800 Pound Disabled Men In Fuzzy Slippers Ask the Wrong Questions

Law, Politics & Current Events

Last week I posed this question: sure, bloggers are biased and sloppy and agenda-driven and more than a little nuts, but compared to what? What is the logical basis for reposing automatic trust in "professional" "mainstream" journalists, and given them the presumption of thoroughness, good faith, or neutrality?

I'd like to thank Jan Caldwell, Public Affairs Director for the San Diego County Sheriff's Office, for helping me make my point.

Recently Ms. Caldwell — who is responsible for the relationship between the Sheriff's office and the press — was on a panel called "Grade the Media." As LAist reported, she explained why she thinks bloggers shouldn't get the same respect — or press credentials — that "professional" journalists do:

You can sit with your Apple laptop and your fuzzy slippers, you can be an 800-pound disabled man that can't get out of bed and be a journalist, because you can blog something. Does that give you the right—because you blog in your fuzzy slippers out of your bedroom and you don't go out and you haven't gotten that degree—should you be called a journalist?

Or should you be like Pauline [unclear] who graduated from journalism school and has been doing this a long time or JW or Dennis? Are you on the same par? In my estimation—and I'd like to hear from Darren and Michael on that—no. Because Pauline and JW and Matt and the others that have been doing this a long time and they know the questions to ask, as will you. But if you're just sitting at home with your laptop blogging and you just want to get under my skin or you're CityBeat—left to Lenin, oh my God—then, yeah. So I drop that out on you all: what do you all think of that?

That is no normal act of public relations. That is the behavior of a public relations professional.

Perhaps even more revealing, though, was this:

To start, spokeswoman Jan Caldwell explained to the room full of journalists why it is so important to be nice to her: "If you are rude, if you are obnoxious, if you are demanding, if you call me a liar, I will probably not talk to you anymore. And there's only one sheriff's department in town, and you can go talk to the deputies all you want but there's one PIO."

Here we have the heart of the matter. "Professional" journalists may, indeed, be brilliant, talented, well-trained, professional, with an abiding appetite for hard-hitting but neutral reporting. Yet professional journalists also depend on relationships. Ms. Caldwell calls that fact out, sending law enforcement's core message to the press: if you want access, play the game.

The game colors mainstream media coverage of criminal justice. Here's my overt bias: I'm a criminal defense attorney, a former prosecutor, and a critic of the criminal justice system. In my view, the press is too often deferential to police and prosecutors. They report the state's claims as fact and the defense's as nitpicking or flimflam. They accept the state's spin on police conduct uncritically. They present criminal justice issues from their favored "if it bleeds it leads" perspective rather than from a critical and questioning perspective, happily covering deliberate spectacle rather than calling it out as spectacle. They accept leaks and tips and favors from law enforcement, even when those tips and leaks and favors violate defendants' rights, and even when the act of giving the tip or leak or favor is itself a story that somebody ought to be investigating. In fact, they cheerfully facilitate obstruction of justice through leaks. They dumb down criminal justice issues to serve their narrative, or because they don't understand them.

This "professional" press approach to the criminal justice system serves police and prosecutors very well. They favor reporters who hew to it. Of course they don't want to answer questions from the 800-pound bedridden guy in fuzzy slippers in his mother's basement. But it's not because an 800-pound bedridden guy can't ask pertinent questions. It's because he's frankly more likely to ask tough questions, more likely to depart from the mutually accepted narrative about the system, less likely to be "respectful" in order to protect his access. (Of course, he might also be completely nuts, in a way that "mainstream" journalism screens out to some extent.)

Recently Radley Balko has been doing a "raid of the day" series for the Huffington Post, in which every day he profiles a brutal or incompetent or outrageous police raid, thus calling into question our system's tolerance for lawless police tactics. This is the sort of reporting Radley has been doing for years. You will find very, very few "mainstream" reporters engaging in such relentless criticism and questioning of the criminal justice system. That's not because there aren't many talented reporters. There are. Rather, I submit that it's because too many reporters find the price too high. Too many reporters would rather get that hot tip from a cop about a piece of evidence against a defendant than risk alienating their state sources.

Too many people would rather have the approval of the Jan Caldwells of the system than call the system out.

I'll keep my fuzzy slippers, thank you.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

34 Comments

31 Comments

  1. TJIC  •  Feb 25, 2013 @9:22 am

    > Here's my overt bias:

    Here's mine: every single cop I've ever met is an overpaid lying felonious thug, and every civilian employee of a police department I've ever met is a mouth breathing booger eating idiot high on their own authority.

    Which is to say, in practice I think our opinions are pretty close to identical.

  2. Onlooker  •  Feb 25, 2013 @9:25 am

    Eeeeexxxxcccccelent! Nice beat down, Ken. Pretentious asses like her need to be outed. Little by little the public at large may open their eyes.

  3. David  •  Feb 25, 2013 @9:43 am

    Tar. Feathers. Amazon.

  4. NM  •  Feb 25, 2013 @9:45 am

    People who think that the government gets to determine who is the "press" don't really get the 1st Amendment.

  5. mojo  •  Feb 25, 2013 @10:07 am

    Well, gee whiz, maybe some "celebrity" journalists need to get swatted, eh? Then they might take it seriously.

  6. tsrblke  •  Feb 25, 2013 @10:38 am

    [I]Here's my overt bias: I'm a criminal defense attorney, a former prosecutor…[/I]

    And Yet Ken, according to the PR lady, you clearly have no credentials at all to be talking about any of this because you don't have a *journalism* degree.

  7. Zach  •  Feb 25, 2013 @11:11 am

    Caldwell's assertion is asinine, but what if you take the word "blog" out of the equation? What if you talk about part-time journalists and full-time journalists? or amateur journalists and professional journalists?

    When talking about Balko, Ken, and other serious part-time journalists, it's still a stupid distinction. But should a part-time journalist who posts a mediocre poorly-researched article on his website every few weeks be entitled to credentials? If not, where should the line be drawn?

  8. Dan  •  Feb 25, 2013 @11:47 am

    Completely agree, Ken. Unfortunately, the same situation exists in political reporting, especially at the WH press corps. Access = spotlight = prestige = career. I'm not talking about the occasional attempts to stir controversy, like the Fox News drone did in the last election. But you'll never hear a substantive, hard-hitting question from any of the first-team reporters. It's all about access.

  9. eh  •  Feb 25, 2013 @12:16 pm

    Of course they don't want to answer questions from the 800-pound bedridden guy in fuzzy slippers in his mother's basement. But it's not because an 800-pound bedridden guy can't ask pertinent questions. It's because he's frankly more likely to ask tough questions, more likely to depart from the mutually accepted narrative about the system, less likely to be "respectful" in order to protect his access.

    I think you're looking at it from the wrong angle, putting causation at the effect. I imagine the real reason to be that an 800lb fuzzy-slippers wearer is someone that the PIO would refuse to have a cozy relationship. That is, the PIO is saying that her time is for the cool kids only, and an 800lb pajama-person is certainly not a cool kid, and could never be, even if they asked nice questions.

  10. MattS  •  Feb 25, 2013 @1:11 pm

    Zach,

    "But should a part-time journalist who posts a mediocre poorly-researched article on his website every few weeks be entitled to credentials? If not, where should the line be drawn?"

    Under a clean reading of the first amendment, the government has no business drawing a line at all.

  11. twency  •  Feb 25, 2013 @1:46 pm

    "The First Amendment right to gather news is, as the
    Court has often noted, not one that inures solely to the benefit of
    the news media; rather, the public's right of access to information
    is coextensive with that of the press."

    - Glik v. Cunniffe (1st Cir.)

  12. En Passant  •  Feb 25, 2013 @1:49 pm

    Zach wrote Feb 25, 2013 @11:11 am:

    But should a part-time journalist who posts a mediocre poorly-researched article on his website every few weeks be entitled to credentials? If not, where should the line be drawn?

    Already answered by
    NM at Feb 25, 2013 @9:45 am:

    People who think that the government gets to determine who is the "press" don't really get the 1st Amendment.

  13. M.  •  Feb 25, 2013 @1:52 pm

    Of equal importance, are 14-year-olds really allowed to be public affairs directors? Or is English not her first, second, or third language?

  14. Dan  •  Feb 25, 2013 @2:51 pm

    Would my XXL Batman footie pajamas be considered "fuzzy slippers"? The fuzz is pretty well worn out on the feet. Also I use a PC, not an Apple, and blog from my OWN basement, not my mother's. You can't get a wi-fi signal in my parents' basement.

  15. Ancel De Lambert  •  Feb 25, 2013 @7:06 pm

    Fuzzy slippers don't get paid. Oddly enough, that confers a certain shielding to those slippers. Pink, nylon shielding. Of Truth!

  16. jb  •  Feb 25, 2013 @8:44 pm

    Zach,
    What are these credentials you speak of? What use are they, and why should anyone care who has them?

  17. John David Galt  •  Feb 25, 2013 @8:46 pm

    Caldwell seems to be under the delusion that she's doing the public a favor by providing us, through the press and TV, with her press releases.

    Press releases may be a favor to lazy TV and newspaper reporters, but they are one of the main reasons that those media are too deferential. Not only do reporters "play the game" in order to get the releases, the releases themselves contain bias and disinformation.

    So please. Continue to refuse to provide them to bloggers. Because if you ever do, the blogs that publish them will become as boring and subservient as the old media (though hopefully they won't be able to drive all other bloggers from the marketplace, as the TV networks have largely succeeded in driving other content sources out of that medium).

  18. James Pollock  •  Feb 25, 2013 @11:26 pm

    Selection bias. The range of quality in blogs range from the very, very good to the very, very bad. You people, being smart, follow only the really good ones, and avoid the really bad ones. How many blogs are there dedicated to the propositions that A) the moon landings were faked B) Kennedy was assassinated by space aliens C) numerical analysis of Bible passages reveal hidden truths D) This or that Internet personality is a total asshat. E) Nuh-uh! That OTHER Internet personality is a total asshat. F) No Way! It's totally that first guy!
    And so on.
    A press officer gets inquiries from the full range.
    (Not a defense of PIO Caldwell, but rather an admission that I couldn't do it for very long, either.)

  19. Kathryn  •  Feb 26, 2013 @2:05 am

    Thank you Ken for presuming an "800-lb disabled man in fuzzy slippers in his parents' basement" is competent as well as making your point that someone outside the journalist/source clique isn't afraid to ask the tough questions.

    I thought it was particularly juvenile of this twit to make physical disability part of her portrait of someone nobody should take seriously. Yes, it's a little bit relevant because this hypothetical disabled blogger can't hop in his car and go to her personal appearances and autograph signings.

    But I bet she'd be upset if any journalist got out of line and started looking for independent confirmation of her press releases. (Which an autistic disabled blogger without mobility impairment might do–fond of the truth and not a slave to conformity.)

  20. Frank  •  Feb 26, 2013 @7:34 am

    "Mainstream Media" looks more like "Sewer Main Media" to me.

  21. PiperTom  •  Feb 26, 2013 @8:44 am

    NM at Feb 25, 2013 @9:45 am:

    People who think that the government gets to determine who is the "press" don't really get the 1st Amendment.

    That was the fatal flaw in the McCain-Feingold law: it attempted to define special privileges for The New York Times Corporation that would be deigned to unfavored groups like "Citizens United" Corporation. I am distressed that only a slim majority of the SC saw thru the shenanigans.

    I have the same problem with press shield laws that some states have: journalists should not be compelled to reveal sources AND everyone is a journalist!

  22. Rob R.  •  Feb 26, 2013 @10:01 am

    According to her bio on the department's website, she's a retired FBI Agent. While she has "taught media relations at Quantico" she doesn't have a journalism degree either.

  23. Daniel  •  Feb 26, 2013 @12:33 pm

    This is absolutely true. One time I personally visited the local Newspaper editor and told him I wanted to report some cases of local police corruption and misconduct. He wouldn't even talk to me to find out what I was going to say. His response, "I have a hard enough time getting the police to give the newspaper information." End of story.

  24. Ocul02  •  Feb 26, 2013 @2:55 pm

    Not all journalists fear asking the tough questions. When the local newspaper here where I live asked the State Police to release the unredacted police reports involving the chief of police and a county officer's misconduct, they were of course told NO. This is Arizona after all. But, the paper didn't take no for an answer, they went to court and a judge ordered the release of the uneducated report.

  25. James Pollock  •  Feb 26, 2013 @3:57 pm

    Freudian slip, Oculo2?
    (OK, not actually Freudian, but "fitting within the broad category mistaken by the public as Freudian" slip doesn't roll off the tongue quite as easily.)

  26. Terry Towels  •  Feb 26, 2013 @9:18 pm

    Late to the party; but, I don't think there were journalism degrees in th 1700s. So, I guess none of the screeds written and published by our founding parents were worth the paper they were written on.

  27. Mercury  •  Feb 28, 2013 @6:50 am

    How much longer until licenses are required for journalism? Don’t laugh, there isn’t much commercial activity left that doesn’t require some sore of official certification.

    Zero Hedge tackled similar issues in relation to the financial MSM a couple of years ago. Popehat principals may recognize the prose. And Ms. Caldwell should count herself lucky that it isn’t directed specifically at her sphere of influence.

    http://www.zerohedge.com/article/open-letter-financial-media

  28. Ocul02  •  Feb 28, 2013 @11:40 am

    James Pollock…

    More like autocorrect. My phone corrected "unredacted" to "uneducated," because my smart phone is, in actuality, not very smart at all.

  29. Lex  •  Feb 28, 2013 @1:26 pm

    I guess Ms. Caldwell is too young or uninformed to know that the Great Blogger-Journalist War was settled peaceably by the belligerents themselves around 2005 or so.

  30. Lex  •  Feb 28, 2013 @1:27 pm

    (Not to say that the odd skirmish doesn't still break out, led by holdouts like Bill Keller. But, basically, yeah.)

  31. Frank  •  Mar 4, 2013 @8:59 pm

    Establishment, Establishment, You Always Know What's Best….

3 Trackbacks