Robert Price

Saturday, Feb 08 2014 07:00 PM

SOUND OFF: Did we err by not covering SJSU hate-crime story ourselves?

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    Robert Price is The Californian's executive editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By Robert Price

The parents of the Bakersfield teen who has been charged with misdemeanor hate crimes stemming from a series of incidents in a dorm suite at San Jose State University are understandably upset -- and not just about the charges. The Beaschlers believe the San Jose Mercury News has not reported the story fairly or accurately, and they're disappointed that The Californian would publish the Merc's stories without independently verifying details of the case.

They were also bothered by my Jan. 20 column, "Did this city export racism to SJSU?," in which I attempted to lay out some possible social and psychological factors in the behavior of their son and others -- troubling behavior, according to the complaint, that included calling a black dorm-mate "Three-fifths" and "Fraction" in reference to the 18th-century practice of counting African-American slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of tabulating population.

A complicating factor: Though I don't know their son, I know the Beaschlers and their two daughters, one of whom played soccer with my daughter for three or four years.

The Beaschlers emailed me a couple of weeks ago, proposing a letter to the editor, but I think their observations are best addressed in this forum. Among the Beaschler's concerns were these objections: The Mercury News' stories, they claim, have made it appear that the complaint involves three months of continuous torment and not, as was actually the case, several separate incidents. The Mercury News also unfairly attached acts committed by others to the four boys who were accused, they add. We pick up the conservation here:

READER : We had to take time to think about this. We do not want (our son's) name repeated in the paper. We do not want to bring any extra attention to him or us. ... Our first names (have been left off this letter) ... since we have not yet been identified by name in the news and we do not wish to assist the media in identifying us further. When the story broke, our neighbors had to intervene to keep the local news from showing video of our house. We also do not want to reinforce the racial issue by identifying the race of anyone (involved in the alleged incidents). The intent of the letter is to express our frustration with the sensationalism and inaccurate reporting by the Mercury (News) and the irresponsibility of other papers in repeating the story without checking the facts. ...

... We could not let this article in our hometown paper, written by someone we respect, pass without comment. ... Price summarizes the case against our son but is not quite correct in that he does not know our son nor, apparently, the details of the case. We invite you to read the police report.

... None of the young men or their families spoke to the media after the story broke. One newsman wondered why no one was speaking up for the boys. After seeing the intentionally inflammatory and plain inaccurate reporting shortly after the story broke, is it any wonder? We realize sensationalism sells newspapers. It is sad that there is no accountability for the reporters who are sloppy with the facts, make wild speculations and reshape the truth (and motives) of ... the few stupid freshmen accused.

... We are deeply saddened and sorry for what the young man, identified by police as the victim, had to deal with. We are deeply hurt that our own son took part in some of the alleged acts described in the report. Had we been informed by the school, the then-17-year-old victim, or his parents, we would have done our part as parents to remediate the situation.

This is a case of insensitivity and stupidity. The outcome will now be determined in a court of law. We can't and will not speak for the other defendants' families, but we don't know how more forcefully we have to say this: Our son is not a racist! This will come out in the justice system, but obviously not in the media.

In regard to those who truly know our son, we extend our sincerest thanks to all who have offered support. It will help him greatly and we are humbled by their compassion. We thank Mr. Price for his words of support for us and our daughter.

-- Mr. and Mrs. Beaschler

PRICE: I wish we had the resources to send a reporter to Santa Clara County to cover this investigation and, if it comes to it, the trial. But we don't. Fortunately, a well-regarded major metro newspaper, the Mercury News, is covering it because the case has unfolded in its backyard. It only made sense for us to simply republish the Merc's stories. That is a call I'd make every time. (Neither will we be sending reporters to Sochi, Syria or, as a reader actually suggested last week, Wisconsin to do a profile of Gov. Scott Walker.)

Relying on other news organizations does put us in the position of trusting that that organization will do a fair and unbiased job. From where I sit, the Merc appears to have done so, but the Beaschlers have access to information that I don't have (and that the Merc almost certainly doesn't have). It works both ways, however: The Merc's reporters will have spoken to people that the Beaschlers have not. And, as is to be expected and is probably necessary, the Beaschlers are biased toward their son. So they will see the Merc's coverage through a different lens.

Should we have asked for a copy of the police report? Yes. We have obtained a copy of the district attorney's complaint and I've read it. I previously obtained and reviewed the university's 400-page internal report. (I wish I'd checked on its length before I hit "print.")

The bottom line is this: Most local U.S. newspapers cooperate with each other in this way because they have to. And because reporters know the sources and court procedures in their own cities better than out-of-town reporters will, they're likely to file more complete and accurate stories.

Once a suspect has been charged and police have released his name, news media can and will publish it. Period. There's no going back on that -- no remediation or compensation (usually), even in cases where the accused is found not guilty. Fair or not, that's the price one pays for getting arrested on a charge the media deems newsworthy. And this situation, painful as it has been for the families in question, is newsworthy.

Another reader was unhappy with my column for very different reasons:

READER: Are you serious? If at 18 you do not realize you can't be an overt racist, at what point will you realize? ... What the (heck) are you smoking, Price? These white Anglos committed the crime and with your help are now undermining the victim and what happened to him. ...

... How can you make the statement, "That household did not produce a skinhead, period." How do you know that? From soccer practice? That statement is as absurd as any statement I made. You basically became a character witness (for) Logan.

-- Jennifer Ward

PRICE: Could I be wrong about the Beaschlers? Sure. But you don't have to spend every waking moment with a person to get some indication of whether he could potentially harbor overtly racist thoughts. Three years of regular social interaction seems to me enough time to have heard someone utter a tell-tale word, betray an attitude, make a subtle but telling observation. I don't know your race, Jennifer, so I don't know if this is a shared experience, but I assure you I've had that moment when I've realized, sadly, just what and who I'm dealing with. Many "nice" people turn out to be not so nice at all. I haven't had that experience with the Beaschlers. And if I essentially served as a character witness for Logan, well -- suggesting that something "brutal" and "toxic" somehow "slithered into his brain" hardly seems like a line he might want to include on his resume.

Perhaps Jennifer missed the larger point. Racist behavior -- any behavior -- doesn't just happen. It's an expression of how we've processed things -- our upbringing, our years of peer interaction and other influences, both biological and social, including the many contradictory messages of pop culture. I was neither condemning nor absolving Logan; I was trying to understand. As with any problem, in order to solve we must first understand.

READER (addressing Assistant City Editor Steve Levin) : I was so very impressed with your memorial article about Dr. Art Unger, a very active member of the Kern-Kaweah Chapter of Sierra Club. ... Now I find myself also amazed by your article (Feb. 3) about the Dukes choir concert at First Congregational Church! What a funny, remarkable story about our concert series and the weirdness of hosting a concert on the afternoon of the Super Bowl! I had to laugh: so many of us nerdy types don't pay much attention to sports, and our ignorance really showed by scheduling that concert on this special day for KC sports enthusiasts, including many of the guy-type youth in the choirs. We absolutely cannot make that mistake again!

You are one remarkable writer, and I've got to take my hat off to you!

-- Margie Bell

PRICE: All right already. This weekly praise of Levin is getting a little tiresome. Thanks, Margie. Yes, Steve totally owns the Monday edition, and most other days as well.

READER: The headline in the paper this morning (emphasizes that) we're talking about the drought all over California. I haven't seen anything in The Bakersfield Californian telling people about the water that is running down our streets, from people overwatering, wasting water. It doesn't make sense that our newspaper will put (up) this big headline and yet another headline (that) says "Stop wasting water" never seems to turn up.

-- Patsy Clemo

PRICE: Our Jan. 21 editorial noted that "Calif. drought shows need for water plan," but you're right, Patsy, we've had little or nothing on the steps that ordinary residents can take to conserve water. You've got us on board: Look for occasional, simple water-saving tips in The Californian starting today. Not much, maybe, but a start.

 

The Californian welcomes your comments and suggestions. To offer your input by phone, please call 661-395-7649 and leave your comments in a voice-mail message or send an email to soundoff@bakersfield.com. Please include your name and phone number. Phone numbers and addresses won't be published.

On the web: Follow Robert Price on Twitter @BakoEditor

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