Crimes Tie Police To Reporters In The US, Too
NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In shorthand, we usually refer to Britain's phone-hacking scandal when it's also a bribery scandal. The now-closed tabloid News of the World allegedly paid police officers for tips and information. Several journalists got high-ranking jobs with the police. A senior officer got a job as a columnist with the Murdoch paper after he left Scotland Yard.
The relationship between reporters and cops is very different in this country. There's no real equivalent to Scotland Yard and no media colossus as powerful as Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. But there's cooperation between the police and the media and tension a lot of the time too.
Reporters and police officers, we want to hear from you today. Take us inside. Tell us how this relationship works, when it works and when it hasn't. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Sebastian Junger argues we must all bear the burdens of war and proposes a memorial to the civilian casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan. But first, police and the press, and we begin with Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute. She spent a number of years as a police reporter in Spokane and joins us now from a studio down in Poynter, in St. Petersburg. Nice to have you with us today.
KELLY MCBRIDE: Hi, how are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you. Also with us is Commissioner Charles Ramsey, the head of the Philadelphia police department. He joins us by phone from his office. And Commissioner Ramsey, nice of you to be with us today too.
CHARLES RAMSEY: Thank you very much.
CONAN: I wonder, your perspective as you looked on at these affairs in London. Can you imagine this happening in this country?
RAMSEY: Well, I can imagine just about anything. I just hope it's not the case here. I think as this thing unfolds, it's certainly going to get a lot deeper than it is right now, but hopefully it doesn't touch the U.S.
CONAN: Even so, there are tensions between the media and police. I assume that there have been a few occasions when you may have spit out a little coffee when you opened up your morning newspaper.
RAMSEY: Well, you know, there was a time in my life when I started with the sports section. Now I start with editorials and the local news to make sure I'm not in it. So, you know, it does change. I mean, but you know, reporters have a job to do, and not every story is going to be a positive one. So you just have to learn to accept that.
CONAN: And develop a thicker skin.
RAMSEY: Well, you know, it still hurts. I don't know if there's anything - such thing as thick skin. But you do have to be psychologically tough and resilient. And you have to work on correcting those things that are wrong.
I mean, often times criticism leads to positive change.
CONAN: That's - you were, before you went to Philadelphia police, head of the police department here in Washington, D.C., and obviously there are some cases that get really high profile. You were commissioner here when the - during the terrible murder of the intern happened.
And I wonder: As you look back on that, did all of the media attention on one suspect who happened to be a member of Congress, did that alter the way the police handled the case, the Chandra Levy case?
RAMSEY: No, I mean it really didn't. But it was a distraction that we really didn't need at the time. And it's just unfortunate because people, you know, read newspapers, and they listen to television. They obviously aren't privy to some of the inside information we have as investigators. So it does lead people down a particular path.
And one trend that you're starting to see more and more, and I guess the Casey Anthony case is another example of that, where the trial is actually taking place in the media. I don't think that's really particularly healthy or good for anybody concerned.
And I think it's something all of us have to kind of pay attention to.
CONAN: Kelly McBride, I wanted to turn to you. What can we in this country learn from - as we watch the story unfold there in London?
MCBRIDE: Well, one of the things is that, you know, there's a particular relationship between the media and law enforcement, and there's a spectrum on which that relationship exists in any given city or county.
Sometimes you have a very antagonistic relationship. Sometimes you have a relationship that's way too cozy, because they really are a balance on power. The media is a watchdog and meant to be questioning some of the most powerful people in our society, the people who wield guns and have the power to arrest and impose their authority on other people.
And also, the other reason that the media covers law enforcement is because public safety is such an important issue in any civil society. So there's a reason that these two entities are constantly in tension with each other. And one of the negative results, either when they get too cozy - so when you have police officers on the payroll of a newspaper or when it gets too antagonistic and you have situations where journalists can't get any information out of the police and the police feel like they're always being unfairly criticized, the people who suffer are the public, the citizens of the community.
CONAN: It's a high-minded description of the media. Murders, crime and corruption are also pretty good stories. They sell newspapers.
MCBRIDE: They do, they do, and different newspapers place a different priority on those types of stories. Tabloids obviously tilt toward those types of stories. They're very sensational, and they cover them with a sensational tone.
Your average newspaper in middle America is going to be pretty straightforward when you have a high-profile murder or other type of sensational crime, kidnapping. Broadcast television on a national level, completely different tone.
So really it depends on the audience how the journalists handle that, not so much the journalist himself.
CONAN: Can you give us an example of an instance where you think the relationship between the media and the police, well, really went sour?
MCBRIDE: Gosh, well, I mean, you mentioned the Chandra Levy case, and I think that's a classic example. I think any time you have a kidnap victim, one of the things that happens is - you know, so the public may not know that in general, in any given police station there's a handful of reporters that are always stopping by and hanging around.
And those are the beat reporters. But whenever you have a big, high-profile case like Chandra Levy, Casey Anthony, any kidnap victim, any missing child, any sensational murder of a prominent person, what you have are a bunch of reporters who don't know those cops come into town and start getting information.
And that's usually where things go badly. I guess the classic one that we talk about in journalism was the Richard Jewell case, where...
CONAN: Involving the FBI mostly.
MCBRIDE: Yeah, right, and - but the FBI is also law enforcement. But there you have law enforcement leaking erroneous information to reporters, reporters running with that bad information and then ultimately getting - first of all, harming an individual by trying him in the media and then also ultimately getting sued and losing those lawsuits.
CONAN: Commissioner Ramsey, you were also the commissioner here in Washington during the D.C. sniper story, and that - the police coordinated that and worked it out of Montgomery County, Maryland. But obviously there were times there when the media was reporting things the police would prefer they not. And the police were withholding information.
RAMSEY: Well, I mean, there was some information that was withheld in order to maintain the integrity of the case because we were trying to catch a sniper at the time. And I think that as far as the media reporting some information that we wish, you know, hadn't been put out there, I've - I'm always more surprised when they don't have information than when they do have information.
I'm thankful for every day that you can keep something under wraps that needs to be kept under wraps. So I'm really not surprised, nor do I get angry about it. I mean, reporters have a job to do, and they dig, and they dig, and they dig.
You know, I have a problem with lazy reporters, ones that don't want to leave their desk, they want to do everything by telephone and not really make an honest effort to try to find out exactly what it is that's going on.
But I think we did a pretty good job, and the Chandra Levy case was mentioned. I was part of that. I mean, for about a five-month period, a four-month period, we were giving regular updates, regular briefings to the press.
Now, they went down a path after Condit because, I mean, you had - you know, you had a congressman, you had sex, you had murder. I mean, you had all the elements for a good story, I guess. But as far as tension between the department and the media, I don't think there really was any real tension there.
Now, with the sniper, I think Chief Moose(ph) got a little upset with one of the local networks that released some information that perhaps would have been better if it hadn't been. But again, you know, it is what it is.
And sometimes stuff gets out that you don't necessarily want to get out, but you can't let that get in the way of continuing to push forward in an investigation.
CONAN: Have you ever asked a reporter to not - to hold on to a piece of information or hold on to a story?
RAMSEY: Yeah, sure, just recently. They didn't, and, you know, I mean, that's just the way it is. But that was a corruption case where we had a particular police officer that we knew was corrupt, and we were working an internal investigation, and we actually had video.
I mean, we had a lot of things, but we didn't have enough for the DA to press charges. And the reporter had bits and pieces of the story. I actually asked her not to go to print, and I would share the information exclusively with her. I even offered to let her see the video and the information we had thus far.
But she didn't do it, and she put it in the newspaper. Well, that shut down the investigation, and we weren't able to take it to a point where I wish we had been able to take it because there was a corrupt cop that could have been actually prosecuted. So that was an example, I think, where more harm was done than good, quite frankly.
CONAN: Kelly McBride, are deals like that unusual?
MCBRIDE: Oh, no, it happens all the time. I was a police reporter for years. You know, the reason that cops and journalists get along well sometimes is because they both are great storytellers, and they share the notion of a narrative. And cops love to talk.
And so reporters often get information that the head of an investigation would prefer not be released because it compromises the investigation. Usually that results in a conversation where the cops say, you know, could you not publish this because it will jeopardize our investigation, and the reporters says, exactly how will that jeopardize your investigation?
And the law enforcement make their case, and then the reporter and her editors make the decision about whether they'll withhold the information.
The Chicago Tribune did that with the investigation into Governor Blagojevich and actually did hold the story for a certain period of time. But they didn't give, I think it was the FBI, all the leeway that they wanted, and the FBI came back and said, you know, that actually hurt our investigation.
CONAN: We're talking about the often complicated relationship between the police and the reporters who cover them. We'd like to hear from reporters and cops in our audience. When has this relationship worked, and when hasn't it? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. We're with Kelly McBride at the Poynter Institute, and Commissioner Charles Ramsey of the Philadelphia Police Department. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Britain's News of the World is gone. Two top police officials at Scotland Yard resigned, all amid allegations of bribery, leaks, phone hacking and collusion swirling around tabloid reporters and police officers in Britain. The relationship between the police and the media can be complicated - yes, in this country too.
Most of the time it works. On rare occasions somebody crosses a line. Reporters and police officers, we want to hear from you. Take us inside. When does this relationship work? When hasn't it? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com.
Our guests are Commissioner Charles Ramsey, head of the Philadelphia police department; and Kelly McBride, a former police reporter in Spokane, Washington, now senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute. And I wanted to ask you, Commissioner Ramsey, Laura Sullivan, our reporter here, used to cover you and told us that you once told her reporters are like a pack of dogs; feed them or they'll dig through your trash.
RAMSEY: Well, it was close to that. I mean, it wasn't exactly like that. I said that the press is like a big dog, you've got to feed it or it'll start to rummage through your garbage, is the saying that we have.
But you know, and that's true. I mean, reporters have a story that they have to write, and you take a case, whether it's big or small, they're going to write it with you or without you.
I mean, they know that sometimes you can't answer certain questions. Now, they'll ask the question. If you're dumb enough to answer it, then they're going to print it. I mean, you have no complaint about that. But they understand.
I'm not one that believes in no comment. I think you have to be available, whether it's a good story, bad story or whatever. You have to be available. It is what it is, and you don't take it personally. You know, you just have to get it out there because, you know, getting that bunker mentality, you know, not talking to the press, they are going to find it no matter what, or they're going to start to rummage around, they're going to come up with something, and it may or may not even be accurate.
So I don't know what you think you gain by not talking to the press. I mean, you have to - it's part of what we do. It's part of the business, and you have to deal with it.
CONAN: Let's go to Chet(ph), Chet's on the line with us from Valdosta in Georgia.
CHET: Hi, good afternoon.
CHET: I don't know if your screener there told you, but years ago, many years ago, back in the '80s, the biggest drug case I ever worked involved members of the U.S. military who were bringing drugs in from Panama into the States and then flying them on domestic flights around the United States because obviously they didn't check domestic flights for drugs.
And a local reporter for an NBC affiliate found out about a roadside arrest we made with about 10 kilos of cocaine early in the case, and we convinced him to hold off on that, on airing it, and he basically became - this was long before they used words like embedded, but he became an embedded reporter. We actually put him in a hotel room during surveillance stakeouts.
And the case ended up prosecuting people all the way from Panama to New York City and became an international drug case and never would have been that successful if he would have reported it initially, you know, too soon.
CONAN: But it sounds like he got a pretty good story, too.
CHET: Oh, he got a great story, and for years the local network used part of that video footage, you know, when the news came on every night, but the highlight for me was when the case finally broke, Tom Brokaw was in Russia reporting on some summit that the government was involved in, and he went live to a little town in south Georgia to report on this international drug deal.
And so it was - we're friends, the reporter and I are friends to this day, and that's, you know, many years later. And we're both in other areas of employment now, but it worked out very well.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much, Chet, for the call, appreciate it.
CONAN: Commissioner Ramsey, you heard some examples of times this didn't work out. You told us one that just did. It's nice to hear about one that did.
RAMSEY: Well, yeah, I mean, I've had instances where it has too. Listen, most reporters have a high level of ethics, and if you present, you know, the argument, the right argument to them, they'll hold off as long as they can hold off.
Now, there's competition out there too, and there's always that threat of some other reporter or station picking up on something, and then they go with it, you know. So I mean, that's part of the pressure that I'm sure a reporter must feel.
But you know, in most instances, if you, you know, present a rational argument as to why it's important that they don't print it, and not just because you don't want it to get out, but I mean, there's got to be a real reason where you showed harm's(ph) the case, most will listen, especially veteran reporters.
CONAN: But doesn't that become a special problem when you're talking about corruption cases, people think you're just protecting people?
RAMSEY: I don't know what happened in this particular case because nobody else, you know, had it. It was a one-day story that actually was just a one-day story, whereas we could actually have built a case to get this guy off the street for longer.
Now, I've since terminated him, but he deserved more than just that. So I don't know what the rationale was around that. But again, I don't think that's the norm. I think that, you know, most reporters would have understood and with what was being offered in terms of, you know, having, you know, inside information in terms of what we were doing, actually seeing what we had done thus far so you know we're not lying to you, that we actually do have a case.
You know, we were working with the district attorney's office. So I don't know what happened on their end at all, but you know, it happened, it's over. And I'm not upset. I'm not angry about it. And I still work with that reporter.
CONAN: Commissioner Ramsey, we know you've got other things to do there in Philadelphia, we appreciate your time.
RAMSEY: Well, thank you very much.
CONAN: Commissioner Charles Ramsey, a police commissioner with the Philadelphia Police Department, as mentioned previously the head of the police here in Washington, D.C. Still with us is Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute, with many years of experience as a police reporters in Spokane. She's with us from the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Richard(ph) and Richard with us from Cleveland.
RICHARD: How are you this morning, this afternoon? You know, I think if you're an honorable reporter or an honorable law enforcement officer, you will have no problem with each other. I was a hostage negotiator, as well as a public information officer. So utilizing the media to help make people safe is vitally important.
And having the media work with law enforcement in crisis situations is vitally important. Most often, it works. I have had a situation in the late - early '70s where a reporter contacted a hostage-taker and interfered with our negotiations, and the hostage-taker eventually shot the hostage.
Those things should never happen, and they won't as long as people are honorable.
CONAN: So they got somehow the phone number of...
RICHARD: Sure. It was at a bank. It was at a bank, they picked up the phone and as we were trying to negotiate, the guy would hang up, and the reporter got in between our calls, and the guy was really agitated because the reporter contacted him, and it set him off.
CONAN: Well, I'm sorry to hear that even after all these years.
RICHARD: But, you know, that's the exception and not the rule. And a little lighter note, back in the late '60s, all reporters that we dealt with were - had heavy beards, smoked cigars and drank whiskey, and of course today they're all pert, blonde and shapely.
CONAN: Well, not all. I think...
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CONAN: Some rather rumpled-out specimens out there.
RICHARD: And I'm wondering if there's any change in the relationships because of that.
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CONAN: Kelly McBride?
MCBRIDE: Well, actually that's really interesting. I actually worked as a police reporter in Cleveland. It would have been in the early or mid-1980s, before I went to Spokane. And yeah, I think the reporters back then for the most part were rumpled and bearded and smokers.
But you're right. These days the police beat is an entry-level job at most newspapers, which is where you actually find a beat reporter, and there are far more women coming into journalism than men. And so it is most likely that you're going to find a young woman as the beat reporter.
And I do think that changes the nature of the relationship. Most of the time, after a couple of months, that reporter gets up to speed, and she's pretty darn good at what she does, and she develops relationships within the police department so that people know that she can be trusted and that she's not just out to get the cops.
But you know, the other thing that changes the relationship, I think, between a reporter and a police department is whether that reporter has to cover police scandal early in her tenure as the police reporter or whether she gets a couple months on the beat to get her feet underneath her, because I do think that if the first thing you do is cover a scandal, you're going to have a hard time, and sometimes that just - that's what you cover, that's the first big story on the beat.
RICHARD: Right, but I think the police also have to realize that not every reporter or not every story is going to be positive, because police do some unethical things and things that are wrong. We as law enforcement have to realize every story is not going to be a Pollyanna story and accept that.
CONAN: Sometimes the police feel, though, that they only get reported on when they mess up, and nobody's there to tell the story when they get it right.
RICHARD: And that goes back to the old law enforcement piece where police talk only to police, and they only hear what they want to hear, because there's a lot of good stories that the media does publish on law enforcement.
CONAN: Well, Richard, thanks very much for the phone call. I can hear how upset you are after all these years.
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CONAN: Appreciate it. He raised another issue, Kelly McBride, and that is the issue of the public information officer, the specialist who sort of stands between the police and the media, the person you have to go through to get an appointment with the police commissioner or sometimes sets up news conferences and that sort of thing. That is a role that has greatly expanded over the past 20 years.
MCBRIDE: Yeah. When I was - when I first started as a police reporter, the public information officer wasn't even existent in some departments, and those that had a PIO used them intermittently. The person usually had other duties. Now, it's a full-time job, and it's usually a specialist. There are conferences that these people go to. And part of that reflects the idea that both the commissioner and this former police officer expressed, which is that the public deserves information from the police.
They are public servants and they are obligated to be releasing information. And the media is often the best vehicle to get that information out. Now, the best public information officers these days, they're on Facebook, networking with neighborhood associations. And they're going straight to the audience with their information because their job is to get the information that the cops need to get out, not necessarily what the journalists want to get out of the cops.
CONAN: Indeed, the police have been known to leak information from time to time.
MCBRIDE: Actually all the time. And they do it for different reasons. Sometimes, they do it because they feel like - sometimes, a lower level police officer, a detective or a beat - patrol officer will give a reporter information because he really feels like his superiors are just being too clamped down on information and that there's not necessarily a good...
CONAN: Or not pursuing a case.
MCBRIDE: Or not pursuing a case, yeah. And sometimes, they have an ulterior motive like not pursuing a case or because they want the public - sometimes, they do it with their boss' knowledge because they want the public to believe that they're going in a certain direction with an investigation. There's lots and lots of reasons why cops leak information. But I think the most - the biggest reason is just that they don't necessarily have the authority to release the information themselves, but they feel like it's good information and the public should have it and they're not sure why they're superiors aren't releasing the information.
CONAN: We're talking about the complicated relationship between reporters and the police. If you're a member of either camp, give us a call. Tell us your story. 800-989-8255. We're talking with Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics, reporting and writing at the Poynter Institute, who, as she mentioned, has covered cops for a number of years. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can go to John(ph), John with us from Jacksonville.
JOHN: Hey, there. Nice show. I was a news director at a television station in the '80s and stumbled into a counterfeit case. The counterfeiters were actually discarding their - what they called bad bills in underground garbage cans at the apartment complex where they're printing the stuff. They - the apartment complex workers were carrying the bills down a street in Jacksonville and these counterfeit bills were blowing out of the back of the dipsy dumpster.
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JOHN: Yeah, can you believe that? I mean, kids were walking out of the street, picking up $100 bills and going into convenience stores to buy candy bars. And my wife happened to be in one of those stores. And the clerk said, let me look at that bill. And he said, this isn't right. Where did you find it? And the kid pointed out to the street, and they saw the dumpster going by with things blowing out of it. Well, my wife called me at work - like I said, I was a news director of a television station - and she gave me a heads up about it and told me which apartment complex company was involved.
I got a film crew. We went over them and met them as they pulled into the driveway of the management company. CIA pulled up, I mean, Secret Service pulled in right alongside us and said, no, no, no, you cannot take pictures. And I said, what do you mean? This is a news story. And they said, we need to get a judge to issue a subpoena, and we appreciate it if you'd sit on this story until at least tomorrow. And I said, fine, what will you do for me? And they said, we'll bring you into our office, lay all the counterfeit money out for you and let you take as many film and pictures as you want and we'll give you on-camera interviews. And it worked out very well for both of us.
CONAN: Did the people go to jail?
JOHN: Oh, yeah.
CONAN: Oh, yeah. OK. For stupidity, I assume, was the charge.
JOHN: Yeah. I mean, it's almost like the cops didn't need my help.
CONAN: Secret Service, many people don't realize, investigate counterfeits, money as well. It certainly did in those days as well as protect the president. John, thanks very much for the phone call.
JOHN: Yes, sir. Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Jeannie in Walnut Creek, California: I was a newspaper reporter and editor in the San Francisco Bay area for years. We always use the name of an officer when quoting a police source in our story. When I moved to New York City and worked for a newspaper there, I was shocked to learn the police did not release the names of officers to the media and the media accepted this. When police are allowed to become anonymous, they become less trustworthy as sources, in my opinion, and may try to plant false or distorted stories. I wonder, Kelly McBride, your opinion.
MCBRIDE: I absolutely agree. And you will find that across the country, some police departments are more transparent than others, and the less transparent they are, I think the more susceptible they are to corruption within their ranks and also to letting down the public in the execution of their duties. You know, a lot of it has to do with the personality of the person in charge and also just the political climate in whatever city or county you're working in because it is a highly political job.
I mean, the police budget comes from the city hall, and the mayor generally hires the police chief. Sheriffs are publicly elected, so it is a highly political job which is why I think some departments are so clamped down. They think that's the best way to control all the political possibilities that could influence their budget and what equipment they get and what type of support they get from local politicians. But my experience, having reported across numerous police departments, is that the more transparent ones tend to be less corrupt.
CONAN: Less corrupt, the more transparent ones.
MCBRIDE: Mm-hmm. Yes.
CONAN: There can be manipulation by the press too.
MCBRIDE: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, the press can distort information, and I think that's one of the things that we're seeing with the world - with the News of the World. And the press can - the press, you know, can be guilty of fear-mongering, of taking - you know, because we're talking about crime, right? And so you're taking pieces of information and using them to - what people always say - sell newspapers. And that's not acceptable either.
CONAN: Kelly McBride, thank you so much for your time today.
MCBRIDE: Yeah. Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Kelly McBride joined us from St. Petersburg, Florida, where she works for the Poynter Institute, a senior faculty for ethics, reporting and writing. Coming up, missing war and its horrors. Sebastian Junger will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.
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