The Buck Stops Here

There are several aspects of the March 11 shooting incident in Louisiana I would like to share with you here because they don’t lend themselves to a standard news account.
I have to write those as an objective fly on the wall, but in this space, I can convey things in first person and even offer opinions. That’s why the call it an editorial or column.
To begin with, the Louisiana police, Pike County Sheriff’s office, Missouri State Highway Patrol and the FBI did a great job investigating the case in my not-so-humble opinion.
As a journalist, I get frustrated when I don’t get answers quickly and there was very little concise information at first.
That was apparently because law enforcement was building its case and wanted to get it right before releasing a bunch of information. Police officers know they had better have their ducks in a row when they ask a prosecutor to file charges and that seems to be the case here.
If you read all the stuff on various local Facebook pages about the incident since it happened, it gives you a good idea of what police were running into when talking to witnesses and those with information on the matter.
It appears they had to separate a lot of chaff from the informational wheat to make sure they had something tangible for Prosecuting Attorney Mark Fisher to file in court.
It also could have been a lot worse. I wasn’t there to see or hear actual gunshots, but I saw officers picking up bullet casings at the scene.
Court records indicate several people heard four or five gunshots, which tells me at least one person was firing a gun in a well-populated Louisiana neighborhood.
It was one of our first warm afternoons of the spring. Kids and adults were in the street, on their porches and the possibility of getting hit by an errant shot was strong. That possibility is included in the charges.
It was fortunate the only injury in the incident was to a juvenile who was grazed in the arm. But if that bullet had been a few inches in another direction, he might have been seriously injured, if not killed.
The case will probably never make the pages of the Post-Dispatch, unless information surfaces that it was racially motivated. But this isn’t St. Louis and when guns are fired in a housing area here, it’s a big deal.
The difference is a major reason why many of us live here.
I will also tell you there were many names listed in the official probable cause statement written by police for court records.
At the Press-Journal, we only used the names of the people who were arrested in connection with the case, including one who apparently had nothing to do with the actual shooting, but had suspects detained in her home and was arrested for drugs.
To use all the names listed on the probable cause statement would have been easy, but not prudent. Witnesses need to be protected here and those implicated around the shooting haven’t been charged with a crime yet. If and when they are, those names will be printed.
What was written in the probable cause statement amounts to one side of the story that would be hard to defend if the paper was ever sued.
Some people think we are like a utility, or an arm of government, but the Press-Journal is not. We are a private business, albeit entrusted with a public domain.
The fact is very few newspapers ever lose slander or libel lawsuits, because malice has to be proven. The First Amendment’s demand for freedom of the press also carries a lot of legal weight.
But this is a very litigious society and news agencies have to be very careful about what they produce.
The fear is not getting sued, because the chances are that will come along at some point. The fear is in paying to defend lawsuits.
When I was in California, I inherited a lawsuit against our small newspaper group after being asked to take my old job back.
That suit emanated from an off-hand opinion that a person said about an attorney in the 30th paragraph or so of a long story. It wasn’t  flattering to the lawyer, but in my opinion, it was far from a malicious libel.
The case lasted two years and my boss was forced to hire high-powered media attorneys from Sacramento. There were numerous meetings, countless court appearances and lots of hand-wringing.
One day, the lawyer for the attorney called to say they wanted to settle. The terms were simple.
They would drop the suit in return for us not filing a countersuit. Our lawyers accepted and the whole thing went into thin air except for one thing.
The bill was $50,000 for something that amounted to nothing in the end. We all lost our raises because the $50,000 was the company’s profits for the year, but my boss had no choice.
Those who want to see the names in the recent shooting case can do that at the Pike County courthouse. The files there are public and not just reserved for the press.
If the case ends up in trials, there will be plenty of opportunity for those who want to know more about those involved to attend and see them firsthand.
More names in the case produced by sworn testimony would provide The Press-Journal even more protection upon printing them.
We believe strongly in the public’s right to know. But we can’t deliver that if we are no longer in business.

Posted on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 11:30 am