The law will be broken

Watch this space next week. You might be able to participate in breaking a law.

The legislature appears likely to pass a law over the Governor’s veto that violates the Free Speech and the Freedom of the Press guarantees of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It’s HB436, the so-called gun bill.

One provision says that any “person or entity” that publishes the “name, address, or other identifying information” of anyone who “owns a firearm” could be jailed for as much as one year.

Overridden bills will become law thirty days afer two-thirds of the members of each legislative chamber vote to override the veto. 

Within minutes of the time the law becomes effective, the Missourinet will publish the names of some gun owners. In fact, we will publish the names of every legislator who votes on this bill. Most of them will be gun-owners. Publication of a public record of the names of gun-owner legislators who vote for or against the override will violate the law. 

We take the First Amendment seriously at the Missourinet. It is the foundation of everything reporters do. The First Amendment is what sets this nation apart from other nations in this world. Freedom of the Press. Freedom of Religion. Freedom of Speech. The right to peacefully assemble. The right to redress grievances against the government.

We suspect we won’t be the only ones whose news organizations are represented at the House and Senate press tables who quickly will violate this law if the legislature enacts it.

Any gun owners or other readers who would like to join us in standing for the freedoms of the First Amendment will be invited to add their names to the list under “comments” to that blog if the legislature overrides the veto and threatens reporters or anybody else with a year in jail for exercising those First Amendment rights.

 

 

 

 

 

The sins of the children

The ancient book of Exodus (King James translation) contains a warning from a jealous God to visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation” if the fathers are hateful to God.   But what punishment should the parent receive when the sin is that of the children?

That was the focus of a discussion we had in the newsroom several days ago after the child of a prominent elected official was charged with a felony.  Should the child’s well-known parent be identified in our stories?

This is not an infrequent consideration in newsrooms. It is easy to think of the times we have seen or reported on the police chief’s son who steals a car; the mayor’s daughter who is picked up with marijuana in her purse; the coach’s son who is charged with rape; the politician’s daughter caught driving drunk.  You can probably think of others.

The first time this reporter was confronted with this issue, as far as his fading memory can recall, was decades ago when the son of a prominent attorney in the town where he worked thought it would be great fun if he and his buddies went out to an old cemetery and pushed over tombstones, doing thousands of dollars of damage.  Should my story mention that the son of one of the town’s most prominent lawyers had broken the law?

Parents, prominent or not, sometimes have to deal with a child that exercises poor or no judgment and in the process sometimes ask themselves, “How could my kid do this?  He’s (or She’s) been raised in a good home. We’re good parents.  What got into him (or her)?”  The offense usually doesn’t rise to the issue of theft, rape, drugs, and drunken driving.  But the concern coupled with embarrassment is there. 

Reporters are taught to separate themselves from the moment and make news judgments unaffected by emotion, their own or someone else’s.  Or personal friendships. Isn’t parental suffering at the hands of a wayward child enough of a family matter that it is not necessary for a reporter to add to it by indentifying a wrondoer by parental connection?   Does common decency play a role in that discussion?   It’s bad enough that the kid did something bad; do reporters have any duty to say who the parents are?  

The Missourinet generally does not tie the sins of the children to the parents.  Generally.  In fact there are times when we–and other members of the media–mention that someone who has a name similar to a prominent citizens is not related to that citizen.   If the name is similar enough that news consumers could wonder if that is a prominent personage’s relative, we have felt it advisable to answer the question before it is asked.  No, it is not the child of the personage. There’s another question we consider, too. You’ll get to that next. 

Here are some of the things we ask when the child of a leading citizen gets into trouble:

Did the leading citizen have anything to do with the incident? 

Would we mention the name of the parent(s) if this incident was caused by the child of someone who is not in a prominent community position? 

What is added to the story by mentioning the name of the parent(s)?

Does the parent deserve to have the iniquity of the children publicly visited upon him or her?

Does a coach whose child strays into illegal territory deserve to have people say, “How can he coach my child when he can’t even raise his own?”  Does the mayor deserve townsfolks saying, “She can’t even manage her own family; what makes her think she can run the city?” 

Is it fair for a reporter to trigger that kind of gut reaction from the public by identifying a wayward child with the parents’ names? 

The answers are hard to apply universally.  If we don’t identify children-wrongdoers by their parents, should we identify victims of crime, accident, or serious illness by their prominent parental connections?  Do the same questions apply?  

The Missourinet is more likely to report that the child of a high state official has been diagnosed with leukemia than we are to report they have tipped over thousands of dollars worth of tombstones.   We are more likely to report the child of a leading citizen has been critically hurt or killed in a traffic crash  or has become a war casualty. 

What’s the difference?   Aren’t we being contradictory? 

Yes, we are.  And we suspect a lot of other newsrooms are the same way.

The difference in approaches, as we see it, is the difference between sympathy and scorn.  Those touched by tragedy regardless of their prominence deserve sympathy.   Those touched by wrongdoing of a family member usually do not deserve public scorn. 

Determining what is “news” has no formula to fall back on.  We are human beings reporting on the human condition.  We are not Gods, jealous or not.  We do not agree within our profession or within our own newsroom what is the proper answer.  But more times than you might think, we weigh what we should say and consider who might be affected, and what is the fair thing to do. 

All those years ago, I did not use the name of the lawyer whose son tipped over the tombstones. And most recently we did not run a story about a political leader’s son who got himself in enough trouble that he faces prison. 

In both instances and in many in the intervening years this conversation has been played time and again in our mind and in our newsrooms.  Some might criticize these decisions as censorship.  We considered them editorial discretion.  The line between the two is thin, easily crossed and easily blurred, and is often in the eyes of the beholder.  

And that’s a little look at some of the things that happen before you hear or see a newscast or read a story in a newspaper.

The clown

After a day of covering and watching others cover the State Fair Rodeo debacle, we are left pondering whether we have witnessed an internet cautionary tale.  If it is not that, then it is close.  A story that originated with an internet report has exploded, repeated, with various shades of differences in the telling.  As the day draws to a close, we are left with what seems to be one of the hazards of the use of the internet to relay information.  There is no doubt it can spread information.  But there is danger in accepting that information out-of-hand as true.  

We are reminded of the insurance company television commercial.

“Where’d you hear that”

“Internet.”

“And you believed it?”

“Yeah.  They can’t put anything on the internet that isn’t true.”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“The internet.”   

We’ve spent a lot of time in the Missourinet newsroom looking at the videos of the Saturday night incident at the Missouri State Fair Rodeo. And listening.  As we have examined the video and listened to the audio, we have become more questioning of what has been relayed to the public, even in our own early accounts.

Early accounts from the internet said, “A clown came into the arena dressed as President Obama.”  An appraisal of a still picture of the “clown” leaves doubt in our mind that that happened, as we will explain later. 

We also said some things in our stories similar to statements in several other stories we have seen today—that a rodeo announcer said “tonight’s the night we’re going to smoke Obama.”  An internet source that we cited said that “a bull got close enough, and the clown jumped up and ran away with the crowd cheering in delight.”   We, like many of our colleagues,were operating on the best information we had at the time.  However, a day of interviews, statements, and examinations of posted videos seems to shed a different light on how we reported an ugly situation.   There is no doubt it was an ugly situation.  

But as lawyers have noted, you can’t un-ring a bell.  You cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.  

The longest video we have seen runs 2:06.  Two bulls are seen throwing their riders in short order. Neither comes close to a figure with the Obama mask.  Bull riding contests at rodeos are seldom limited to two bulls so there’s a lot we have not seen, particularly the Obama figure running away. But we have our doubts about that.  More on that point later. 

At various times, rodeo announcer Mark Ficken has been described as the clown or has been identified directly or indirectly as the person who was spouting the language that pumped up the crowd and also angered a lot of people.  Even lawyer Albert Watkins, who contacted media earlier today as Ficken’s representative, seemed confused by the circumstances. “The clown, donning an Obama mask, was wearing a microphone while at the time of his unscripted appearance,” he said in his notice. The video and audio clearly indicate the figure in the Obama mask was not wearing a microphone.  But the real clown appears to be, as we note below.

First, let’s consider the figure in the Obama mask.   When we talked with Ficken a little after 7 o’clock this morning, before a lawyer started speaking for him, he referred to the figure with the Obama mask as a “dummy.”  (Our conversation with him offered a different perspective on the limited but widely-circulated information up to that time.)

A look at the closeup pictures shows a figure that appears to be propped up by a broom (if it’s not, that broom is in a very uncomfortable place).  There is no logical reason for a broom in a rodeo arena.  If the figure were, indeed, human, then the figure is carrying the broom in an odd way.   

Next:  The figure in the mask never moves during the event, not even when a real clown goes over and adjusts the clothing.  When a horse and rider go by, it does not turn its head. 

The sleeves of the shirt are stuffed into pants pockets.  The legs appear to have little or no flesh on them.  The entire figure, in fact, appears in the not-very-clear pictures to lack human proportions.   

Although we get only fleeting glimpses of the figure during the videos we have seen, the figure has not moved.   It seems to us that the dummy is not likely to have run from the arena with a bull in close pursuit.

Dummies are often used in rodeo rings, particularly during the bull riding events.  

Early in one of the videos, Ficken introduces the people in the ring.  He introduces only one person as a clown, (“the funny man, the jokester”) the person who is heard a short time later calling Ficken’s attention to a “famous” guest in the ring, “Obama.”  It is at that point, before the real clown is seen manipulating the lips on the mask (during which time the figure does not move), or making all of the comments about how the bull is going to “get” Obama, that Ficken makes his remark that Obama better watch out for the bull.  He is not heard participating in the clown’s routine after that.

Three entities are involved in this incident.  An announcer.  A clown.  A figure that appears to be a dummy in an Obama mask.  The announcer is not the clown. The clown is not the dummy.  The dummy does not have a wireless microphone.  The clown does have one.  The clown is the one making the controversial comments.

This event happened away from the eyes of regular television or newspaper coverage and was first published on a Facebook page, then picked up through  and passed around through more social media,  ultimately making its way into the conventional media, including the Missourinet.

Throughout the day we have seen references in regular media and social media to Ficken being the clown or Ficken making the statements that angered many people and rallied others. It appears to our eyes and ears that neither is the case. Watkins refers to it as “internet piling on.” 

So after a day of reporting, reiterating, and reacting, we wonder if the internet might have distributed a lot of information that too many people have taken as truth and too many people keep repeating–on the internet.   

This story is likely to take some time to play out.  But what the internet continues to circulate and that some of us in the mainstream media pass along raises some questions about some of the interpretations of the material we have seen and heard and taken a closer look at.  .

“The Truth is Out There,” was a motto of a television show years ago.  The search for that truth sometimes involves stumbling down a brambled path with uncertain and sometimes misleading markings. 

And that seems to be a pretty good summation as the sun goes down on this day.