Mar 2, 2009

Losing the beat

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Weintraub is moderating a forum on his paper's website that asks readers to respond to this question: "What is the public's stake in the future of newspapers?"

I'd like to submit David Simon's March 1 article in the Washington Post as my answer. It's a cops story written by someone who knows the beat. Before Simon created "The Wire" and other celebrated TV shows, he covered the Baltimore police for the Baltimore Sun. He knows the daily rituals of gathering information and the stonewalling and obfuscation thrown up by people in power who want to avert critical eyes.

Simon is also keenly aware of the need for the press to stand as institutions against those institutions in society that have the power to shape our lives - and even take them.

The article is about a shooting. A police officer named Traci McKissick struggles with a 61-year-old man for control of her gun. McKissick and another officer shoot the man and he dies. The story, of course, is in the details - details officials want to hide from public view, details fewer and fewer journalists are around to uncover:

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.

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.

At one point last week, after the department spokesman denied me the face sheet of the shooting report, I tried doing what I used to do: I went to the Southeastern District and demanded the copy on file there.

When the desk officer refused to give it to me, I tried calling the chief judge of the District Court. But Sweeney's replacement no longer handles such business. It's been a while since any reporter asked, apparently. So I tried to explain the Maryland statutes to the shift commander, but so long had it been since a reporter had demanded a public document that he stared at me as if I were an emissary from some lost and utterly alien world.

Which is, sadly enough, exactly true.

(h/t Romenesko)

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