Tagged: Journalism

Patrick McLaw, Skepticism, And Law Enfocement's Obliging Stenographers

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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.

News-Reworder SlashGear Turns Expert Into Criminal Defendant

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Dr. Nicholas Weaver is an expert on network security issues. The media frequently seeks him out for input on stories involving the intersection of criminal justice and computer security, like Silk Road and leak investigations. Fair disclosure: he's also an online friend and an expert on one of my cases.

SlashGear is an also-ran tech site that rewrites stories badly.

Case in point: SlashGear took this story from Krebs On Security about criminal charges against Bitcoin traders in Florida. Dr. Weaver was quoted as an expert in that story:

Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) and at the University of California, Berkeley and keen follower of Bitcoin-related news, said he is unaware of another case in which state law has been used against a Bitcoin vendor. According to Weaver, the Florida case is significant because localbitcoins.com is among the last remaining places that Americans can use to purchase Bitcoins anonymously.

“The biggest problem that Bitcoin faces is actually self-imposed, because it’s always hard to buy Bitcoins,” Weaver said. “The reason is that Bitcoin transactions are irreversible, and therefore any purchase of Bitcoins must be made with something irreversible — namely cash. And that means you either have to wait several days for the wire transfer or bank transfer to go through, or if you want to buy them quickly you pay with cash through a site like localbitcoins.com.”

But when Bittany Hillen penned an awkwardly-worded and uninformative summary of the story for SlashGear, she turned Dr. Weaver from a quoted expert to a criminal defendant:

Yesterday, Florida law enforcement announced the arrests and criminal charges against three individuals under anti-money laundering laws: Michell Abner Espinoza, Pascal Reid, and Nicholas Weaver.

Dr. Weaver captured a screenshot in case SlashGear tries to memory-hole this. He should feel happy he didn't give a quote about the Woody Allen case, I guess.

Dr. Weaver isn't the suing type. But, hypothetically, could he sue for defamation? Sure.

In California the elements of defamation — that is, the things that a defamation plaintiff must prove — are these:

publication of a statement of fact
that is false,
has a natural tendency to injure or which causes "special damage," and
the defendant's fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence.

Here, SlashGear and Hillen published a false statement of fact about Dr. Weaver — that he had been charged with a crime. The publication was unprivileged, meaning that it was not immunized from liability by statute (for instance, things you say as a witness in court, or in pleadings filed in court, are generally privileged from liability). Accusing some of being charged with a crime is the sort of thing that has a natural tendency to injure, which is why it is often categorizes as "libel per se" — which merely means that the plaintiff doesn't have to prove that he or she suffered damage to reputation, and gets at least nominal damages without such proof.1 Dr. Weaver probably couldn't prove actual or special damages to his reputation — it's doubtful that anyone gives a shit what a clumsy SlashGear rewrite says. But he could get at least nominal damages because of the nature of the accusation.

That leaves us with the question of fault. As I explained in the context of the Crystal Cox case, at least if the issue being discussed is a public one, a defamation claim always requires proof of some level of fault on the part of the defendant. The level of fault depends on whether the plaintiff is a mere private figure (in which case the plaintiff may only need to prove that the defendant got the story wrong out of negligence) or a public figure (in which case the plaintiff would need to prove actual malice, meaning knowledge that the story was false or reckless disregard to its truth or falsity.) There are complexities and gradations; people can be public figures for limited purposes.

Here, the transformation of Dr. Weaver from respected expert to criminal defendant is a result of an incompetent rewrite of a news story. That's at least negligence. If Dr. Weaver is treated as a private figure he would prevail. But since he's frequently quoted in the news on stories like this, he may well be treated as a limited purpose public figure in the context of coverage of network security issues in the news. So the question is probably whether an incompetent rewrite of a story rises to the level of reckless disregard of the truth as required by the actual malice standard. The answer is almost certainly not. "Reckless disregard" requires more than incompetence; it requires conscious disregard of doubt. Here there's no indication that anyone consciously regarded or disregarded anything.

So: Dr. Weaver probably can't prove the requisite fault against SlashGear and Hillen, even if he wanted to. They live to promote shitty rewrites another day. Fortunately for Dr. Weaver it's difficult to imagine anyone taking SlashGear seriously enough for their incompetence to hurt his reputation.

Remember: just because something is written in a "story" by a "journalist" on a well-trafficked website, that doesn't mean it's anything other than incompetent drivel.

Edited to add SlashGear corrected the story to remove the reference to Dr. Weaver as a defendant, but as of this writing has not offered any retraction or apology. Classy.

British "News" Program Censors Mohammad Cartoon While Covering It

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Last week I talked about the British controversy over Maajid Nawaz, a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate who tweeted a link to the satirical cartoon Jesus and Mo, which depicts conversations between a cartoon Jesus and a cartoon Mohammad to explore religious beliefs and attitudes.

The United Kingdom's Channel 4 News decided to run a story about the controversy. Naturally they showed a picture of the cartoon so that viewers could make an intelligent assessment of the claims of offense.

Well, sort of.

In Channel 4 News' story, at about :25, the reporter says:

This is the cartoon that is causing outrage. We have taken the decision to cover up the depiction of Mohammed so we don't cause offense to some viewers.

This resulted:


Channel 4 News has begged the question in classic form: it has censored a cartoon right at the start of its coverage of a debate about whether the cartoon should be censored. It has blacked out a depiction of Mohammed right at the start of putatively covering a debate over whether the few should be able to demand that the many not depict Mohammed. It has yielded to claims of offense right at the start of a discussion of whether society should yield to those claims of offense.

Even though Channel 4 is owned by a public body, this is not exactly state censorship: it is an exercise of terrible journalistic judgment rather than an act compelled by the state. But it is troublesome nonetheless. Channel 4 has pretended to cover a debate, but has actually presumed the validity of the arguments by one side of that debate. It has assumed, in a discussion of whether a cartoon is so offensive that it ought not be shown, that the cartoon is so offensive that it not be shown. It has decided to yield to a religious minority's demands about what can and cannot be depicted.

I have some questions for the alleged journalists at Channel 4 News.

1. Do you censor artistic depictions based on claims of offense even-handedly? If, for instance, you were covering a local council's decision to prevent a performance of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's show The Bible: The Complete Word of God, would you yield to demands of a few that you not show any clips or screenshots of the play, because it is offensive? Would you, like the Guardian, depict Serrano's "piss Christ" in covering the controversy over it?

2. At what point is a group big enough, or its claim of violence loud enough, for you to censor content based upon it? The United Kingdom has a significant American expat community. If I get enough of them to say that depictions of burning the American flag are offensive, will you avoid showing that on the news?

3. Does the safety of your employees, or of bystanders, play any role in your decision? Are claims of offense by some groups more likely to be accompanied by death threats and even violence?

4. If the answer to 3 is "yes," isn't that news?

5. For two years — here and here — I have done an annual review of how "blasphemy" like depicting Mohammed is treated both by states and, occasionally, by mobs. I submit that evidence shows that the notion of blasphemy — primarily, though not exclusively, as defined by Islam — has been used as a justification for abuse of minorities and the powerless. Have you considered whether your decision to yield to blasphemy norms and censor content makes you a party to that norm, and an implicit supporter of that abuse?

Some of those questions may be offensive to some of your viewers. I can show you how to black them out if you like.

From the "lol journalism" Files: No, The Defamation Case Against Courtney Love Will Not Change Twitter

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An appallingly large percentage of journalism about the legal system sucks.

There are exceptions — there are legal journalists I respect, who take pains to get it right — but for the most part the media gets coverage of both criminal and civil cases badly wrong. (I am aware of Gell-Mann Amnesia and therefore please do not infer that I believe other coverage is necessarily more reliable.)

Case in point: coverage of a defamation suit against Courtney Love. Take ABC's coverage. ABC starts with this:


Let's Make One Thing Perfectly Clear: I Am Not A Racist Bigot. I Am A Cultural Bigot.

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You're probably familiar with the "Kinsley Gaffe," defined by the man for whom the term is named as what happens when a politician tells some obvious truth that he really shouldn't utter.  An example would be Gordon Brown's description of a bigoted woman as "a sort of bigoted woman," a truth that immeasurably assisted Brown in his quest for promotion from Prime Minister to United Nations Special Envoy for Education.

So far as I know, there is no shorthand term for a gaffe in which a public figure tells what he believes to be a truth, which in fact only reveals some unpleasant truth about the speaker himself. That's what Washington Post editorialist Richard Cohen has done in a disastrous column published Monday, where Cohen wrote that "[p]eople with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children," and further in yesterday's attempts to clean up the mess he made, in which Cohen, complaining that people accusing him of racism and calling for his job just don't get it, revealed himself to be not a racist bigot, but a cultural bigot, a race-baiting hack, and a buffoon.

I'd like to offer the term "Cohenism" for this sort of gaffe.

family circus not me

Cohen begins with the standard lament that those demanding his head are taking him out of context. He didn't mean to say that conventional people (meaning most Americans including the New Yorkers who elected Bill DeBlasio mayor) become nauseous at the thought of an interacial couple, even though that's precisely what he said.

What he meant to say is, well, let's let Cohen speak for himself:

I don’t understand it …. What I was doing was expressing not my own views but those of extreme right-wing Republican tea party people. I don’t have a problem with interracial marriage or same-sex marriage. In fact, I exult in them. It’s a slander…

Ah, it's those extreme-right-wing Republican tea party people who blow chunks at the thought of the mayor of New York defiling his race with a dusky skinned woman. Though Cohen, with his layers of fact-checkers and editors, could not be bothered to name a single-extreme-right-wing Republican tea party person who disapproves of the mayor's marriage. Because it just goes without saying that they do. After all, they're … people with conventional views.

You know … diesel mechanics in Cincinnati, farmers in Iowa, Best Buy assistant managers in Bakersfield, English teachers in Alabama. Flyover people in flyover country…

The middle class.

People who could never get into the sort of swanky parties that award-winning Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen attends in midtown Manhattan, rubbing shoulders with the lettered, where they positively exult over interracial and same sex marriage, and over these arugula canapes Leon got from a caterer in the Village, and this magnificent Côtes du Rhône that cost $200.00 a bottle.

Oh, wait…

What I meant to say was, Richard Cohen cares for and respects the middle class. Richard Cohen is not an elitist asshole who spits on his readers. Richard Cohen wants affordable health care and decent jobs for everyone in flyover country America, and anyone who says different is a NAZI!

I think it’s reprehensible to say that because you disagree with something that you should fire me. That’s what totalitarians do.

I am about to send this email to the Washington Post:

To the editors:

It was disappointing to read Richard Cohen's Monday bloviation to the effect that the majority of the Post's readers ("people with conventional views") become sick to their stomachs when contemplating the biracial children of Mayor Bill DeBlasio. Sheltered as he is in his Manhattan enclave, Mr. Cohen perhaps is unaware that race relations outside Tribeca have improved greatly since the dark days of Jim Crow. It seems that Mr. Cohen has lost all touch with the America he writes about. Accordingly, I suggest that perhaps it is time to put Mr. Cohen out to pasture as a columnist emeritus, allowing him to retire into the sunset with his generous pension and the grateful memories of readers who recall the days when Mr. Cohen was sane.


Joseph Stalin




Another example of Richard Cohen's unconventional thinking: He endorses random, suspicionless police searches of black and latino American citizens, because "Stop-and-Frisk" saves lives

Andrew Colton And "Boca News Now" Get In The Business of Smearing Their Own Credibility

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Would you be surprised to learn that a journalist is acting like an eager censor?

You shouldn't be. First, any disturbed freak can call himself a "journalist" and any lunatic can set up a website and call it a newspaper. You can't expect people who call themselves journalists will display the judgment or professionalism of professional "mainstream" journalists. Second, you can't expect competence, honesty, decency, or professionalism from "mainstream" journalists in the first place. Third, even even "mainstream journalists" can develop a taste for censorship when criticized; it's a moral and civic failing common amongst all professions.

So we shouldn't be surprised that the guy running a "news site" called "Boca News Now" is trying, to the best of his modest abilities, to be a censor.


Bad Writing, Bad Editing, Bad Grasp of Law: An Example of Awful Legal Coverage

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As you know, I gripe about many things. It's the life of a blogger.

One of my most constant gripes is that the media does a terrible job of covering legal issues. Far too many journalists do not understand the burden of proof, do not understand sentencing, and do not understand famous but complex laws like the PATRIOT ACT. What's worse, they don't care that they don't understand those things and don't take reasonable steps to educate themselves.

Too many journalists think their readers are too stupid to grasp accurate stories about the legal system, choose sensationalistic pap that distorts stories, gleefully accept rights-depriving and system-distorting leaks to scoop competitors without recognition that the government's willingness to leak is a part of the story, and generally act as lapdogs to law enforcement and the security state.

I've grown so jaded about it that it takes a really horrifically botched job of journalism to really move me.

Congrats, CBS2 New York. You've made it.

CBS's New York affiliate reported on a workplace discrimination verdict in a case featuring claims that the defendant made free use of ugly epithets. The plaintiff said the use of the epithets created a hostile work environment; the defendant said the epithets had to be viewed differently in different cultural contexts and were not meant to harass. The jury found for the plaintiff. Here's how CBS interpreted that:

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A federal jury has rejected an argument that the use of the N-word among blacks can be a culturally acceptable term of love and endearment, ruling instead that its use in the workplace is hostile and discriminatory no matter what.

[Emphasis mine, idiocy in original.]

No. No, no, no, no.

Good Lord. Who wrote that? Who edited it?

A jury can't rule on what the law is. A jury can't rule that a word is "hostile and discriminatory no matter what." A jury can only return a verdict on the application of the law it is given to a specific set of facts. At the very most, this verdict means that this jury found, by only a preponderance of the evidence, that the evidence presented to it showed that the defendant employer created an unlawfully hostile work environment for the plaintiff worker in violation of anti-discrimination law. The jury didn't, and couldn't, say whether other facts of other uses of racial epithets would create a hostile work environment. The jury didn't, and couldn't, make law for the country. The jury verdict can't be cited for any legal proposition.

Perhaps you'll say that the bad reporting here was just in the lede, not in the heart of the story. But the lede is all that many people read. The lede gets picked up as the hook for the story. The lede gets repeated and cited and argued by people talking about the news. An ignorant lede promotes ignorance. This is an ignorant lede.

There are certainly very complex areas of the law, and the job of a lawyer can be very challenging. But the basic mechanics of the legal system aren't rocket science, and a high-school grasp of the way the legal system works should not be an insurmountable barrier to journalists or their editors.

[If commenters could spare me the deeply annoying why-can't-I-say-that-word-when-rappers-say-it discussion, which is tangential to this post, that would be great.]

Edited to add: ABC does the same thing, through Russell Goldman:

A federal jury in New York found that use of the N-word in the workplace is never acceptable, even when used between black coworkers and when the historically fraught word is intended to denote friendship or endearment.


Lori Kilchermann Is A Yellow Journalist

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There are two ways to define "yellow journalist." You could define it traditionally, to to refer to a journalist who exploits, exaggerates, or distorts the news in service of sensationalism. Or you could interpret "yellow" to mean contemptibly craven.

Based on her conduct, Lori Kilchermann — an editor at the Ionia, Michigan Sentinal-Standard — is at least one of those.

Kilchermann is suing some citizens who said she met the first definition.

The dispute arises from a story in the Ionia Sentinel-Standard entitled "Four Arrested In Farmhouse Meth Bust." Kilchermann was the editor at the time. The Sentinel-Standard had an angle on the meth bust: it happened at a farmhouse that had hosted a Republican fundraiser. The paper's staff also chose a photo of the Republican fundraiser:

The photo — taken two years earlier at an Ionia Republican Party event, which was attended by then-candidates Rick Snyder and Brian Calley — showed a woman, Kristy Cuttle, who was arrested and later pleaded guilty in the meth case.

It also showed four people not connected to the bust — Cuttle’s husband, who had died since the photo was taken, two retired teachers and a woman who helped organize the campaign event.

Several citizens objected, met with Kilchermann, and wrote letters and Facebook posts and emails characterizing her conduct as "yellow journalism." Whether it was or not is a matter of opinion, particularly given the flexibility of the term.

But Kilchermann, a journalist who relies professionally on robust free speech, the protections of the First Amendment, and the right of all Americans to express their opinion, responded bravely with the remedy of more speech.

Oh, wait.

No she didn't.

Kilchermann, represented by Carrie Gallagher of Duff Chadwick & Associates, sued, claiming defamation, Butthurt in the First Degree2, and tortious interference with business relationships. Her complaint, which I have uploaded here, is explicitly premised on the notion that it is defamatory to say Kilchermann is a "yellow journalist" or that that she "editorializes the news," and that by — among other things — encouraging people to stop subscribing to the Sentinel, the defendants have wrongly interfered with her "business expectancies."

The problem is, of course, that statements of opinion are absolutely protected by the First Amendment when, as here, they are premised on known and disclosed facts. "Yellow journalism" is a classic example of rhetorical flair that is self-evidently opinion because its application is based on issues of fairness and bias on which different observers will differ. "Editorializes the news" is another classic example; show a political news story to partisans of two parties and you'll get two opinions on whether it editorializes.

Did the Sentinel — and its editor Kilchermann — engage in editorializing and yellow journalism by emphasizing a meth bust's ties to partisan politics? That's a matter of taste. The complaint says that the paper "believed" that the connection was newsworthy — a word that merely underlines that it's a matter of opinion. I find the incident banal rather than shocking. But complaining about it — and calling for the paper and its editors and writers to experience social consequences — is core speech protected by the First Amendment.

Whether or not Kilchermann is a "yellow journalist" in the sense of bias, her lawsuit marks her as a "yellow journalist" in the sense of despicable moral cowardice and betrayal of American values. Rather than speak out to refute criticisms of her work — rather than use the remedy of more speech, and respect the protections that makes her profession possible — Kilchermann has chosen to demand that the court system punish people who state their opinions of her in a way that hurts her feelings.

I sought a comment from Ms. Kilchermann's attorney, and did not get a response. Within a few hours of my tweet to Kilchermann's Twitter handle @LoriKilchermann, she shut down the account. Yellow indeed.

How can you possibly trust, or respect, a journalist who thinks that she has a right to be protected from negative opinions of her journalism? How can you possibly respect, or trust, the newspaper that continues to enjoy the protections of the First Amendment even as its editor seeks to deny those protections to others?

A Random Bit Of Media Criticism

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The wanton ignorance and depravity of NPR's coverage of the George Zimmerman trial knows no bounds.

4:34 pm eastern time. The drunken blockhead National Public Radio has assigned to cover the trial announces that because of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, George Zimmerman does not need to prove that he did not murder Trayvon Martin. This journalistic excrescence cannot go unaddressed.

First, George Zimmerman is not invoking Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. He is invoking the ancient and time-honored doctrine of self-defense, that a man confronted by deadly force is entitled to use deadly force in return for the preservation of his life.

Second, and more importantly, the reason George Zimmerman does not need to prove that he did not murder Trayvon Martin is because ALL CIVILIZED JUSTICE SYSTEMS FROM AT LEAST THE TIME OF ROME have placed the burden of proof on the prosecution. In the archaic and outdated "English common law" from which our justice system derives, this was the first principle.

What this wine-soaked oaf could have said, and he'd still have been wrong though not nearly by as much, is that self-defense is an affirmative defense, with the burden on the defendant. In actuality, all a defendant needs to do in Florida is to introduce competent evidence that he was confronted by force sufficient to make a reasonable man fear for his safety. Then the burden shifts to the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.

It is no wonder that the average American is so confused by the laws that govern him. We lawyers bear much of the blame, and the courts and the legislatures bear more, but the average American is so ill-served by the press, even the serious press like NPR, that he might as well turn to television entertainment programs for understanding.

NPR could have dug up a retired Soviet judge from the Brezhnev era to cover this trial, and given him an undergraduate Russian major as a translator, and their listeners would be better informed than they are today.

Truly miserable.

Journalistic/Blogger Ethics Question

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I'd like input from journalists and bloggers.

Here's a hypothetical. You're a blogger and you write about a person who has been thrust into the spotlight — they are mildly internet-infamous. That person emails you and asks if they can talk to you off the record. You agree. They make a series of statements to you about the litigation that is the subject of your post. Some months later, that person's lawyer files a motion in court with a representation contradicting something that the person told you off the record.

So: either the person lied to you during the off-the-record communication, or the person's lawyers are lying to the court.

Does the ethical obligation to keep the communication off the record continue?

I don't think a single lie on a single subject vitiates the off-the-record agreement as to the whole communication. However, as I have said before, I am troubled by the prospect that a journalist can be bound by a promise to a tipster when it appears that tipster is lying to a court.

What do you think?

Karaoke And The Criminal Justice System We Deserve

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This will be a familiar story to anyone who has ever represented a criminal defendant famous enough to make the news.

You client is convicted at trial, or pleads guilty. You work to put together a convincing presentation for sentencing that will humanize your client — help the judge see him (or her) as a human being, as someone whose offense is only one part of a larger life, as someone who has done good things as well as this bad thing. You ask friends and colleagues to write letters in support of your client. If your client is like most people, his life has been a mix of good and bad; some people admire him for some of the things he's done, and he's treated some people decently. Your client's friends and colleagues write letters in support, helping put his actions in the context of his whole life. Because they are human, their memories of your client are emotional and idiosyncratic. In their letters, they tell stories not only of the big things (support for family and friends, charitable work, dedication to the job) but the small, silly things that tend to touch us as people. You file the letters as part of your sentencing brief.

Then the media reads the sentencing brief, picks out one of the small and inconsequential things mentioned by a supporter, and runs it as the sensational headline, suggesting that it is the entire premise of your sentencing position.

Today's example: disgraced former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Jackson, a deeply flawed and troubled man, resigned and pleaded guilty to a federal crime for misuse of campaign funds. It's frankly ridiculous he was reelected, and he clearly doesn't belong in Congress, and by his own admissions he abused his position and broke the law, and must face the consequences.

But now he's facing the federal criminal justice system, and his lawyers are trying to show the judge the whole story of who Jesse Jackson Jr. is. They've presented evidence of his family life, his work in Congress, his mental problems, his whole life. They've submitted letters from people who know and like him talking about dozens of topics.

What topic gets play?

A single colleague — Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) — mentioned that he was an enthusiastic participant at karaoke nights. She did so in passing in the context of praising his life and work. Suddenly, though, that silly detail is the story: the media is framing it as "defense seeks lower sentence for karaoke."

Talking Points Memo: Congresswoman Wants Jackson’s ‘Karaoke Nights’ Considered In Sentencing

Huffington Post: Jesse Jackson Jr., Rep. Marcia Fudge Tells Judge, Is 'Charming' Karaoke Star Who Deserves Break

Chicago Tribune: Ohio lawmaker urges mercy for Jackson Jr., cites karaoke skills

Los Angeles Times: Ohio lawmaker urges mercy for Jackson Jr., cites karaoke skills

Notice that this is not just a matter of media political bias. Nominally "progressive" websites, and papers with a liberal sensibility, reliably go straight for the karaoke headline when talking about a fallen Democratic Congressman. Context doesn't sell; silly bits ripped from context sell.

Insipid sensationalism is an old story. It was old in 1979 when the media lied to the public about "The Twinkie Defense" in Dan White's trial for murdering Milk and Moscone.

Insipid sensationalism is what sells. Insipid sensationalism is why we have, too often, journalists who care more about maintaining relationships with law enforcement than questioning law enforcement. Insipid sensationalism is why we get misleading or incomplete reporting about criminal justice, little attention to horrifying problems in the system, and a surfeit of detached amusement where there should be outrage.

Some day soon one of the journalists who wrote one of the karaoke stories above will try to be taken seriously writing something serious and frowny about criminal justice. Please join me in inviting them cordially to shut the fuck up.

Today In The Ministry's Pneumatic Tube

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multiple print/radio/visual/digital sources 4/13 malreported ricin postal attack rectify

references perpetrator malidentified malreported rectify

malreporting "Paul Kevin Curtis" remove all references nonperson

replace correctreport "Everett Dutschke" alwaystrue rewrite

goodreport emphasize "martial arts instructor" eliminate malreport nonemphasize "Elvis impersonator"

federal law enforcement goodquote newreport emphasize words "discover" "investigation" "uncover" "reveal" "determine" "analysis" "dogged" "intensive"

doubleplusungood malreport avoid words "blunder" "mistaken" "innocent" "frame" "incorrect" "incompetent" "polyestered over-armed fuckwits" "put the 'special' in 'special agent'" "indifferent thugs"

media subsidiaries/partners emphasize goodquote "exclusive" "determined" "discovered" "revealed" "explain" "report to you"

doubleplusungood malreport avoid words "gullible" "credulous" "vapid" "coke-snorting upjumped typists" "amoral bootlicking sternographers" "jaded badgehumpers"

rectify correctreport "Everett Dutschke" has always been perpetrator "Paul Kevin Curtis" nonperson has never been perpetrator


Richard Jewell Cannot Accept Our Apology

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After a crime like yesterday's Boston bombings, it can be worthwhile to reflect on how we've reacted to similar tragedies.  Consider the case of Richard Jewell.

A terrorist detonated a bomb at Atlanta's Olympic Park, during the 1996 Olympic games. That terrorist was Eric Robert Rudolph, who pled guilty to the crime along with a number of abortion clinic bombings. Mr. Rudolph is presently a guest at the ADMAX hotel in Florence Colorado.

For nine years, Richard Jewell labored under suspicion that he'd been the bomber. In fact, Richard Jewell was a jewel of a man, a private security guard who spotted the bomb, informed the police of its existence, and escorted park visitors off the site until the bomb exploded. Jewell was a hero.

Such an unlikely hero, it occurred to the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, that he must have planted the bomb. After all, private security guards are losers. Mall cops. And Jewell, for all his common sense and bravery in a crisis, was an odd man. A little weird, a law-enforcement wannabe who'd just happened to be in the right place at the right time, then went on tv talking as though he was an actual cop. And he was fat.

Obviously that weirdo Jewell had planted the bomb so he could take credit for discovering it.

Or so it seemed, for some reason, to the FBI, which leaked Jewell as the primary suspect, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which took the leak, a perfect story after all, and used it to make Jewell's life Hell on Earth.

And to All Of Us, who behaved like beasts toward Jewell, because after all CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that the FBI had fingered him as the bomber.

Jewell died 11 years after the bombing, exonerated and a little richer thanks to several settlements against media outlets like CNN, but still a broken man. In its obituary, the New York Times, which had also reported on the allegations against Jewell, eulogized him as the hero of the Atlanta attack.

Which did Richard Jewell no good whatsoever.

Eric Robert Rudolph has never apologized to Jewell. Nor, for that matter, have the people of Georgia who spat on him. All Of Us.

If the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and All Of Us, could get the Atlanta bombing so tragically wrong in 1996, they, and we, can do it today. In the days to come, it would behoove All Of Us to take what the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and their ilk, have to say about suspects and motives with a grain of salt.

Lest we find outselves owing someone a Richard Jewell-sized apology.

Perhaps the best apology we, All Of Us, can give to Richard Jewell is to be a little more skeptical of what we're told by the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and their ilk.

It will do Richard Jewell no good whatsoever, but it will make All Of Us better citizens.

Misconduct Is Only News When Journalists Say It Is

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Here's a story I've told before: many years ago, a friend's client was being arrested in a case that had made local newspapers. The DA investigators showed up early one morning at the client's house to arrest him, cuffed him, and put him in their car. Then a reporter and photographer — tipped by someone on the prosecution side — showed up, late. They complained to the DA investigators that they had missed the perp walk — the iconic shot of the defendant being led away in handcuffs. The DA investigators obligingly got the client out of the car, walked him back into his house, and then turned around and walked him back to the car so that the photographer could get his perp-walk shot. The paper in question ran the perp-walk shot, but didn't mention that the cops had staged it. To the journalists involved, a picture of a suspect in handcuffs is news; the willingness of law enforcement to stage that picture is not news.

That too-cozy relationship between the press and law enforcement drives coverage of criminal justice in this country, which contributes to bad things — uncritical support for the "law and order" mindset, exaggeration of the risks of crime, insufficient coverage of misconduct and abuse, and journalism by spectacle. The relationship also encourages law enforcement to view journalists in an autocratic and entitled manner.

This phenomenon explains why I have mixed feelings about Fox News reporter Jana Winter's decision to risk jail to protect the source of a leak about the James Holmes prosecution in Colorado. You can read more about that story at Patterico or A Public Defender.

Jana Winter reported on a leak from someone she called a "law enforcement source," reporting that James Holmes, the apparent perpetrator of the Aurora theater massacre, had mailed a notebook filled with murder plans to a University of Colorado psychiatrist. Holmes' attorneys want to discover the source of the leak, arguing that the government violated a gag order issued by the court. Winter has been facing the stark choice between revealing a confidential source and going to jail for contempt.

It's imperative that we protect press rights vigorously under the First Amendment. Confidential sources are crucial tools in reporting important stories, informing the public, and uncovering misconduct. Many jurisdictions have laws protecting reporters who want to keep their sources confidential. That's a good thing.

But those are not the only values in play.

When journalists accept inside information from the government — from whatever source — they are making value judgments about what is news and what is not. When the journalists in my story ran a perp-walk picture, they made the judgment that a picture of someone in handcuffs is newsworthy and cops staging pictures is not. When Winter ran this story, she made the judgment that a scoop of Holmes' pre-massacre threats was newsworthy, and the willingness of law enforcement to violate a gag order was not. In making that choice, Winter and journalists like her necessarily abandon certain lines of inquiry. What's the purpose of this leak? Is it truly a leak from a rogue insider, or is it orchestrated by the prosecution? How does it help the prosecution's case or hurt the defense? Is it part of a pattern of leaks by this agency in certain types of cases? What laws did it violate? Has anyone with this agency ever been held accountable for leaks? Should they be? Was every part of the leak accurate, and how was that accuracy investigated?

When journalists make that value judgment, their choice is informed by their relationship with law enforcement — a relationship characterized by too much deference, uncritical acceptance, and interdependence. The choice is also informed by the modern media sensibility that favors sensationalism, the fast news cycle, and if-it-bleeds-it-leads thinking. Splashy stories about horrors are favored; complex stories about structural and cultural problems with criminal justice are disfavored.

Journalists will have you believe that when they print leaks from law enforcement they are keeping the public informed and promoting the free flow of information. Perhaps they are. But they are also acting as the tools of the government — whether willingly, indifferently, or ignorantly. The government leaks information — often in violation of law, often in violation of the defendant's constitutional and statutory rights — to control the narrative about the case, and to inflict unofficial punishment on suspects and defendants. This is an abuse of state power. The profession of journalism seems to have decided, collectively, that this abuse of power is not the story, or that it is, that it is outweighed by the benefits the public reaps from the abuse of power. Even though journalists claim that this decision is in service of the search for truth, sometimes it leads to participation in lies. Consider, for example, the scandal that surrounded the BALCO grand jury investigation, in which a defense attorney leaked grand jury transcripts to the media and then accused the government of doing it, seeking to have his client's case dismissed on that basis. In that case the defense, not the government, was the wrongdoer, but the media was an instrument of untruth and obstruction of justice. The journalists in that story valued protecting their sources of leaks above telling the public the truth about grave accusations of misconduct.

I'm not saying that laws shielding journalists are wrong. I'm not saying Jana Winter should go to jail. I'm saying this: maybe we should start asking journalists why they don't investigate leaks rather than accepting them. Maybe we should question the media's value judgments when it decides what misconduct is news, and what misconduct isn't. Maybe we should respond to leaks not with glee at getting inside dirt, but with demands that the government be held accountable for its conduct.