Posted November 24, 2006
The rights imbued with the First Amendment are often used by the media as both a sword and a shield to protect itself from a public that may take issue with the words they print or disseminate.
Two recent cases in Vermont’s media remind us that along with the rights of free speech comes a responsibility.
First, the “alternative” weekly Seven Days ran a column in its Nov. 8 issue by an “anonymous cop,” who, it turns out, actually works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In his diatribe, the author vented his own frustrations and feelings during the investigation into the disappearance, and then death, of University of Vermont student Michelle Gardner-Quinn. He calls the man charged with her murder — Brian Rooney — plenty of disparaging names, and is convinced the guy “did it,” along with all the other crimes seemingly connected to him over the years. While that may be true, it usually takes a trial and a jury to make that determination, not a newspaper column before the trial.
The defense attorney pounced on it, saying the column would make it impossible for Rooney to get a fair trial in the Burlington area due to Seven Days’ readership. That may be true, regardless of the column, but the decision to run it must be questioned.
The column offered no new insight into the case, or facts about it, as is often the case with anonymous sources quoted in homicide investigations. This was more about one insider getting to vent about someone the public has already tried and convicted.
What if this does taint the jury pool? Does the case never go to trial? Would it then be worth it to have run such a column? These are the questions we must ask ourselves constantly in the media, and if we don’t someone should remind us.
Just as the dust settled on this questionable use of column space, Burlington Free Press columnist Ed Shamy on Nov. 14 unleashed one of the most bizarre analogies seen yet — that somehow the violent death that befell Gardner-Quinn was akin to accidental deaths caused by hunters.
The column starts off innocently enough as a rehashing of the introspection caused by the death of Gardner-Quinn, which occurred roughly one year after the death of another young woman in Burlington by a stranger.
“The unthinkable prompts us to dwell on the thinkable, and the doable. Better lighting? Better self-defense skills for women? A time for men to spend a moment mulling how they might contribute to diminished violence against women?” Shamy opined in his column.
But, he asks, where is the outrage, the hand-wringing, the soul-searching by Vermont’s hunters?
Then, he gets to the point: “There’s another subset of the Vermont community that seems somehow impervious to such introspection, but might benefit from its own round of soul searching. How much carnage are Vermont hunters willing to bear before they, too, take a hard look at themselves?”
He then lists deaths attributed to people who were either in the act of hunting, or were using a hunting rifle for something other than hunting.
“It would be reassuring, and would seem natural, if the hunting community was responding to its bloodletting,” he concludes.
To be sure, Shamy has plenty of critics. His columns are shallow, shortsighted, and seem more designed to shake heads than inform them. Fortunately, this is exactly what most Vermonter aren’t — shallow, short-sighted, and ill-informed.
To compare hunters to men charged with raping and murdering women is ludicrous, and about as off the mark as it gets.
At best, the decisions to run these columns were simply stupid mistakes. This doesn’t excuse poor taste or judgment, or excuse how dangerous words can be. At worse, these decisions were made to boost readership and profits.
The bottom line is we have a responsibility to ensure that the words we print are ones that engage people in conversations, no matter how spirited, and do all they can to help bring about justice, not short circuit it.
Rather than the hunter’s safety courses Shamy implores are needed, perhaps he and his editors, along with the editors at Seven Days, should take some writers’ safety courses.