Monthly Archives: March 2010

Evidence withheld

Meredith Emerson

Nobody wants Hustler magazine to acquire and publish post-mortem photos of Meredith Emerson, the hiker abducted and murdered in Dawson County in 2008.  In response, it’s easy to support legislation by Rep. Jill Chambers to tighten Georgia’s Open Records Act, restricting public access to crime scene photos from closed criminal investigations.  The suggestion that Hustler would publish a photo of Emerson’s nude, dismembered body is outrageous.

Hustler has a weird history of pushing First Amendment limits like this.  As a result, the blowback of Chambers’ measure may make it more difficult for legitimate independent reporters and investigators to do their jobs.

Dorothy "Dolly" Hearn

Here’s an example:  In 1990, an Augusta woman named Dorothy “Dolly” Hearn died from a gunshot wound.  The coroner in Richmond County ruled the death a suicide.  But photos from the  crime scene, showing the positioning of Hearn’s body, raised questions about whether the wound was really self-inflicted.

Unfortunately, no reporters asked about the Hearn case until the 2004 death of Jennifer Corbin in Gwinnett County.  Like Hearn, Corbin died of a gunshot wound.   Both women were found with pistols next to them, positioned as if they’d taken their own lives.

Jennifer Corbin’s husband, dentist Barton Corbin, had dated Dolly Hearn.  In 2006, Corbin pleaded guilty to both murders.

After the case was closed, the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s office allowed reporters to view the case files.  I was among them.  Among other documents, the files contained crime scene photos of Hearn and Mrs. Corbin.  Although I produced a story based on my review of those files, I never considered duplicating the photos.  Even local TV news has standards of taste.

Jennifer and Barton Corbin

It’s regrettable that no reporter raised questions about the Hearn case following her death.  Had that been the case, the homicidal dentist might have never had the opportunity to kill again.  In order to pose knowledgeable questions about Hearn’s case, a reporter would have needed access to the crime scene photographs.

Under Chambers’ legislation, that review would likely be more difficult.  At this writing, it’s unclear whether Chambers’ bill would outlaw the reproduction or the mere review of crime scene photos.  But either one is problematic.

Images of President Kennedy’s autopsy photos have circulated for years, fueling legitimate inquiry into the circumstances of his assassination.  Yes, it’s also included some crackpots.  But crackpots come with the defense of the First Amendment.  Ask anybody who has held their breath and defended the Ku Klux Klan’s right to assemble and speak.

Hustler is easily characterized as a crackpot media entity.  It also has a circulation of close to a half million.

Chambers told me that legitimate reporters could go to court to access crime scene photos under her legislation.  That, too, is problematic.  The Hearn case shows that mainstream media had no interest in it once  it was ruled a suicide.  But it’s the kind of case that, if it surfaced today, could interest bloggers and other new media.  Those folks might develop the kind of single-minded interest needed for a case like Hearn’s.  Yet they’d lack the resources to go to court for access.

Likewise, you’d have to convince a judge to agree to release the photos.  But if you don’t know what the photos actually show, you might have trouble describing why you’d need to see them.

None of this was a problem until Hustler surfaced with its demand to see crime scene photos of the Emerson case.  Hustler deserves some credit for occasionally pushing the First Amendment envelope over the years.  But in this case, the push-back will harm the cause of open government.

LAF by the numbers

Top search: Suchita Vadlamani, WAGA

Recently this silly blog managed to grab the attention of its 400,000th set of eyeballs.  At around the same time, it recorded its 3000th comment.  That doesn’t necessarily speak to its popularity as much as it speaks to my inexplicable persistence in crunching out new material every week.

One reason for the persistence:  My stats show that most weekdays, there are between 500 and 700 clicks on this blog.   As two-bit non-commercial blogs go, it’s decent but modest data.  Every time I start to think that’s an impressive figure, there are moments like the one Friday, wherein I asked readers to start an Open Thread.  We heard crickets, yet the blog still had 567 views Friday.

Runner up: Dagmar Midcap, WGCL

I started writing LAF on February 12, 2008, a throwaway post fueled by a high octane beer.  I wrote nine posts that month.  I somehow got a total of 225 clicks the entire month.

The month to month stats show that LAF peaked last summer, at about the time I announced I was going to work at WXIA.  The blog, which started as a media critique, became tamer and more introspective.  Views dropped, but less than I expected.  To see the graphics more clearly, click on ’em.

I know this because WordPress provides a “dashboard” which allows me to manage the blog’s look, and to get a sense of its place on the internet.   For example, if NewsBlues links to one of my posts, I can see the incoming link.  It’ll tell me how many people clicked it to get to LAF.  My views always spike when NewsBlues lifts my material (except that one time, when they swiped my copy and info, but kinda forgot to link to me.  And no, I didn’t gripe to them about it.  It seemed an honest oversight.  They’ve consistently given LAF credit when due.  Plus, they’ve given me a free subscription.)

So here’s the weird and somewhat creepy part:

LAF Top Searches, Fig. 1

My dashboard also tells me what search engine terms people use to find LAF.  Because I’m mentioning WGCL’s Dagmar Midcap and WAGA’s Suchita Vadlamani in this post, my views will spike.  Apparently, there are untold numbers of lonely, hairy, Cheetoh-chomping dudes living in their parents’ basements who objectify these two News Professionals and have asked Google to notify them whenever their names appear on the internet.

Hey fellas!  How’s it going out there?

Here are snapshots I’ve made of my all-time search engine terms.  Although Midcap may have the Atlanta market’s most notoriety, objectification-wise,  Vadlamani significantly outdoes Midcap, statistically speaking, in a straight-up name-to-name comparison.  (However, many searchers add words like “legs” and “husband” and “journalism awards” [Kidding.  Sorry.] to the names, and those are counted separately.)

Top LAF Searches, Fig. 2

It’s worth noting that the only menfolk who crack the top tier are Jeff Hullinger, Jim Axel, Steve Schwaid, myself (with “blog” included) and Gregg Leakes.  Leakes is the husband of NeNe Leakes of “Real Housewives of Atlanta” fame.  I mentioned him exactly once on this blog.  Likewise, prior to now, I’ve mentioned Vadlamani exactly once.

It’s also worth noting what I would consider to be the dark horse third-place finisher after Vadlamani and Midcap:  Joanne Feldman, the weekend meteorologist on WAGA.

(This data is limited, however to folks I’ve actually mentioned in an LAF post.  There’s been no mention of, say, meteorologists Jennifer Valdez of WGCL or Karen Minton at WSB or Ashley McDonald at WXIA.   Until now.)

In the second tier (see right), I couldn’t be more delighted to see WXIA weekend anchor Valerie Hoff, myself, and Tom Waits listed consecutively.  And Franz Kafka makes the list.

Here are two last oddities from the dashboard:

LAF’s most views in one day — more than 1500 —  was the result of this post.  I learned that if you write something controversial about college football, the eyeballs come out of the woodwork.

This is my most-read post ever.  Some wildly popular blog in Dallas TX linked to it.  Dallas was / is the hometown of former DeKalb police chief Terrell Bolton.   Apparently, he’s still a controversial character there.

But this post is rapidly gaining, apparently thanks to internet creepos with Cheetoh-stained computer keyboards.

Thanks for visiting, guys.  Not to be rude, but you might consider getting a life.


Dissent

Capt. Lon D. Richards, USAF

While covering the POTUS visit in Savannah this week for WXIA, I flashed back to my life as a ten year old.  The memories are strong, not only because of the assassinations of King and Kennedy.  It was also the year my uncle, Air Force Captain Lon Richards, was killed in Vietnam.  My parents became Quakers and very politically active.  Hubert Humphrey lacked sufficient anti-war cred (as did Nixon); Mom and Dad wrote in Dick Gregory’s name that November.

My parents despised George Wallace, who ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1968.  Wallace had softened but not disavowed his segregationist politics.  Mom and Dad thought everything about the former Alabama governor was obnoxious.

That fall, Wallace showed up for a rally in Trenton, NJ.  It was just across the Delaware River from my bucolic suburb in Bucks County, PA.  Mom wanted to picket Wallace.  She took me out of fifth grade for a day, and we went.

From left: Nancy, Dick, Judy, Doug and Christina Richards, Yardley PA 1968

The night before, Mom and I made signs.  I’ll never forget the text:  “Hate and fear / the tools of a fascist” and “Go back to ‘Bama, Wallace.”  She carried one sign, and I carried the other.

We never got close to Wallace.  I thought it was because we arrived late.  Mom thought it was because the Alabama State Troopers protecting Wallace kept dissenters away.

Last week, when Obama visited Savannah Technical College, I wanted to know:  How much political screening was done for the crowd that watched the speech?

The Bush era had reportedly been rife with such screening, with members of audiences hand-picked by the RNC.

While chatting with the invitation-only crowd waiting in line to enter the Savannah Tech auditorium, my persistent question was:  How’d you get the invite?

Most of them said they’d gotten it through the college.  One said she had received it though a friend who was a Secret Service agent.  A couple had gotten them through the White House.  Though the crowed seemed Obama-friendly, it lacked the hard partisan flavor I’d expected.

One girl said she was ten.  Her mom, a Savannah Technical College board member, had taken her out of fifth grade for the day.

It sounded familiar.

Btw, this was a great Wallace bio: The Politics of Rage by Emory professor Dan Carter.

Transparency

“The truth hurts” is one of my least favorite cliches.  In the long run, the truth almost always helps.  The pursuit of the truth, coupled with the pursuit of interesting stories (and an audience for them), drives news folks.  In a perfect world, those goals would always mesh perfectly all the time.

Behind the wheel: Ofcr. Kabe Jenkins, DeKalb PD

Today, I’m here to praise a DeKalb County Public Information Officer for resisting the temptation to try to shape the truth.

Last week, I produced a story highlighting a practice of police officers in urban areas across America.

I’ve seen police officers use on-board dash-mounted laptop computers for most of my career.  The computers provide vital communications without tying up police radio frequencies.  It’s fair to say that patrol officers in busy urban areas use them almost constantly.

The zeitgeist tells us that texting-and-driving is the latest deadly killer stalking the innocent.  Oprah has apparently denounced it.  A bill in the Georgia General Assembly would outlaw it.  11 Alive News has an online page devoted to its elimination.  If you’re like me, you casually check out other motorists to try to catch them in the act, and frequently succeed.

But police officers are the original distracted drivers.  They don’t just watch traffic.  They watch the community.  They use two-way radios.  They use on-board computers.  They drive with more distractions than even TV photographers.

Earlier this month, I interviewed DeKalb police chief William O’Brien about a couple of issues related to police driving.  They included the on-board computer in patrol cars.

O’Brien was refreshingly candid.  He called them a “necessary evil.”  He said police depend on them, and that by extension, so does the public which demands effective police services.  He admitted that distracted patrol officers using them have occasionally collided with other vehicles.  He neither sugarcoated, nor did he spin.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Three days later, DeKalb PD allowed us to videotape a patrol officer on the road.  Though the police department’s public affairs office knew why we’d requested the ride-along, it apparently made no effort to try to shape the footage by warning the officer to avoid using his on-board computer.

The officer, Kabe Jenkins, appeared to be a sharp, conscientious rookie cop.  If my wife or daughter calls 911, he’s the kind of guy I’d want showing up in my driveway.

Jenkins borrowed a Sergeant’s patrol car — which lacked a backseat cage, allowing photog Richard Crabbe to more easily maneuver his camera.  Crabbe rode with Jenkins, and I followed in a WXIA vehicle.  Crabbe’s ride probably lasted less than twenty minutes.

Almost immediately, a call came for Jenkins to help control traffic around a gas leak in Avondale Estates.  Jenkins began using the onboard computer to get clarification.  Mostly, he used the computer while slowing or stopping at traffic lights.  But he wasn’t shy about using it on the move.

As Lt. Scott Kreher, president of Atlanta’s IBPO pointed out, the onboard computers are mounted just below the windshield.  He opined this is far different from a teenage girl texting “CU soon” on her cellphone while behind the wheel.

Nonetheless, the video was eye-opening.  The raw footage showed Jenkins driving almost constantly with one hand on the keyboard, using the computer much of the time.

Initially, it alarmed some DeKalb police officers, as reflected by some comments in the DeKalb Officers Speak blog.  They were apparently miffed that Public Affairs didn’t try to shape this story better.  Some cops in the Central Precinct apparently thought I’d hoodwinked the department into allowing the ride-along by telling Public Affairs my story was about something else.

But public affairs officers Mekka Parish and Jason Gagnon both watched my interview with Chief O’Brien.  They knew we’d talked about the distracting qualities of onboard computers.

Prior to the ride-along, Parish could have told Jenkins:  “They’re reporting on distracted driving.  Minimize your use of the onboard computer.”  Instead, I heard her tell Jenkins:  “Do what you’d normally do.”  It was a refreshing act of transparency that was consistent with O’Brien’s candor, and Parish deserves praise for it.

Because in the long run, the truth doesn’t hurt.