to resent how new media gives people aggrieved by flawed journalism a chance to correct the record. They … mount no serious defense to the detailed criticisms of their investigative, reporting and editing methods. Instead, they lash out. … This illustrates how uncomfortable these editors and reporters are with the give-and-take of serious social media.”

Freivogel, publisher of Gateway Journalism Review, is a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter and editor, and a colleague of Eddie Roth and the Post-Dispatch reporters and editors involved in the series.

Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer says jail series is inaccurate

Eddie Roth, St. Louis’ Director of Operations and former Post-Dispatch editorial writer, is using his Facebook page to criticize a recent Post-Dispatch series, “Jailed by Mistake.”

Roth maintains the series “is premised on ‘facts’ whose accuracy the reporters admittedly have been unable to verify, and that it distorts statements in ways that create a patently false and deeply unfair impression of official indifference.”

Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon said in a written statement to GJR that Roth was not a neutral observer and that the important thing was the findings of the investigation.  He wrote:

“The focus should be on the key findings of the Post-Dispatch investigation that found that people were being repeatedly arrested and jailed by mistake in St. Louis despite safeguards that could have prevented it. If new facts or information exists that informs the 100 cases we found, those should be brought forward by public officials, some of whom were aware of details of our research before it was published Oct. 27.”

The Post-Dispatch’s Jennifer Mann and Robert Patrick reported they had “identified 100 people arrested in error over the past seven years. Collectively, they spent more than 2,000 days in jail — an average of about three weeks each.”

Roth maintains in his posts that half of the 100 cases are older that five years and that only about a dozen occurred in the past two years.

Separately, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce wrote in an email to GJR “that a thorough look at about 10 percent of the cases in their (Post-Dispatch’s) published database…” showed that the “days are overstated by approximately 550. I assume there are similar errors in the other 90 percent of their database which would bring the days lower still.”

Joyce said, “even one wrongful arrest is too many,” adding, “this is an important topic even though it was poorly handled by the Post. While ethical and legal considerations prevent me from discussing in detail many of the cases, I can tell you that, overall, we found:

  •  “In at least one instance, a person the St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed was wrongfully jailed was not arrested.
  •  “The majority of those arrested were initially arrested on their own charges.
  •   “The majority of those arrested to which the Post attributed time served on another person’s charges served jail time as the result of their own charges.
  •   “Many instances where the number of days the St. Louis Post-Dispatch claimed a person spent in jail were inflated.”

One example Joyce cited was that of Antonio Arnold.  The Post-Dispatch maintained Arnold was wrongfully arrested on a warrant for his brother Leonard Arnold and spent 211 days in jail. But Joyce found he spent 134 days in jail, all of it on his probation violation.

Joyce wrote she thought the “errors are due to the fact that the Post reporters simply do not have the ability to verify the information they publish as fact.”

Roth highlighted another mistake on his Facebook page.  He wrote that research by Joyce’s office showed that Cortez Cooper had never been wrongfully jailed, as the stories stated.

The Post-Dispatch reported that Cortez Cooper “spent more than a month in jail because his brother, Cecil Cooper, used his name during a drug arrest before being released pending charges… An email alerting officials to a possible mistake was sent out – but not heeded – two months before Cortez was mistakenly charged.”

But the Circuit Attorney found, after publication, there was no evidence Cortez Cooper was jailed.  Cecil Cooper used Cortez’s name, but it was Cecil who was in prison, Roth reported.  Cecil Cooper was confined under Cortez’s name, but it was the right person in jail, investigators concluded.

Roth makes the point that social media, such as Facebook, enable people to challenge the accuracy of news reports in ways they once could not.  He wrote:

“’We stand by our story.’ With those five words, news editors used to be able to dismiss challenges to accuracy & fairness. End of discussion. Not so much, anymore. Social media make it harder for traditional news organizations to ignore legitimate grievances about a news story, and make it more likely that they will be attentive and responsive to problems and mistakes in their reports and coverage. This strengthens journalism.”

In his latest post on Thursday, Roth criticizes the Post-Dispatch and Bailon for not having a published corrections policy, like the one in The New York Times.  Roth writes that when he asked for the paper’s corrections policy, Bailon wrote back:

“We do not publish a public corrections policy on the website or in print. Concerns from readers about possible corrections or clarifications are brought to the attention to the newsroom editors. The originating desk involved investigates the matters and confers with top management about the issues and whether to publish a correction.”

Bailon said in his statement that Roth’s “railing against our corrections policy is a distraction and irrelevant. Under longstanding policies, we issue corrections based on fact-based reporting and new information.

“We stand ready to acknowledge and correct any factual inaccuracies in our reporting if the Mayor’s Office, Circuit Attorney’s Office or the St. Louis Police Department can document how the records on which our reporting was based were wrong.”

Editor’s note: William H. Freivogel, publisher of GJR, is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and editor and a colleague of Roth’s and Post-Dispatch reporters and editors involved in the series.

 

Post-Dispatch series:

http://www.stltoday.com/news/st-louis-wrongful-arrests-mount-as-fingerprint-mismatches-are-ignored/article_a1d85f73-f271-52ae-96e5-e5a504cdf7a9.html

Editor Gilbert Bailon’s column on series:

http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/columns/editors-desk/reporters-take-on-wrongful-arrest-problem/article_e274cb74-85e0-5d0a-aca0-80364a5aa7ad.html

 

Editor’s note: William H. Freivogel, publisher of GJR, is a former Post-Dispatch reporter and editor and a colleague of Roth’s and Post-Dispatch reporters and editors involved in the series.

Dudman turns 95: A reflection on a great American reporter

Richard Dudman, the former chief Washington correspondent of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, turned 95 on May 3. I don’t believe in heroes, but Richard Dudman is my hero.

Richard Dudman

So many reporters and editors get tired, burned out or cynical. Not Dudman. He never has lost his love for a big story or his intrepid pursuit of the truth in the face of danger. Dudman always kept his suitcase packed so that he could make it to the airport before editors back home had second thoughts about the cost of an international trip.

Dudman was captured in Cambodia in 1970 during the Vietnam War and spent 40 days in captivity. Later, in 1978, he was shot at during a visit to Pol Pot and narrowly escaped with his life.

It was vintage Dudman to decide in 1970 to get away from his military handlers and find out what was really going on in the Vietnam War by driving off with two colleagues in the general direction of Phnom Penh. And, after guerrilla fighters surrounded the three, it was vintage Dudman to remark to his colleagues, “If we get out alive, we’re going to have one hell of a good story.”

They did. He wrote a book – “Forty Days with the Enemy.” I remember my young children’s big eyes when Dudman, years later, came to dinner and told them about how he ate dog while a prisoner in Cambodia.

Like many people in public life, Dudman is partly remembered for the enemies he made. They weren’t all in Southeast Asia. Two of the most prominent were President Richard Nixon and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Nixon put Dudman on the “Enemies List,” an honor he richly deserved for his Vietnam coverage and for his efforts in getting his hands on the Pentagon Papers. And then there the conservative Globe’s front-page editorial – “For America or For Hanoi” – essentially calling him a traitor.

Dudman pointed out that patriots question the official line. And friends knew, if they visited him and his wife, Helen, in Maine, that he had a flagpole in his front yard and a sailboat named Freedom.

Dudman once recalled how he got the job in Washington. He said he “impressed city editor Raymond Crowley as being adventuresome and resourceful by driving him to work in the midst of a snowstorm in a war-surplus Jeep and working his way into a St. Louis Work House riot and dictating an eyewitness account.”

That led to assignments covering wars and revolutions in Guatemala, Argentina, the Middle East, Ireland, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Algeria Laos, China and Vietnam, as well as a posting at the Washington Bureau starting in 1954. He went on to cover Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and the Watergate scandal.

His motto: “Reporter who sits on hot story gets ass burned.”

Dudman recalled in an email telephoning his friend I.F. Izzy Stone, the liberal muckraker, to try to get the Post-Dispatch a copy of the Pentagon Papers. The call led to instructions to send a reporter to Cambridge, Mass., near Harvard University, and to wait for a call at a phone booth. Dudman sent Tom Ottenad, the paper’s political reporter. Ottenad got the call and instructions to go to another phone booth and then to a porch, where copies of some of the documents were contained under a stack of newspapers. Ottenad rushed to St. Louis to put together a story.

When the WikiLeaks stories broke decades later, some journalists and lawyers were quick to say that the WikiLeaks were entirely different from the Pentagon Papers. Not Dudman He told me, “I welcome the publication of the WikiLeaks papers as a breath of fresh air that tells us a lot more about foreign relations and foreign affairs than do the official statements, with their caution, concealment and frequent hypocrisy.”

Even as Dudman took on establishment Washington, he was part of it. In his trademark bow tie, Dudman was a fixture at the Gridiron Club, where Washington’s media elite parties with Washington’s power elite.

Dudman’s wife, Helen, is Dick’s protector, his intellectual equal and a noted journalist in her own right first as executive women’s editor of the Washington Post and later owner of public radio stations in Maine. She wasn’t particularly a fan of the Gridiron Club, but tells a funny story about having invited J. Edgar Hoover to be her guest at a Washington dinner. Hoover showed up and was delightful.

After “retiring,” Dudman wrote more than a thousand editorials for the Bangor Daily News. He retired from that position last Independence Day.

These days, when the surveys show that the job of newspaper reporter ranks dead last – after maid, garbage man and lumberjack – people might find the antidote in the elixir that Richard Dudman brings to the joyful pursuit of adventure and the truth.

William H. Freivogel is the publisher of Gateway Journalism Review and director of the SIU Carbondale School of Journalism. He is a former editorial page deputy editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and contributes to the St. Louis Beacon. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

Missouri Senate narrowly blocks controversial veto

The Missouri Senate fell one vote short of overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a bill that would have made it a crime to print the name of a person who owned a gun.

The bill also would have made it a crime for Missouri law enforcement officials to enforce federal gun laws thought to violate the Second Amendment.

 

Two top Republican leaders of the Missouri Senate joined with Democrats to block the bill after the House had voted to override Nixon’s veto.

The press portion of the bill was written so broadly that it literally would have made it a crime to print Gov. Nixon’s name.

In other words, it would not only have been a crime to say Nixon was a gun owner, but it also would have been a crime to print Nixon’s name in any context because no gun owner’s name could be published.

The Missouri Press Association had threatened to go to court to seek to enjoin the law if it had been enacted.

One side benefit for Nixon, who is interested in a presidential run in 2016, was that he got some favorable ink in The New York Times.  Before now, Nixon hasn’t attracted much national attention.