Monday, April 19, 2010

The Local Media and Tonya Craft

As readers know, I have been especially critical of some of the local media covering the Tonya Craft trial and the events leading up to this trial. Certainly the worst offender has been Channel 9, which two years ago produced one of the most guilt-announcing and inflammatory pieces I ever have seen broadcast.

(When I called Channel 9 to speak about this story, I was dismissed as just another nut case who is ignorant about the Greater Truths that appear on the evening news. As readers who have dealt with broadcast media before, many news directors consider themselves to be impervious to any error, and Channel 9 certainly fits that description of utter arrogance.)

Other news outlets have been somewhat better in their coverage, but there is a much larger issue at hand, something I understand because I once was a reporter for the former Chattanooga News-Free Press more than 30 years ago. For the most part, local media tends to be reactive in how it covers events. People associated with these media outlets will tell you that they deal with things as they happen, and it is rare that they connect the dots or even look to see if events have a common thread elsewhere.

Another serious problem comes in the institutional nature of the modern media, which really is a creation of the Progressive Era of a century ago. The 1922 Canons of Journalism sought to create a dichotomy between a newspaper's editorial pages (where opinion was permitted) and the news pages, where reporters were supposed to be "objective" in their dispatches. (At that time, broadcast media was in its infancy and the main source of reporting "news" came from the print media.)

At the same time, there developed the "public interest" view of the media, in which it was said that journalists are supposed to be the "watchdogs of government." In other words, the press was supposed to make sure that government was not abusive toward citizens, and if it acted abusively, journalists would report on it and try to expose the malefactors.

However, things don't always work as one plans, and over time, journalists pretty much became allied with government. Part of that problem was unavoidable, as reporters would cover "beats," and most of them would deal with some governmental body. Not surprisingly, the "Capture Theory" of regulation also would apply to reporters, as they became allied with the very people they were supposed to be making sure would not abuse their power.

Furthermore, there developed the "revolving door" between journalists and government in which many reporters and writers would move into governmental positions, or people in government would move into journalism. (George Stephanopoulos and Chris Matthews are Exhibit A here. Stephanopoulos worked in the Clinton White House as the mouthpiece of the administration, while Matthews was a high-level staffer for the late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil. On the local level, Tom Griscom of the TFP worked for former Sen. Howard Baker and served as Communications Director in the Reagan White House, the same position that Stephanopoulos later held.) In other words, the relationship between the press and the government became chummy, so in the end, the press would promote government, not scrutinize it.

This is even more true on the local level. Read the articles in the Times-Free Press or the Chattanoogan, and you will see that a lot of them deal with governmental bodies. One of the most important sources of news, of course, is the police beat, along with the courts, as they provide lots of stories of interest.

Reporters pretty much are NEVER to question the police, as the "Thin Blue Line" will retaliate, freezing out anyone who veers from the party line about the men in blue. Furthermore, every reporter wants to be able to deal with the Big Story, the one that will bring attention to the event and, of course, to the reporter as well.

All of this is understandable at one level. Furthermore, there are categories that lend themselves to massive coverage. The Duke Case, in which wealthy, white lacrosse players were alleged to have raped and beaten a poor, black woman just trying to make enough to feed her family. In assessing the media coverage after the truth came out (that the entire thing was a fabrication), Rachel Smolkin of American Journalism Review wrote a major criticism of the media, and quoted former New York Times Ombudsman Daniel Okrent:
"It was too delicious a story," says Daniel Okrent, a former New York Times public editor, who is critical of the Times' coverage and that of many other news organizations. "It conformed too well to too many preconceived notions of too many in the press: white over black, rich over poor, athletes over non-athletes, men over women, educated over non-educated. Wow. That's a package of sins that really fit the preconceptions of a lot of us."
There are other categories and, unfortunately, the Tonya Craft case in which a kindergarten teacher is accused of child molestation is just too delicious not to kindle an explosion in the newsrooms. Thus, when the charges first were aired, there was the same sickening response by local media: run over the cliff with the story.

Thus, I can understand at one level why the early coverage was so one-sided. But one must remember something that is very, very important, and something that the media rarely will admit: prosecutors in this country, both on state and federal levels, often lie, break the law, and pursue false charges because they rarely are held accountable by the government and the press.

When was the last time any reader of this post saw a local story on television, the TFP or the Chattanoogan that was critical of a local prosecutor? When has any local news outlet scrutinized the witnesses that prosecutors put on the stand?

No, for the most part, prosecutors and the police are regarded as speaking ex cathedra when they are in a courtroom, even though it is well-known that police officers often lie on the stand. When has a local media outlet ever tried to make the police or prosecutors really accountable to anything?

Why is this? I believe that because these people are the sources for some of the juiciest stories that journalists can receive, what we are seeing is something akin to what we economists call "gains from trade." Furthermore, the very aspect of the charges of KINDERGARTEN TEACHER MOLESTS CHILDREN is so horrible that few journalists are willing to question the charges, at least publicly, for they are expected to be "objective," and treat all pronouncements from prosecutors and their witnesses as being true.

What about editorial writers? Are they not supposed to be scrutinizing government agents, and are they not permitted to write outright opinion? That is true, but, as one can see in looking at the editorials on both the Times and Free Press side of the TFP, the Tonya Craft trial and the subsequent irregularities and outright abuse of the law apparently is off-limits.

On the FP side, they are law-and-order conservatives, and never (or at least rarely) question the police and certainly not prosecutors, who are PROTECTING US FROM CRIMINALS. The Times side is run by hardcore partisan Democrats, Harry Austin and Wes Hasden, and a look at their "hard-hitting" editorials finds the usual leftist fare: We need more taxes, volcanic ash is really bad stuff, and all Republicans are evil.

What you will NEVER find on either editorial page is scrutiny of the outright travesty that has been unfolding in Catoosa County. No, Austin and Hasden "believe in government" and unless Republicans in government are doing bad things (like cutting tax rates), then you won't see them uttering a peep. Because of the law-and-order mentality on the right, the FP page will be silent as well.

The institutional makeup of modern media pretty much guarantees that when stories like this come out, there will be a huge rush to judgment. We saw it in the Duke case, as well as in ALL of the fake child molestation cases that dominated the 1980s and 1990s in this country. In fact, before the numerous charges and convictions in the Wenatchee, Washington, molestation hoax fell apart, the local paper, the Wenatchee World, wrote of the "sex ring" as though it were established fact when, in reality, it was established fantasy and utter government abuse.

Like in Wenatchee, we have seen many local media outlets do the dirty work for prosecutors Chris Arnt and Len Gregor. Yes, some reporters, like Melydia Clewell from Channel 3, have tried to scrutinize the charges (and Gregor called out Clewell in open court, subjecting her to an inquisition that Judge Brian House did not try to stop), but for the most part, we now see the attempt to be "objective," which only aids the prosecution.

So, once again we see the same sickening pattern by the local media: Rush to judgment, vilify the accused, and then when the truth begins to appear, pretend to be objective. If you wonder why we see continual injustices by government, look no farther than Channel 9. They are partners-in-crime with some of the worst criminals you ever will see: Arnt and Gregor.

[UPDATE]: As you will see in the comments section, there were news media in the area at the time the charges were levied, ringing doorbells and asking people if they knew an accused "child molester" lived in the neighborhood. Rush to judgment? Oh, not the media! Never! They are much too sophisticated for that!


Sandra Pearson said...

you have touched on a point that has haunted me for nearly two years and at times, caused me despise the media. when i saw a news reporter walk through tonya's neighborhood, asking her neighbors if they wanted a child molester living near them... i was completely sickened. how dare they ask such questions over allegations that had not been found to be true! they definitely painted a picture of guilt before tonya had her day in court... before she was given the chance to defend herself and share her side of the story. and we all know, there are indeed two sides to every story.
as the prosecution continues their lame attempt to prove these allegations, we have all seen the hardened heart of the media soften toward tonya, for it is becoming more and more obvious each day that tonya is not guilty as alleged.
i was thinking about the media in chattanooga this past weekend and wondering why they haven't turned their attention to the ones who started this... or the ones who seem to be hell bent in creating a scenario that they hope will place tonya in prison.
i pray that God will put a stop to the corruption taking place before our very eyes in catoosa county, georgia. there are three men who need to be behind bars today... and i would assume they have accomplices within their local police department. they should all be held accountable. they took oaths before the people to protect and serve. they are a disgrace to the people of catoosa county, georgia. they are a disgrace to judges and attorneys. they are a disgrace. period.

Anonymous said...

Good analysis!

Btw, you stated, "(and Gregor called out Clewell in open court, subjecting her to an inquisition that Judge David House did not try to stop)". I hate to sound like a broken record, but isn't it Brian House?

Anonymous said...

I live in the same neighborhood that all of these alledged abuses occured. We were approached by the news media but had absolutely no idea of what they were asking. They rang the doorbell and asked what we thought about our neighbor who had molested children. They then proceeded to point out which house it had happened at. If all of these abuses are true she needs to be put away for life. I personally do not think that they are and feel so very bad for all involved. I cannot imagine being kept away from my daughters by some childs made up story. Praying for all involved.

William L. Anderson said...

I don't know why I have David on the brain, but I did make the correction. Thanks for pointing it out.

Anonymous said...

I know it's Freedom of the Press...but is there not any way that they could be held accountable for casing her neighborhood?! i.e. defamation of character. This makes me so angry for this poor innocent woman! I strongly believe she will receive an innocent verdict. When she does I hope she sues and sues and sues.
Then goes to live on the beach with her children somewhere.

Dan said...

Radley Balko, at , linked to your blog this morning. While reading through your posts to come up to speed on this case, it seems to me that some of the most abusive, arrogant and (possibly) narcissistic acts/tactics are the Facebook posts by the prosecutor. I think that a Prosecutor (ab)uses social networking angle could appeal to the national media.

Just a thought...

Anonymous said...

On the WRCB live coverage of the case, the defense team just asked Mrs. Lamb if she wanted Tonya Craft to continue to be apart of her daughters life. She responded "Apparently I did". So did she know "abuse" was going on and continued to let her see her? That just shows that there never was abuse in the first place.

Jerri Lynn Ward, J.D. said...

Dan has a good point. Is there a screen shot of the prosecutor's facebook entries? I couldn't find his page on facebook.

William L. Anderson said...

He took it off after being caught. I don't know if anyone has a screen shot, but if they do, I would like to see it.

No one on the other side has denied that Arnt posted this material on Facebook, and given the militancy of the prosecution and its supporters, it seems to me that someone would have been screaming denial by now.

William L. Anderson said...

Someone sent me the Facebook page. I will put it on my blog in a few minutes.

William L. Anderson said...

It's up.

Anonymous said...

Sir, just sent you a screenshot of the last one...feel free to distribute.

Anonymous said...

I would want you on my side if thing were are a fine person doing the right thing....calling them out on it....they have gotten away with this for way too long! May freedom ring!

Anonymous said...

Thank God for Melydia Clewell and Callie Starnes...their coverage of the case is wonderful. They are honest and fair and the get scrutinized for it. William, you are doing a fantastic job too! Thank you all sooooo much!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 11:03, I couldn't agree more. Melydia Clewell, Callie Starnes, and William Anderson are by far the best!!!!!