Thursday, March 24, 2011

“Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.” A blog about the Blotter Briefs

Occasionally I get unhappy about something and cancel my subscription to the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. In a couple of weeks, I miss it and subscribe again. Sort of a “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” kind of thing. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with this newspaper since I was 13 years old. I learned the value of reading a newspaper as a delivery boy, reading it each morning as I wrapped rubber bands around the paper before heading out on my route. I loved the paper then. Later I became involved in politics.
There were two Cheyenne papers in the old days. The morning Eagle catered to Democrats while the evening Tribune espoused a Republican view of the world. Even though the partisan divide changed when it became the Tribune-Eagle, I still found reasons to love it one day and hate it the next.
The "raison le moment" is “The Blotter Briefs” a daily listing of those who have been charged with, not convicted of a crime. The column does not report on the veracity of the charges. Names and addresses are published with a disclaimer that they may actually be innocent. But they and their families are embarrassed among neighbors, friends, and employers.
The Tribune-Eagle defends it as the “right of the people to know.” Let’s be honest. It serves little more than the right of the people to gossip. Oh yes, it is scandalously interesting. We read it to see whether we know someone whose life is in trouble. But as Oscar Wilde noted, “Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.” At the time of publication not one person named in the “Blotter Briefs” has been convicted of the crime with which the column associates them. Even Leviticus, the harshest of the Old Testament books, advised, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people.” (Leviticus 19:16). But that is what this popular column does. It bears tales!
I have an alternative. Report not on the charges but on the convictions. How many of these folks are found not guilty? Use the reports to study significant questions such as how many of these charges are plea bargained? Was the original charge reduced? Why? Lack of evidence? Lack of resources? Is public safety protected by the extraordinary number of plea bargains in which these cases culminate? Why are so many of the names repeated? Why the revolving door? Why are they not getting the mental health or addiction treatment they require? Why are the courts not using proven practices to close the revolving door?
Those are real stories, not gossip. Those stories serve the public interest. They may be harder to report than simply listing the names and addresses of people charged but not convicted…but scandals made tedious by morality do not make our community safer.
PS: In the interest of a full disclosure, the church I pastor, Highlands Presbyterian Church, uses the column as a mailing list. We invite those named to become a part of our faith community. We are Christians who wish to assure them and their families of our prayers during the times in their lives made even more difficult by the “Blotter Briefs.”

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