Thursday, July 28, 2005
How far is too far . . .
in media coverage of politicians accused of corruption?
I don't pretend to know the answer. I believe that corruption in government is a problem, more so in some areas than others, and that politicians who abuse the public trust should be punished. (That, by the way, is why I am strongly in favor of term limits -- limiting the amount of time a politician will be in power is a good way to limit the opportunities for corruption.).
But when the media sensationalizes events, emulating the worst tendencies of the tabloid press, seeking to destroy individual's lives as opposed to simply reporting on corruption -- well, that often goes too far. If an individual politician is corrupt, report the corruption and let the appropriate authorities investigate, indict, prosecute and convict him. Do media coverage should be as apolitical as possible. Focus on relevant information, and move on. Media attempts to personally attack, embarrass or scandalize the individual politician or, worse still, his or her family, is not only unnecessary -- it is unworthy of the aspirations and ideals that the media claims to cherish. Such reporting seeks to humiliate and destroy an individual rather than seeking to protect the public trust.
Apparently, the kind of muckraking that often passes for modern journalism became too much for Arthur Teele, Jr., a former Miami [FL] Commissioner, yesterday afternoon.. In a phone call yesterday afternoon, Teele asked a Miami Herald columnist, "Who did I piss off in this town?" His voice, according to the columnist, was thick with emotion. He was, in a word, distraught.
Later that afternoon, Teele decided to take stronger actions than simply crying out to a long-time critic in the local press.
According to local sources, Teele
walked into the lobby of The Herald building Wednesday evening and shot himself in the head. He died less than two hours later at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Teele, a Republican, had recently been convicted of threatening a police officer and had been sentenced to two years probation. He was set for trial this fall on a variety of corruption charges. According to the Miami Herald:
During a 15-year political career, Teele became one of Miami-Dade's most influential politicians, serving on both the Miami City Commission and the County Commission. But his life ended in a cascade of arrests and humiliating disclosures that reached a crescendo in recent weeks.
Two weeks ago, Teele was indicted on 26 federal charges of fraud and money laundering -- his third arrest in a year. On Tuesday, a probation officer filed papers seeking to revoke his probation from an earlier conviction and send Teele to jail.
. . .
In addition, Teele was buckling under chronic debts and legal bills; a neighbor said Teele recently asked him for a $200,000 loan. And Teele knew that state prosecutors were planning to file additional corruption charges against him, perhaps in the next few weeks.
Now, let's get something straight: Teele sounds like a very crooked politician, and like a poster child for why we need corruption investigations. But there are a few more facts out there that need to be emphasized.
First, his conviction this past Spring. Teele was convicted of threatening a police officer who was conducting an undercover investigation related to the current spate of corruption charges. Apparently, Teele believed the officer was stalking Teele's wife, and threatened him if he continued. In the words of long-time Teele critic and recently terminated Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede, those charges should never have been brought against Teele.
I can understand -- and would probably have threatened someone I believed was stalking my wife, too.
A piece that came out yesterday in the Miami New Times, an "alternative newspaper", ratcheted the personal attacks to a new level. In addition to recounting past and present corruption charges against Teele, the New Times article contained witness statements (from questionable sources, including prostitutes and an individual serving a lengthy sentence for drug charges) indicating Teele's marriage was a sham, accusing him of rampant, ongoing drug abuse, and years of gay affairs with pre-operative transsexuals. [Note: these links will likely die within a week when the new issue comes out. You'll have to go to the Miami New Times Archives.]
Frankly, given that this story came out yesterday, I believe the media overlooked (or ignored) whom Teele was really visiting yesterday afternoon. I don't believe Arthur Teele went to the offices of the Miami Herald so much as he went to the offices of Alvarado's "newspaper", the Miami New Times. Both companies are housed in the same building.
Alvarado's "story" cuts and pastes old corruption charges and pending corruption charges, then blends in salacious and personally humiliating accusations based solely on the "testimony" (not under oath, mind you) sources whose credibility wouldn't stand up for ten seconds in any court in the country.
That's the kind of "corruption investigation" that we can do without. It is uncouth, unnecessary, and brings little to our political institutions. Frankly, it degrades them nearly as much as actual corruption.
The author of this hit piece, Francisco Alvarado, discounts any chance his sleazy hit piece may have increased the pressure on Teele to the breaking point:
"It's just a surreal coincidence that he did this on the day my article came out," said Alvarado. "I really feel bad; I would never want anyone to harm themselves over something I wrote, but at the end of the day, I was just doing my job."
. . .
[Alvarado] said he was sorry that Teele was dead but recalled him as egotistical and abrasive.
"Obviously the pressure got to him," [Alvarado] said. "I mean you are presumed innocent until found guilty but there were a number of charges he was facing at the federal and state level, lack of money to defend himself, an extended jail sentence, loss of power and authority and prestige. Obviously, at the end, he couldn't handle it.
"But we're all adults and all actions have consequences," [Alvarado] said.
Just doing your job? I'll buy that -- but only if you stipulate that your "job" is much more akin to that of a common pornographer than to a real journalist.
As to the claim "we're all adults and all actions have consequences" -- well, let's just say I find that somewhat hypocritical of you, Mr. Alvarado.
I find your focus on sex and drugs more reflective of an adolescent mindset than an adult one, Mr. Alvarado. You sought to destroy Mr. Teele personally, relying upon sources that are questionable at best to support the sex and drug claims you knew would garner attention for yourself and your "newspaper." As to consequences -- Mr. Teele faced corruption charges. Those are the consequences of his actions. If he would have been found guilty, he would have certainly gone to prison -- that would have been a consequence. He did decide to shoot himself and, as a consequence, died.
Where are your consequences, Mr. Alvarado? Your story almost certainly was a motivating factor that pushed Teele over the edge (no, I don't buy the whole 'it was just a surreal coincidence' garbage you spouted for the Miami Herald. Is your consequence that you "really feel bad"? Is that it?
Let's presume that Teele had not committed suicide. Let's presume that he had gone to trial and was convicted on all corruption charges. Let's also presume that he was tried for the sex and drug claims you mentioned in your "story."
If the only basis for such accusations was the testimony of the witnesses mentioned in your "story", I seriously doubt he would have been convicted. Presuming he was found not guilty, what consequence do you think you should face for your muckraking? Where should Teele have gone to clear his name of the drug and sex claims you made? Would you have felt remorse if Teele had been sexually or physically abused while serving time on his corruption charges? What if the abuse occurred in part because another inmate had read and believed your "story"?
Again, if Teele was corrupt (and it certainly looks like he was), then charging, prosecuting and convicting him (and covering the story in the press) is not only important, it is necessary and vital to our political system. Journalists have an important responsibility to keep the public informed.
Dragging his personal dalliances through the mud, particularly on such thin "evidence" as the unsworn statements of convicted prostitutes and other criminals, is a grotesque abuse of those responsibilities.
Arthur Teele asked who he had pissed off in Miami. He had not been convicted of corruption charges, denied any guilt, and was set for trial this fall. He faced daily media attacks that, in an effort to maintain public interest on an issue that had been beaten to death in the papers for the previous year, became more and more sensational in it's coverage to the point that no accusation appeared too scandalous or irrelevant to publish. It is this, the "trial by media", which I criticize here. Yes, Teele probably was corrupt, based on media reports.
Many people thought the same thing, however, of Raymond Donovan, President Reagan's Secretary of Labor. Donovan was also accused of corruption and endured a lengthy media trial in which the tone of coverage inferred Donovan was absolutely guilty of corruption.
Donovan was indicted in 1981. In 1985, Donovan resigned his position in Reagan's cabinet after failing to get the indictment dismissed. Two years later, following a nine month trial which featured more than 40 prosecution witnesses and thousands of documents, a jury acquitted Mr. Donovan on it's first vote (following a mere nine hours of deliberations).
Of course, media coverage of Donovan's acquittal was nowhere near the pretrial levels. Afterwards, Donovan posed a simple question to the prosecutor and the media:
"Where do I go to get my reputation back?"