Local police are hailing their handling of a white supremacy rally last Saturday, and handing part of the credit to the local media for that success.
Sgt. Joe Taylor, public information officer for the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, said following the rally, “A lot of that has to do with the media’s agreement to blackout stuff before the event,” he said. “Wait, don’t use blackout. Their cooperation.”
He said the lack of pre-event coverage assisted in preventing a large counter demonstration which in other locations such as Lansing and Toledo, have lead to wide scale civil disturbances.
Local news leaders all deny there was an agreement to blackout information before the event.
“I made no such agreement with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. That decision was an in-house decision. I did have conversations with them,” said Steve Kelso, assignment editor at NBC affiliate WOOD TV 8.
Cathy Younkin, news director of CBS affiliate WWMT Channel 3, said, “WWMT did not agree to a black-out, rather we chose to cover the rally as a day-of event. We had a reporter and crew on the scene and provided, what we think was, responsible coverage.”
The Kalamazoo Gazette, which has been criticized by the KDPS for reporting some information before the rally, said they did not agree to a blackout either.
“We met with them and they asked us to limit our coverage, but there was no agreement. We never would do that,” said Jim Borden, managing editor of the Gazette.
Experts said the agreement by local media to “blackout” pre-event coverage violated the most basic tenant of journalism – to report the truth.
“As a journalist your first job is to tell the truth and to inform the public,” said Kelly McBride, Ethics Group Leader for the Poynter Institute in Florida. The Poynter Institute is a leading ethics organization for working journalists. “You have to be thoughtful in your coverage. I can see making an argument in being careful in the language you use so not to inflame the situation. I can’t justify withholding information on journalistic grounds. If I were a cop I could, but I am not. I’m a journalist.”
History of violence not covered
Media outlets, including the Gazette, did not report the backgrounds of the people coming into the community. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the leading organization in the nation tracking hate groups, had told BTL that the people scheduled to speak were the “worst of the worst” in the movement.
Hal Turner has a long history of posting death threats against judges and politicians, including their home addresses and phone numbers on his web site. Alex Linder was arrested as recently as this past spring for assaulting a police officer in Knoxville, and the SPLC has linked James Wickstrom to hate crimes throughout Michigan.
“Anytime we act contrary to that (telling the truth) as a journalist, we have to be looking for alternatives. One of the answers might be for the organizations to share with their audiences why they with held information and who these people were,” McBride said.
KDPS Deputy Chief Mike McCaw said such questions about the lack of coverage don’t really matter. “The proof’s in the pudding. Nothing happened in the city. Our local events went very well. We had some very minor skirmishes,” he said. “I am not concerned about how we handled it.”
The Gazette’s Borden said reporting the information on the violent past of the leaders was questionable.
“I don’t know. What value does that serve to the community now?” he asked, genuinely considering the issue.
Borden said the paper did its work, investigating the groups and people and followed their media coverage plan. He acknowledged the balance of covering such events is difficult.
“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” he said.
Terry Kuseske, a board member of Michigan Equality and involved with other LBGT groups in Kalamazoo, was troubled when he learned about the violent backgrounds of the leaders who attended the rally.
“Hindsight is always easier when looking at things. I certainly feel that the level of what you are presenting to me of their violent past is a great concern,” he said. “I think there would have been a different dialogue amongst organizations. I think it tainted the dialogue that occurred. That ultimately lead to the end result of ignoring it. The end result may have been different if all the information would have been given out. What the end result would have been I don’t know.”
“The heart and the soul of the direction of the media coverage and the police, the intentions were good. But sometimes ‘the roads to hell are paved with good intentions’, as the saying goes,” Kuseske said.