Monday, July 14, 2008

Why Did Sentinel Run Demings' Critique of Orlando Weekly article?

Today's Orlando Sentinel (July 13) ran a My Word column by Orlando Police Chief Val Demings: "OPD chief: We're not perfect, but ..." 

It's not unusual for the Sentinel to run columns by local officials. (My suspicion has always been that these columns are ghostwritten by press flacks.) 

This is the first time, however, that I can recall the Sentinel running a My Word RESPONDING TO AN ARTICLE THAT RAN IN ANOTHER PUBLICATION!  Yes, that's right, the Sentinel gave Demings (or her "ghost") several inches of precious column space to critique an article that ran in the Orlando Weekly's July 10 issue. That piece, "Might Makes Right" by staff writer Jeff Billman was a well-reported and well-written expos√© of abuse --involving the use of excessive force and Tasers--of citizens by Orlando police officers and the department's abysmal failure to properly investigate complaints to its Internal Affairs Section about this abuse and OPD's unconscionable failure to discipline its officers when they are found to have behaved inappropriately. (Of course, this would require that the department properly investigate these cases to begin with rather than whitewashing them. It usually takes media coverage and lawsuits before OPD even begins to take allegations against its officers half-seriously and sanctions them in any way, even if it is just suspending them with pay while the investigation is happening.)

Naturally, Demings and other higher-ups in the department took umbrage at this article. It certainly is embarrassing for the department (but is well deserved in my opinion). Of course they want to do what they can cosmetically to repair the damage, but why did the Sentinel allow them to do this on its opinion page? 

Bob Whitby, the editor of the Weekly, is a friend of mine, and i consider him to be a fair-minded journalist. I am sure he would have been glad to run a letter from Demings or to run a column by her in response to the article. 

Ironically, Demings' article only serves to bring more attention to the allegations (at least indirectly by highlighting the 98 complaints of excessive force the OPD has received over 5 years, but without mentioning any of the disturbing details that the Weekly uncovered; let's just say that your chances of being assaulted in downtown Orlando on a Friday or Saturday night by an OPD officer appear to be at least as great as  your chances of being victimized by a non-police officer). The Sentinel has a far louder voice and reach than the Weekly. The Sentinel's Sunday circulation in 2007 was 335,689 (it's probably lower now) vs. the Weekly's circulation of around 50,000. So possibly 7 times as many people now know that the OPD has some sort of problem policing its ranks as learned this from the Weekly article. (Of course, some copies of the Weekly are read by more than one person, but I don't have the figures for the "pass-along" rate.)  

Interestingly, Deming's piece didn't mention the Weekly by name; instead she referred to it twice as a "weekly publication," so some readers undoubtedly were left scratching their heads as to the source of the article she was attempting to rebut (not successfully, in my opinion). Maybe Demings was scared that if she mentioned the name of the "weekly publication" that citizens might seek out the article so they could decide for themselves whether OPD's Internal Affairs investigators and the chief do indeed take abuse allegations "very, very, [sic] seriously" as she claimed. This was cowardly on the part of Demings and the Sentinel's editors. If you're going to criticize someone shouldn't you have the decency to mention them by name? Doesn't your audience deserve to know their name?

Not once did Demings claim that any of the information in the Weekly's article was inaccurate. Rather, she sought to contextualize the article by stating that the 98 claims of excessive force came from the "2,018,344 contacts with citizens" that OPD had between Jan. 1, 2003 and June 30, 2008. (I would like to know how OPD defines a "contact.") This ignores the possibility that for any of several valid reasons more than 98 citizens may have felt that they had suffered abuse at the hands of Orlando police but chose not to seek redress.

So why did the Sentinel, which once billed itself as "Florida's best newspaper," stoop this low? My guess is that it couldn't resist taking a shot at the Weekly, which in its Happytown column has been unsparing in its reporting and critiquing of the Sentinel's on-going lay-offs, its redesign and its news judgment.  The Sentinel doesn't look good here, considering that it allowed a surrogate to criticize the Weekly for reporting news that the Sentinel should be reporting in the first place. The Sentinel, to those who can connect the dots, looks childish and petty in this case.

Speaking of news that the Sentinel should be reporting, but isn't (at least so far): My understanding is that since January three videographers from Channel 9 (WFTV) have been arrested by OPD while at accidents or crime scenes, allegedly for "interfering" with the police while they performed their duties. Why hasn't this been reported by the Sentinel? Doesn't it need the First Amendment to be respected as much as Channel 9?

Ben Markeson is a local radical activist, a member of Orlando Food Not Bombs and Orlando CopWatch and "Orlando's favorite anarchist," according to the Weekly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post, Ben, well-written and focused.