Truth and Consequences
Let’s print the news—not cover it up.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Two recent local stories have raised questions about the bounds of acceptable journalistic discourse, questions we think about every day and that evoke surprisingly strong passions in readers – not to mention the people we’re writing about – for a business that’s supposed to be on its last legs.
While the reports of the death of newspapers (or, to use the current euphemistic parlance, “content providers’’), may or may not be greatly exaggerated, what is certain is that the ethical issues we deal with in our coverage, in print or online, continue to resonate, as they should, with people who care about what’s going on in this community.
Veteran Carmel Unified School District Superintendent Marvin Biasotti managed to get picked up on a DUI April 25 after being pulled over for a tail light malfunction. Not only did initial tests show his blood alcohol level to be .12, a fair amount over the .08 legal limit, but to make matters worse, Biasotti had apparently consumed the alcohol at a function to raise money for the district in which other school officials were serving as bartenders. This sort of behavior only makes the whole affair that much more embarrassing.
The timing couldn’t be worse: It’s graduation season, the traditional time of proms, celebratory parties and concern about the importance of coaching kids not to drink and drive, lest they end up in the emergency room or worse.
“School’s out for summer’’ may work as an anthem for Alice Cooper fans, but it seems like an unappetizing slogan for the man charged with supervising the fate – and serving as a role model to – impressionable teenagers.
To his credit, sort of, Biasotti, who has an otherwise blameless record of service, put out the word of the arrest, and an apology, on the school district’s website. Somewhat less to his credit was the fact that he apparently did so only after finding out that the Carmel High School newspaper was working on a piece about the incident. (See story, pg. 9.)
The Carmel school district board reacted to the incident with bureaucratic aplomb. With only one dissenter asking for tougher punishment, they issued a disciplinary letter to Biasotti’s file and said that if he did it again, he’d be fired. That should show him. This week, they offered a “clarification’’ of sorts, requiring him to perform community service “to educate students about the dangers of drinking and driving,” undergo counseling and alcohol assessments, be subject to a mid-year review in the course of the next school year and face further action if warranted by what’s going on in court.
While it’s unclear if the stiffer penalties were part of the initial decision – or a reaction to the firestorm about it – incredibly, there is now a journalistic debate of sorts over the propriety of covering the incident, and whether or not it’s being overplayed. At least one local newspaper says it has a longstanding policy of never reporting DUIs, a view which would have been a big comfort to Ted Kennedy awhile back, but seems otherwise pretty dubious. Boys, as they say, will be boys, but it’s the job of the press to put stories into the paper, not keep them out.
No one relishes the idea of being a public scold – the use of stockades in this country (except, perhaps at Guantanamo) went out with the Puritans – but the issues here are pretty clear.
Biasotti is not only a public figure, he’s someone charged with telling the youths of this county what is and is not acceptable behavior. Given his position, it would also be nice if he served as a role model. The way he and the school board have handled this illustrate neither principle.
The reaction to the other recent story of note also serves as a neat demonstration of the ways that some people can confuse denial with a river in Egypt.
This week, Rev. Antonio Cortes, pastor of St. Mary of the Nativity Church in Salinas, the largest parish in the city, stands trial on charges of molesting a 16-year-old boy. Parishioners have shown up at hearings to support Cortes, as is their right. We live with a presumption of innocence in this society, which is also right. If he turns out to be innocent, he should be vindicated.
It’s understandable that those to whom Cortes has provided spiritual sustenance should want to defend him. But it’s unconscionable that some supporters are casting doubts on family members of the alleged victims. We’ve seen all this before, in the early reaction to the pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church, and in the Senate hearings on Anita Hill, when our newest political convert, Sen. Arlen Specter, decided to turn the tables by blaming the victim.
In the movie Absence of Malice (a textbook examination of newspaper ethics), a hardened city editor says that he knows how to print the news, and how to make people happy, but he doesn’t know how to do both. Neither do we.