Northern Valley Beacon

Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains----- E-Mail: Enter 'Beacon' in subject box. Send to: Minnekota@Referencedesk.org

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

 

The Morgan Lewis Memorial adds dimensions

Professors Ken Blanchard, political science, and Jim Seeber, sociology, apparently called up the Aberdeen Chief of Police and requested an interview with him about his conclusion that Morgan Lewis committed suicide. Chief Lanpher's announcement of the conclusion did not include a survey of the evidence that led to it, an account of the reasoning of that evidence, or the identities and qualifications of "consultants" he alleges came to the same conclusion.

The professors published their conclusions from their interview on the opinion page of the local newspaper. As their academic specialities are neither criminology or journalism, they have incited much comment about their qualifications to probe into a matter on which the local government has imposed secrecy and created doubt, suspicion, and distrust. Both men are occasional columnists in the newspaper in which their joint column appeared.

Having been a full-time working journalist for 13 years and a teacher of journalism and a part-time working journalist for another 30 years, I, too, have some profound problems with the handling of the Morgan Lewis case by law enforcement officials and the media. Any incident that involves law enforcement and any personnel and resources paid for by tax dollars and authorized in behalf of the citizens should be a matter of record and those records should be open. Aberdeen and Brown County officials have denied the public's right to know, and news media have made very feeble efforts at enforcing that right.

Consequently, Professors Blanchard and Seeber deserve acknowledgment for doing what no one else did. They asked for an explanation of the evidence leading to the suicide conclusion, they received one, and they got it disseminated to the public. If I understand their account correctly, they did not approach the Chief as journalists or criminal investigators. They approached him as members of an academic community that for 15 months has been held in confusion, concern, and worry about the death of Prof. Lewis. Rather than have faculty and students sit around and generate speculations and accusations, they went to the major source of information and asked for an accounting.

To some, the explanation they received seems to settle the matter. To others, it raises more questions. But an underlying issue in the handling of this case involves closed, secret government. If there is one agency in any level of government that needs to be held accountable, it is police departments. When a law enforcement official, even in Aberdeen, South Dakota, chooses not to open investigative records for public inspection and tells the citizens they do not have the right to know, he is imposing a police state. The problem is not merely in local government. A very flawed and inadequate set of state statutes is at the root of the problem. On the federal level, reporters and other citizens could file a request for records under the Freedom of Information Act. South Dakota has no such act. In fact, it ranks at the absolute bottom of the states for openness, accessibilty of records, and accountability to the citizens for the way it conducts itself.

Although Blanchard and Seeber did not produce what is in any sense a definitive review of the evidence or a critical analysis of the reasoning that led to the suicide ruling, they at least provided information about how the Chief appears to have arrived at the conclusion. That is one hell of a lot more information than we had before.

I, too, was an occasional columnist for the newspaper. It is no secret that I chose to end my association with the newspaper because of a column by Blanchard. He took umbrage with the fact that I think John Thune conducted a contemptible campaign against Tom Daschle and I have concluded, therefore, that John Thune is a contemptible man. I have expressed those sentiments on this blog. However, Prof. Blanchard took statements from this blog and made deliberate misquotations. He aligned predications with subjects of his choosing, not the actual subjects of the predications. His use of partial quotations pasted together to misrepresent the point of the posts may be clever to political scientists, but in journalism and academics it is considered fabrication.

The point here is not Prof. Blanchard's offenses. They are done with, and I have chosen to disassociate myself from any context in which such offenses are countenanced. The point is that the newspaper received a full analysis of where his column violated the principles of accurate quotation and paraphrase. After making a token correction, the editors replied that it was all a matter of opinion. In journalism and academic writing, accurate quotation and summary of other sources are not matters of opinion. They are matters of competence, integrity, and honesty. When a newspaper or any other publication justifies misrepresentations of a person's words, it fails in those editorial acts that keep language and communication useful and trustworthy. The newspaper has the right to disagree with me and to criticize my thinking, but it does not have the right to publish falsifications of what I have written and said. In refusing to make a full correction of the misrepresentations, the newspaper renounced any claim it has as a credible source of information. I have chosen to disassociate myself from the Taliban-like mentality that governs the newspaper and that portion of the community whose interests it serves. I do not support or have any association with dishonest enterprises.

While the initiative of the two columnists has provided information previously withheld, it also intensifies the matter of closed government and the failure of the local press to exercise its function as the Fourth Estate. The information is compromised by appearing in a newspaper that places its propagandic spin and vindictiveness over accuracy and journalistic integrity. Because of its context, the information raises more questions about the competence, honesty, and political agendas that might drive the investigation into Morgan Lewis' death.

I have experience in dealing with recalcitrant law enforcement agencies that veer off into police state tactics. I was never a police beat reporter, but I was the editorial director of investigative reporting teams within a newspaper and often with reporters from other media. When government officials withheld information or denied access to records, editors were expected to provide support for the reporters. That usually meant that we called in the newspaper counsel, gave him the information on the records we wanted to see from which he wrote a petition to the court, took it to a judge, and obtained a court order to open the records. If there was not a sheriff's deputy available to serve the order, it took three editors to deliver it. One editor served it and the other two were witnesses to its service. It was the burden of the government official involved to show why such records should not be made available to the reporters. In cases where investigations and legal proceedings might be compromised, the judges ruled in favor of the official. But that was rare. The officials had to have very specific and valid reasons to close records. But that was in another state.

When reporters did interview officials about sensitive matters, such as the Morgan Lewis case is, they went to those interviews with a list of questions that they reviewed with their editors and to which the editors contributed. Sometimes those questions were also reviewed by the newspaper counsel. And when the answers to the questions were obtained, the editors conferred intensively about what information serves accountability and what might serve salacious interests. That call was made by the editors, not by the government officials, however.

South Dakota has conflicting laws about confidential criminal justice information. It seems to hold one standard for state agencies and another for municipal and county agencies. It neither indicates when criminal justice information is to be confidential or who determines it to be so. This leaves law enforcement personnel to believe that the public has no right to know how they conduct their investigations and what information they come up with. In general, even in South Dakota, law enforcment personnel cooperate with the press in giving it as much information as it can. But when information is embargoed as in the Morgan Lewis case, the public is left without the information needed to participate in and demand accountability from their government. Many groups who work for open government do not think the South Dakota laws meet Constitutional standards.

If there is one thing that the Morgan Lewis case reveals it is that local officials do not exercise open government and do not think the public has a right to know. It reveals the failure of the news media to fully scrutinize the operations of government and to test the laws that prevent such scrutiny and accountability. Professors Blanchard and Seeber have helped to expose the severity of the failures of open government and responsible journalism. They contributed to an understanding of a problem that needs fixing desperately.

Comments:
I don't have much time to stay in touch with developments in the Dakotas, but I am pleased to see that an upholder of what makes journalism and academe professions is still such an upholder of professional standards.
 
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