Home > Uncategorized > Hitting Back

Hitting Back

-first posted at RTDNA.org on July 14, 2009

Those who know me also know I have an answer to just about anything you ask me.  I’ve often joked that I’ll never say “I don’t know” to something, I’d rather give a theory—or even a guess—than leave you empty-handed after your interrogative.  But I ran across one this week over which I think I may have to wave the white flag.

Most of you probably saw the video three months ago.  A reporter and photographer covering a ho-hum highway accident in El Paso get a little bit manhandled by a police sergeant unhappy with their arrival at the scene.  If you didn’t see it before, YouTube to the rescue:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZQARO7dcRE&fmt=18

Watching the video back in April, I would have had no trouble answering your questions about where I stood.  Sure, reporter Darren Hunt is a little mouthy as he follows the officer’s request to leave the area.  Sure, photographer Ric DuPont is a little slow to follow that same order, lingering long enough to capture most of his partner’s arrest on camera.  But they were in the right.  They had stopped to shoot legitimate news, pulled off the highway onto an inner shoulder where other cars were parked, and they had done nothing to interfere with emergency responders handling the accident scene.  In fact, right at the beginning of the video you can see Sergeant Raul Ramirez (he’s since been demoted to patrol officer for a separate incident) go to some trouble to climb over a median fence to get to these guys.  It’s hard to say what the news crew could have done to interfere with the scene, but it’s easy to see that Ramirez was enjoying his little bit of power over the two.

Now, neither Hunt nor DuPont is a member of RTNDA, so I’m not sticking up for them for that reason.  I found both asserted their right to be at the scene and both appeared to be working professionally to cover the story.  It was the cop who went out of his way to disrupt their work, actually leaving the scene of the accident (remember, he had to climb a fence which cut him off from returning to the scene in any quick fashion) to go after a couple of journalists.  At the time I hoped to see some serious repercussions for the sergeant, which he did eventually face for what his superiors called being “over-reactive” with students at another scene.  I felt good when I heard about his demotion, knowing someone a little too drunk on his own power was going to get a chance to sober up a bit.  I even showed the video to students, letting them know it’s important to assert your rights to police even under threat of arrest.  Most of the time, I told them, the arrest would not lead to charges, as it had not in the case of Hunt and DuPont.

That example of good journalists versus bad cop sat bundled tidily in my mental cupboard—ready to be pulled out and shared again when anyone would ask about such things—until yesterday.   Skimming the ShopTalk Short Takes on Monday, I ran across this headline:

“KVIA’s Darren Hunt Files $450,000 Claim Against City and Police Dept.”

I stopped.  The cops had hit Hunt, so he was hitting back.  But can he (we) do that?

Reading on, I learned that reporter Hunt was suing both those two governmental agencies for $300,000 in punitive damages, in addition to $150,000 in actual damages.  Punitive damages.

A reporter who covers the city of El Paso is suing two city agencies to punish them for what they had done.  Can he (we) do that?

Hunt’s news director spoke with the local paper about the suit, saying she knew nothing more about the suit than had already been reported.  The paper writes Brenda DeAnda (also not an RTNDA member) said the suit was independent of the station.  She also said she had reassigned Hunt from his city hall beat to covering the county to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.

Wait.  Darren Hunt is the city hall reporter and he’s suing city hall?  Can he (we) do that?

While I hope now-Officer Ramirez gets as much attention as possible for his poor attempt at police work, I’m not sure it can be the place of any journalist to sue the people he covers.  If that sounds like I’m saying we have to just turn the other cheek and take it, I guess I am—at least if you’re going to go on being a journalist in that community.  Not knowing Mr. Hunt at all—or the quality of his reporting work—how can he possibly show up to anything but the most fluffy of stories and not get the same comment from his would-be sources: “If you don’t like the way we answer are you going to sue us?”  Even though he was in the right as he did his job alongside that hot, Texas highway, I have to think he is completely compromised in that community.  I applaud his news director’s attempt to move him a little bit away from the fray, but don’t you think the sheriff’s deputies in El Paso County, Texas are pretty good friends with the police officers in El Paso City, Texas?

Years ago, in the middle of a dispute in my community over whether reporters should be wearing red, white, and blue ribbons and flags following 9/11, someone asked me if my reporters lost their freedom of speech when they went to work in my newsroom.  I told him no, they just gave some of it up voluntarily.  Reporters give up the right to put political signs in their yards, they give up the right to many social connections others enjoy, and now I’m beginning to think they give up the right to sue governments and other important entities in their coverage areas over personal matters.  I don’t like it, but I think it’s true.  We can’t hit back.

The suit in El Paso is out there now and there’s no taking it back.  A city hall reporter is on the record suing the city he covers for personal damages.  I guess I’ll root for Darren Hunt to win.  That won’t make the conflict there any worse, and it might send a message to overzealous cops who have a grudge against reporters and want to try their own personal power trips out on any one of us.  But I wish there was a better way to solve that problem without something as ethically messy as all this.  For once, I’m saying I just don’t know.

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  1. September 17, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    I enjoy reading an article that can make men and women think.
    Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!

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