David Simon on Police Reporting

Back when you had towork a beat:

In response to such flummery, I had in my wallet, next to my Baltimore
Sun press pass, a business card for Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney of
the Maryland District Court, with his home phone number on the back.
When confronted with a desk sergeant or police spokesman convinced that
the public had no right to know who had shot whom in the 1400 block of
North Bentalou Street, I would dial the judge.

And then I would stand, secretly delighted, as yet another police
officer learned not only the fundamentals of Maryland’s public
information law, but the fact that as custodian of public records, he
needed to kick out the face sheet of any incident report and open his
arrest log to immediate inspection. There are civil penalties for
refusing to do so, the judge would assure him. And as chief judge of
the District Court, he would declare, I may well invoke said penalties
if you go further down this path.

Delays of even 24 hours? Nope, not acceptable.
Requiring written notification from the newspaper? No, the judge would
explain. Even ordinary citizens have a right to those reports. And woe
to any fool who tried to suggest to His Honor that he would need a
30-day state Public Information Act request for something as basic as a
face sheet or an arrest log.

“What do you need the thirty days for?” the judge once asked a police spokesman on speakerphone.

“We may need to redact sensitive information,” the spokesman offered.

“You can’t redact anything. Do you hear me? Everything in an initial
incident report is public. If the report has been filed by the officer,
then give it to the reporter tonight or face contempt charges

The late Judge Sweeney, who’d been named to his post in the early
1970s, when newspapers were challenging the Nixonian model of imperial
governance, kept this up until 1996, when he retired. I have few heroes
left, but he still qualifies.

Much of newspaper reporting is very boring, very routine, very unglamorous work. You’re not breaking into people’s offices in the middle of the night to steal things, romance your sources to get information out of them, or picking up documents from behind a plant on someone’s porch at 3 a.m. (until you do, and thank you, and you know who you are). Most of the time you’re calling 47 people, each of whom have no comment, or spending five hours in your car outside somebody’s house waiting for him to come out. You know, the kind of thing reporter movies deal with in a montage.

But it’s necessary work, because if you weren’t there for all the drudgery you wouldn’t get the good stuff. A lot of it is endurance training, taking punishment so that the next time you’re tempted to go home early you don’t do it. The way we do things now, parachuting reporters in to cover the big stories in towns they’ve never even heard of before, doesn’t work all that well. It’s why the local weekly with two people on staff can kick the Trib’s ass: because they’re THERE, and they know who to call.

This got my back up a little:

There is a lot of talk nowadays about what will replace the dinosaur
that is the daily newspaper. So-called citizen journalists and bloggers
and media pundits have lined up to tell us that newspapers are dying
but that the news business will endure, that this moment is less tragic
than it is transformational.

Well, sorry, but I didn’t trip over any blogger trying to find out
McKissick’s identity and performance history. Nor were any citizen
journalists at the City Council hearing in January when police
officials inflated the nature and severity of the threats against
officers. And there wasn’t anyone working sources in the police
department to counterbalance all of the spin or omission.

Until he followed it up with this:

I didn’t trip over a herd of hungry Sun reporters either, but that’s
the point. In an American city, a police officer with the authority to
take human life can now do so in the shadows, while his higher-ups can
claim that this is necessary not to avoid public accountability, but to
mitigate against a nonexistent wave of threats. And the last remaining
daily newspaper in town no longer has the manpower, the expertise or
the institutional memory to challenge any of it.

Because yes, there might not be the newsroom equivalent out in pixel-land, but let’s give the bloggers a break. They just got here. Sometimes I think because this blog’s been around for five and a half years now (Jesus) and I’ve seen just how much better everybody is at everything already (Josh Marshall’s Polk Award, for example, was given to bloggers and citizen journalists plowing through documents those hungry reporters of Simon’s couldn’t be bothered to examine) that we should be farther along still.

I’m not patient, it’s one of the things daily newspapers hammered out of me. If you wrote a good story last week, what the fuck is wrong with you, why aren’t you writing a better one today? The Internet’s even worse; last week’s good post might as well have been done in the Reagan administration. We should be better at this already, we should be good at it, we should have already replaced the newspapers that have been around for 100 years just because we’ve been nattering on here for two.

As Simon points out, though, that’s not the reasonable expectation. The reasonable expectation is not that a brand-new medium will entirely supplant an older one in less than a quarter-century. I mean, we still listen to the radio for God’s sake. The reasonable expectation is that the people that have tasked themselves with doing the job of reporting (and who wank on unbearably about how it’s their job and theirs alone and you couldn’t possibly understand, it’s very special, it’s different with them) would either stop falling down on that job, or cede the moral high ground while they try to improve.

Hat tip to HBK at Eschaton.


4 thoughts on “David Simon on Police Reporting

  1. Blogs might be killing journalism, but future historians are going to remark that the years around the turn of the 21st Century represented a flowering of the essayist’s art not seen since the Enlightenment. There are more brilliant essayists working now, thanks to the democratisation of a publishing form conducive to essay-writing, than there have been since we reckoned years starting with 1 and 7.
    So there is that, at least…

  2. If I’m not mistaken, the early journalistic efforts in the American colonies consisted in great part of eyewitnesses accounts of notable events in local communities, collected and published by printers. So, “reporters” were more or less regular folks commenting on the world around them. Other than the method of aggregation and distribution, not so different than blogging.

  3. for every one guy working a beat, trying to acquire facts there are six dozen of you knuckledheads blogging about what it will or won’t mean when the actual reporters are gone.
    God help us

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