Tuesday, May 04, 2010

That Watchdog Don't Hunt

News media are supposed to be watchdogs, protecting the public from abuses by the government. But sometimes the watchdog acts like an obedient bitch, rolling over and playing dead, hoping to get a treat.

I won't rehash the whole Judith Miller-New York Times-Iraq War Jingoism mess. You can find plenty of info elsewhere on how the Cheney White House used NYT as a propaganda whore. I'm just mentioning it as an extreme example of how a watchdog can fail big time to bite or even bark.

Local news media are also supposed to be more than mouthpieces for the authorities. Sometimes I wonder how much dogged pursuit is given to seeking out information by entities such as WPZT-TV News and the Press-Republican.

Cynics question how WPTZ anchor Stephanie Gorin can maintain journalistic objectivity while married to City of Plattsburgh Police Chief Desmond Racicot. Last August I posted at this blog about a woman who claimed that her son was the victim of police brutality by Plattsburgh officers. I don't know all the details about what happened to her son. But the mother was so upset that she publicly protested. One of her signs pointed out the Stephanie Gorin-Police Chief connection, the possible conflict of interest.

As far as I know, neither WPTZ or the Press Republican ever looked into the allegations by the distraught mother.

For years I've heard that the Plattsburgh PD is too tightlipped at times and the Press Republican just plays along. That must be why I see lame articles in the PR about crime in the city.

Under certain circumstances I can understand a police department being guarded about giving out info. For example, there's been a traffic fatality and the next-of-kin haven't been notified. It's better for the PD to make the call than have an eager reporter out for the scoop break the news to the relatives. Also, some investigations require some secrecy: the police don't want to tip off someone that he's the target of a probe, giving that person the advantage to destroy evidence or flee.

And when a story is just breaking, the police are trying to piece together all the details, then it's understandable the PD doesn't want to make any premature statements.

But what about a case where the crime happened days ago, that a victim and suspects have been identified by the PD? Is there a need for secrecy?

OK, I should say alleged crime, alleged victim and even alleged suspects. The Press Republican can report on alleged stuff, get the alleged details, can't it?

Apparently not. Take this PR story, "College frat members suspected in severe beating of local man" dated May 4, 2010. Amazing how many details are missing.

The victim isn't named. The suspects aren't named. Even the exact address of where the beating supposedly happened isn't mentioned. Even the time and day are unknown. Police Chief Racicot is quoted that the assault happened sometime last week.

The PR gets most of the details from unnamed "sources." Is this news? I get the impression that there would have been no story at all if not for the sources.

Chief Racicot was asked for the address where the crime allegedly happened.

His reply: "We are not disclosing the exact address... At this point, it is under investigation."

Sources say the man was so severely beaten that he was transported to the medical center in Burlington, Vermont. That indicates serious injuries. So what were the injuries?

Racicot's reply: "We cannot disclose the extent of the injuries."

So with some details from "sources" and evasive answers from the Police Chief, the PR offers an alleged news story.

Why the secrecy? Is the PR going to push and probe or just roll over for a treat?

The Soviet Union had Pravda. We've got the Press Republican.

UPDATE: 5/4/10, 4:10 PM. Well, some breaking news over at pressrepublican.com . Arrests have been made and suspects have been named. Good follow-up. But once again I wonder if unnamed sources made the difference in getting attention to this story sooner. So I’ll retract my simplistic Pravda-PR comparison… for now.

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