That’s Latin for asking who benefits.
When a reporter uses the law to pry public records from resisting officials, readers are supposed to benefit. And when readers value that invocation of open records laws, it adds luster to the reporter’s work.
That’s why the Enquirer and other Gannett papers don’t shy from pressing open records requests. However, some benefits aren’t as clear as journalists think.
For instance, the Enquirer wants the Ohio Supreme Court to order a Butler County judge to reveal the identity of the Miami University student who posted fliers on how to get away with campus rape.
Good. That’s what open records laws are for; the judge frequently seals student court records to hide “indiscretions … before they start applying for graduate school or go to the job market.”
CityBeat was planning a similar challenge. “We were gearing up to file a lawsuit over the Miami stuff but then found out that the Enquirer had already done it,” CityBeat editor Danny Cross said.
If court documents are unsealed, nothing requires anyone to report the student’s name. That’s where “should print” and “could print” collide. I don’t see any benefit from reporting his identity, but using open records laws reminds judges they cannot escape scrutiny.
Moreover, asserting access to public records strengthens Freedom of Information laws for the next battle. That doesn’t resolve “should” versus “could.” Gannett’s suburban New York Journal News recently posted an interactive map using public records to identify handgun permit holders in its circulation area.
Yes, they could do it legally. But should they? Nothing suggests a benefit to the readers or paper. The paper seems to have achieved the opposite. Armed readers feared burglars looking for their handguns. Unarmed neighbors wondered what they’re supposed to do. Be nicer? Cui bono?
It was a dumb stunt that encourages everyone who resents reporters having access to public records.
Outraged critics posted names and home addresses of many Gannett corporate and Journal News executives and newsroom staff. According to Gannett Blog (gannettblog.blogspot.com), an independent blog about Gannett’s various reporting and business practices, there were implied threats against some of their children. Cui bono?
Last week, angered legislators barred release of information on permit holders for 120 days and allowed existing permit holders to ask officials to remove their names and addresses from the state’s database. The Journal News then deleted the personal information although the law didn’t require it.
Sometimes the benefits are clear. Enquirer First Amendment attorney Jack Greiner considers “the most effective use of the public records law that I’ve ever been involved with” was prying loose proof of Cincinnati’s lax enforcement of lead paint statutes on 300 properties.
Ohio doctors must inform the local public health authority when a child six years or younger has an elevated blood lead content. Health inspectors then are supposed to check the child’s home, day care and school. If inspectors find lead paint, the Health Department sends an abatement order requiring the owner — public or private — to clean it up.
In 2006, Enquirer reporter Sherry Coolidge heard Cincinnati was not doing any follow up to assure that owners were obeying Health Department lead abatement citations.
“When she asked the city for the orders,” Greiner recalled, “she was told the HIPAA (health privacy) statute prohibited the release. Since HIPAA refers only to medical records, and we were looking for property records, that seemed curious.
“The city maintained that we would be able to figure out the identity of the affected child if we received the records. That ‘logic’ may be applied to residential orders — although not necessarily, since the affected family may not still live there — but it most certainly did not apply to day care centers or schools.
“Moreover, HIPAA does not prohibit release of the information if state law mandates production. We took the case to the Ohio Supreme Court and won — the Ohio Public Records Act required the records be produced, and HIPAA’s privacy provisions gave way.
“It was the first case in the country that looked at the interplay between HIPAA and state open records law … (T)he records allowed her to write the (prize-winning) story.”
Other reactions included the Health Department overhauling its lead prevention program and adding employees, a top official who headed the program retiring and properties being cleaned up. More than two dozen landlords have been brought to housing court and more than 100 have cleaned up to avoid court action.
• Enquirer reporter Sharon Coolidge’s use of open records law documented Cincinnati’s lax enforcement of lead paint removal orders. She told CityBeat that her coverage included positive impacts in addition to those above in my main column:
The day after her story was published, Mayor Mark Mallory ordered health officials to explain why they hadn't forced problem landlords to clean up their properties.
Three public hearings led to a comprehensive city plan to eliminate childhood lead poisoning by 2010. The plan lowers the medical threshold at which health officials can intervene, thus catching lead poisoning in its earliest stages.
City Council gave the health department more than $1 million to finance reforms
In one of his first acts as new governor, Ted Strickland allowed cities to sue lead-paint producers; Cincinnati is suing Sherwin-Williams.
State lawmakers are considering a new law, named after a family featured in the Enquirer story, to provide $20,000 grants for lead removal.
• A more recent public benefit from open records laws involved the Enquirer suit to obtain secret streetcar vendors’ bids. Attorney Jack Greiner, who handles First Amendment issues for the paper, said that Cincinnati's ordinance requires bids be available for public review. Faced with resistance, the Enquirer went to court. Hamilton County appellate judges agreed with the paper, rejecting company arguments that records were exempt from public records law as "trade secrets."
• Unless you’re living under a Rock of Cliches, you’ve read or heard that flu is sweeping the nation. Every sneeze, every cough, every chill and shiver warns us that the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse is tethering his pale horse at our curb. The catch is that despite breathless news media offerings, little unusual is happening except for an early, aggressive onset of the perennial scourge. Thousands die every year from flu, most of them elderly. It would be news if we didn’t. Annual death estimates — hampered by incomplete reporting and similar health problems — range from 3,000 to 49,000.
• An Enquirer Sunday Forum carried Michael Kinsley’s column about Hillary Clinton’s extensive foreign travel as secretary of state. Kinsley doubts the value of much of her travel but in today’s world, “The less important the trip, the more prestige you gain by taking it.” Having time and money to waste proves you have time and money to waste . . . even if you’re on the taxpayers’ clock and paycheck. Maybe that explains an otherwise inexplicable Enquirer revelation that Steve Chabot is a foreign policy expert, citing his extensive foreign travel at taxpayer expense.
• Enquirer reporter Dan Horn produced two nay-saying front page stories. Both were welcome surprises from Cincinnati’s “get on the team” daily. One questioned the argument that right-to-work laws provide an economic boost in states like Indiana, Michigan, or, potentially, Ohio. That anti-union policy was a staple topic in my 1950s high school debating days. Economic analysis, like divining why crime rates change, is more complicated than whether union membership is optional or required in a “union shop.” Too many union/right-to-work debates — fueled by no-compromise advocates putting re-election before public benefit — ignore complexity.
• A second invocation of skepticism by the Enquirer’s Dan Horn raised serious doubts about feel-good gun buy-back programs. I’ll go this far on guns: each firearm bought back and destroyed (not bought back and sold to dealers for resale) is a gun that won’t kill someone. Cincinnati Police destroy buy-back weapons not needed for investigations. Buy-back, however, won’t change life on Cincinnati streets where scores of young men kill each other each year. Anyone who wants a firearm can get one faster than you can say, “Your money or your life.” Similar doubts about Cincinnati’s gun buy-back program made Page 1 of the New York Times.
• Fox 19’s Dave Culbreth came up with a smart take on the controversial idea of arming teachers and school administrators. He interviewed Target World assistant manager Amy Hanlon who demonstrated how a woman could carry a concealed handgun. As Culbreth noted, there was nothing special about her clothing: slacks, blouse, overshirt. By the end of the interview, she’d removed nine concealed semi-automatics or revolvers, including one tucked under her bra in a holster that also was displayed on a counter-top mannequin bust.
• WCPO-TV plans an online local news challenge to the Enquirer’s Cincinnati.com, according to Business Courier’s Jon Newberry. It’s a pioneering effort by Cincinnati-based E. W. Scripps that could go national, Newberry suggested. Whether additional reporters, producers, editors, etc., will come from the Business Courier and other established news media was not clear. Scripps — a Cincinnati-based national print and broadcast company— published the Cincinnati Post until it closed the barely-sustaining joint operating agreement with the Enquirer ended in 2007.
• Blogger Peter Heimlich tipped me to Channel 19 anchor Ben Swann’s web gig called Full Disclosure. Swann says there are enough witnesses to challenge official police narratives of single shooters at three recent massacres: the Oak Creek, Wis., Sikh temple; Aurora, Colo., Batman movie premiere, and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Salon.com challenged Swann about his apparent validation of those counter-narratives and he replied in part, “The bottom line for me is the issue of asking questions. As you will notice, I don’t call these operations ‘false flag’ as many people do … (his ellipses) But as a journalist, that is not my job. Rather, my job is to be a critical thinker.” And he added, “most of our media fail to question stories . . . a journalist’s job is not to have the answers, it is to ask the questions and search for truth.”
• There’s a pathetic undercurrent in the Enquirer’s Monday Page 1 profile of Henry Heimlich’s efforts to regain American Red Cross support for his eponymous “maneuver.” The physician claims there is no research to support the Red Cross’s decision to return to back slaps rather than Heimlich abdominal thrusts as first response to choking. Other than Heimlich’s self-serving claims, there is no research proving his maneuver works as well or better than back slaps. Assertions are not evidence. Moreover, the Red Cross adopted Heimlich’s maneuver years ago without the research Heimlich is calling for now. Heimlich has anecdotal evidence of lives saved but that’s not research. Wisely, reporter Cliff Radel quoted skeptics and critics of the maneuver. That kind of even-handedness usually escapes admiring Enquirer stories about Heimlich. And if the paper ever corrected a Memorial Day feature on water safety, I missed it. The Enquirer drew national ridicule with its illustration on how to use Heimlich’s maneuver to revive a standing near-drowning victim.
• It’s spitting into the wind to ask sports reporters to question what jocks tell them, especially when truth-telling endangers future access. In the Good Old Days, who read about fornicating, drunken and racist professional athletes? More recently, golf reporters and publications didn’t write about married Tiger Woods’ screwing around. This time, it’s Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s stories about the heart-ripping death of girlfriend Lennay Kekua from leukemia. Editors loved it. Now, it seems she was a fiction amplified by incurious and credulous reporters. It took sports blog Deadspin.com to reveal the fraud after its reporters could find no public records of her birth, life, education or death. Almost as nauseating as the saccharine original stories about her death are the faux introspection by sycophant reporters caught by the fraud.
• We’ve gone a week without a promo for Oprah’s interview with champion liar-cheater Lance Armstrong. That’s closure. So what does Armstrong do now? Pitch performance enhancing drugs and blood transfusions on ESPN and late TV?
• Al Gore sold his troubled Current cable network to Al Jazeera, the satellite network based in Qatar in the Persian Gulf. Good. Nothing bars foreigners from owning a cable network here, unlike the law that forced Australian Rupert Murdoch to obtain U.S. citizenship after he bought Fox.
Backed by the ruling Qatari emir, Al Jazeera scandalized Americans for broadcasting tirades by Osama bin Laden and other anti-western Arab leaders. We should have welcomed what they said in Arabic for home audiences. Too often, we rely on sanitized remarks for non-Arabic-speaking audiences or Washington assurances it was trying to verify that speakers were who they said they were. Al Jazeera also infuriated Arab audiences by carrying interviews with American and Israeli officials that others in the Middle East ignored or rejected.
Most American cable companies won’t carry the newer Al Jazeera English but its website is one of my daily stops, especially when, say, AQIM kidnaps oil workers in Algeria or French Legionnaires assist Mali’s pathetic army in trying to halt and turn back Islamist rebels.
Al Jazeera coverage of “Arab Spring” was so aggressive that embattled North African rulers correctly accused it of supporting anti-government demonstrators. So is Al Jazeera open to interference by the Qatari government? Yes. Are its biases plain to anyone who listens or reads? Yes. We don’t ignore Fox News for its biases.
• American news media employ local nationals in foreign bureaus for their contacts and language skills. That reliance failed when no one reported the 2010 anti-semitic rant by Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who now is Egypt’s president. In part, Morsi called Jews “apes and dogs” and shared the fantasy that the Palestinian Authority was “created by the Zionist and American enemies for the sole purpose of opposing the will of the Palestinian people and its interests.”
Still nastier, he urged listeners “to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews . . . bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.”
A stump speech in his Nile Delta hometown, it took more than two years to reach English-language news media. The original Arabic video is on YouTube now. I encountered a translation of Morsi this month on a Forbes website that, in part, chided the New York Times for missing or killing the story. Days later, it was on Page 1 of the Times. After that, the Obama administration an official “tut-tut.”
• Maybe they’ll blame one of those ominous Canadian Cold Air Masses (meteorological, not theological) for the brain freeze that disabled news judgment at the Toronto Star. Flippant columns about rape aren’t funny. Jimromenesko.com posted these first two paragraphs of Rosie DiManno’s column about testimony during the sexual abuse trial of a local physician:
“She lost a womb but gained a penis.
“The former was being removed surgically — full hysterectomy — while the latter was forcibly shoved into her slack mouth..."
• Headlines are an art that always risks a step too far in an attempt to cure the copy editor boredom and draw readers to a story. This one, from philly.com, achieves both in what has become a national story about a popular and well-connected parish pastor: “Catholic priest/meth dealer liked sex in the rectory.” You know you’d read more.
• Finally, this from Shannyn Moore, who blogs on HuffPost as “Just a Girl from Homer, Alaska.” It appeared first in the Anchorage Daily News and makes her points without venturing beyond the pale into bad taste: “I'm not advocating for no guns. I like mine and am not about to give them up. But in this country, my uterus is more regulated than my guns. Birth control and reproductive health services are harder to get than bullets. What is that about? Guns don't kill people — vaginas do?”