Saturday, March 10, 2012

Berkely Police's Bad Rap

Anyone in the news needs a thick skin. You need an emotional bullet-proof vest to allow minor inaccuracies, mistaken comments and criticisms to bounce off you.

But if media mistakes about you are more than minor -- you have a right and sometimes an obligation to push back.  No sensible person, however, would do what Berkeley California Police Chief Michael Meehan just did.

According to the Oakland Tribune, Meehan didn't like the wording of a story he read late at night on the paper's website.  So he sent a police sergeant to knock on the reporter's door at 12:45 AM to demand the article be changed.

The dust-up happened after Meehan spoke to an angry community meeting trying to explain why the police were slow to respond to calls from a man who eventually was beaten to death by a deranged individual in February.

The original article apparently said that Meehan had apologized for the slow police response.  The police chief sent the sergeant to rap on the reporter's door, however, to insist that he had only apologized for being slow at explaining why the initial response had appeared to be slow.  Ah well, then.  Great reason to scare the crap out of the reporter and his family.

The journalist in question, Doug Oakley, was understandably upset at the late night visit, initially thinking that perhaps a relative had died.

What Meehan's order was not censorship but was intimidation of the worse kind. This is what happens to reporters in Iran, Syria or China.  Reporters are roughed up, shot at and sometimes killed and wounded covering stories.  But rarely are they and their families terrorized in a democracy. 

There is nothing wrong with officials trying to correct what they believe to be an inaccurate story.  Often, someone like Meehan will call the reporter’s boss and point out the inaccuracies, slanders and outright falsehoods in a story.  That’s fair game.  Journalists today can lose their jobs when they screw up a story in a major way.  That’s the way it should be.  Oakley's error, however, seemed more of a misdemeanor than a capital crime.

We recommend – when you think a reporter has egregiously wronged you, go to his boss or his boss’s boss.  You’d be surprised how often that gets results. But pick up the phone or send an email -- not a sergeant. 

Meehan later apologized explaining that he ordered the midnight door pounding at a reporter’s home because he was “tired” and “overzealous” about making sure accurate information got out.

We highly recommend that Meehan go through media training.  It might save him in his next job.   If this is the way he acts when tired he is not likely to be in his current position much longer.

h/t Poynter

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