Imagine a local news channel in a small city. The channel starts running stories fed to it by criminals, thugs, and n'er-do-wells. The stories are uncritical and unquestioning. "Local methamphetamine dealers report that their product is more reasonably priced and safer than ever," goes one report. "Consent: is it an unfairly ambiguous concept?" goes another. "A career burglar explains why alarms are a bad investment," goes the third.
Seems ridiculous, like something out of The Onion, doesn't it? Yet we endure the equivalent all the time — news stories that are indistinguishable from press releases written by law enforcement or government.
Take the story of Patrick McLaw or Maryland. Several writers are posing troubling questions about whether McLaw was suspended from his teaching job, subjected to some sort of involuntary mental health examination, and his home searched based on the fact that he wrote science fiction novels set in 2902 under a pen name. Jeffrey Goldberg explains:
A 23-year-old teacher at a Cambridge, Maryland, middle school has been placed on leave and—in the words of a local news report—"taken in for an emergency medical evaluation" for publishing, under a pseudonym, a novel about a school shooting. The novelist, Patrick McLaw, an eighth-grade language-arts teacher at the Mace's Lane Middle School, was placed on leave by the Dorchester County Board of Education, and is being investigated by the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, according to news reports from Maryland's Eastern Shore. The novel, by the way, is set 900 years in the future.
Though I am generally receptive to believing the worst about law enforcement and local government, I was skeptical when numerous people emailed asking me to write about this. I suspected that more than two books were at issue. Subsequent reporting suggests that McLaw may have sent a letter that was the trigger of a "mental health investigation":
Concerns about McLaw were raised after he sent a four-page letter to officials in Dorchester County. Those concerns brought together authorities from multiple jurisdictions, including health authorities.
McLaw's attorney, David Moore, tells The Times that his client was taken in for a mental health evaluation. "He is receiving treatment," Moore said.
Because of HIPPA regulations mandating privacy around healthcare issues, he was unable to say whether McLaw has been released.
McLaw's letter was of primary concern to healthcare officials, Maciarello says. It, combined with complaints of alleged harassment and an alleged possible crime from various jurisdictions led to his suspension. Maciarello cautions that these allegations are still being investigated; authorities, he says, "proceeded with great restraint."
What's more, he told The Times, "everyone knew about the book in 2012."
We need more facts before we draw firm conclusions, but for the moment, I think there is reason to believe that the story may be more complicated than the provocative "authorities overreact to citizen's fiction writing" take.
But it is not at all surprising that people would leap to that conclusion. Two factors encourage it.
The first factor is law enforcement and government overreach. When schools call the police when a student writes a story about shooting a dinosaur, and when law enforcement uses the mechanism of the criminal justice system to attack satirical cartoons or Twitter parodies, it is perfectly plausible that a school district and local cops would overreact to science fiction.
The second factor is very bad journalism. The Patrick McLaw story blowing up over the long weekend can be traced to terrible reporting by WBOC journalist Tyler Butler in a post that was linked and copied across the internet. Butler reported McLaw's pen name as a sinister alias, reported as shocking the fact that McLaw wrote science fiction about a futuristic school shooting, and quoted law enforcement and school officials uncritically and without challenge. Faced with the bare bones of the story, any competent reporter would have asked questions: is this only about the two books he wrote? Was there a basis, other than fiction, to think he posed a threat? Are there any other factors that resulted in this suspension and "mental health examination?" Was the examination voluntary or involuntary? Is it reasonable to suspend and "examine" someone and search their home over science fiction?
Even if authorities refused to answer those questions, a competent reporter would discuss them. "Authorities declined to say whether any factors other than the two books led to the investigation," Tyler Butler might have written. Asking the questions and reporting on them might have restrained our temptation to believe the worst. Instead he gave us this:
Those books are what caught the attention of police and school board officials in Dorchester County. "The Insurrectionist" is about two school shootings set in the future, the largest in the country's history.
Journalists ought to ask tough questions of government and law enforcement, to present us with the facts we need to evaluate their actions. But too often they don't. Too often journalists run with law enforcement "leaks" without considering how the leaks impact the rights of the suspects, or asking why the government is leaking in the first place. Too often journalists allow themselves to be manipulated by law enforcement, not recognizing the manipulation as the important part of the story. To often journalists accept the headline-grabbing take rather than the less scandalous but more correct take. Too often journalists buy access with the coin of deference. Too often journalists report the law enforcement spin as fact.
That's why when a local news channel reports matter-of-factly that a man was detained and "examined" over science fiction, it doesn't occur to us to question the story. Just as it's entirely plausible that the government might do it, it's entirely plausible that journalists might report it without criticism, analysis, or apparent consciousness of how outrageous it would be.