If A Sheriff’s Office Expose Falls In The Woods, And No One Sees It…

The St. Pete Times, on Aug. 31, ran a huge, mulitmedia investigation and story concerning the 2002 East Polk car crash that killed 16-year-old Miles White; left Adam Jacoby, son of state representative Marty Bowen, facing criminal charges; and led to the arrest of Deputy Scott Lawson on a variety of sex charges not related to the crash.

You can read the piece yourself. I recommend it. It alleges that Lawson likely caused the crash by ramming the car Jacoby was driving during a dubious early morning pursuit in his unmarked police vehicle. It further suggests the sheriff’s office sought to avoid liability in the case by doing a slipshod investigation. The sheriff’s office denies that and says Lawson did not ram the car.

Here’s the Times’ piece tagline:

“Two teenage boys are in a car chase with a reckless, sexually perverted Polk County sheriff’s deputy. The boys crash, killing Miles White, 16. But the sheriff’s office does not investigate its deputy’s involvement. Why?”

The reporter is Meg Laughlin, who has made something of a specialty beat out of critical examinations of Polk law enforcement behavior in specific cases. She’s dissected one murder trial and looked hard at the resignation of Arlie Smith, a former high-ranking State Attorney’s Office. She’s done far more work on this case, and reviewed far more documents, than anybody else I know of. I’m not in a position to dispute or echo her conclusions, and I’m not going to do that here. Rather, I think this piece – and who chose to run it or talkabout it or cooperate in its production – says quite a bit about the state of complex investigative journalism and the challenges it faces in an era when media consumers increasingly use it to form and reinforce quick, simple, visceral perceptions.

Here are some thoughts, in no particular order:
1) Media organizations are newsmakers. They should be treated as such: As far as I can tell, The Ledger hasn’t run this piece. That’s interesting because The Ledger has a longstanding agreement to exchange stories with St. Pete. When I was night editor there, each evening I would call and ask what they had and offer up our stuff. Over the last few months, I’ve seen St. Pete Times stories blanket the A-front and local front of The Ledger on any number of days. There’s a St. Pete story on B5 Sunday.
In the story, Laughlin takes a bit of an implied dig at The Ledger, writing: He was [at first] painted as a hero. The Lakeland Ledger reported: “Sheriff’s Col. Gary Hester said Lawson was resting at home Saturday and under heavy medication for injuries he sustained when he pulled Jacoby from the burning car.” Brackets mine.

I have no idea whether that caused The Ledger not to run the Laughlin piece. I have no idea if the critical focus on Sheriff Grady Judd and the sheriff’s office brass has given anybody pause. It’s entirely likely that the story is simply too long to run in the shrunken Ledger, or that editors are saving it for a day when they have space.

What I do know is that someone had to refer me to this story. I’m a pretty savvy media watcher, and I missed it. I found out about it only last week. This shows how, in many ways, what media organizations choose to emphasize or ignore is more important than what the actually produce. CSX was a classic example of this. Lookat the difference in the way The Tribune, The Sentinel, The Ledger, and even The St. Pete Times approached it. Same facts, same characters being written about; radically different approaches and results. [Obviusly, I think The Tribune’s work was light years better than the others. But I’m biased, of course.] In this world, media orgs, including non-MSM outlets, make news by what they choose to emphasize or ignore. They should engage each other accordingly. Hence my “Bitterest Woman In Orlando” posts from a few weeks ago.

2) Time and resources matter: The person who referred me to the story said Laughlin asked him why The Ledger had never done this level of investigation itself. The tempting answer for cynics goes something like this: Grady Judd is Polk County’s daddy, a bulletproof political figure and Central Florida media star. Newspapers and television depend on his office for a huge percentage of their breaking news, and it delivers. So they are not going to challenge him and risk losing the rather remarkable access he provides. Judd intimidates through his openness and popularity. Meg Laughlin doesn’t have to deal with Judd on a daily basis, so she’s free to rake him without consequences.

There may be some element of truth in this. But I actually don’t think Juddfilia – or phobia – keeps The Ledger from investigating his office. In fact, the paper has had any number of run-ins over the years.

My best explanation is less conspiratorial and far more troubling longterm. It’s a simple matter of time and resources. I was an editor with The Ledger back when this happened. I don’t remember the specifics of our coverage, but I don’t recall any deference. The general perception among reporters and editors was that Lawson’s role in the crash was highly fishy, and I think that got reported.

What we didn’t do, at some point, was assign someone to wade through all the documents. I’m not clear when they became available, so I’m not sure when the best time would have been. But between 2002 and the time I left in 2006, we had two outstanding, dedicated court reporters – Jeff Scullin and Jason Geary – who wrote any number of hard-hitting pieces. Just not about this case. They did that while chronicling the daily wheels of justice.

When I started at The Trib, I had relatively wide freedom to investigate big, complex stories. But that freedom, otherwise known as time, shrunk day-by-day as we retooled to emphasize daily breaking news.

Doing what Meg Laughlin did in this case takes time and expertise. I’d love to hear from her how long it took her to produce this and what her other assignments were. As news organizations shed reporters and emphasize online breaking news – and as fewer smart, dedicated people find this an attractive industry – these types of reports are going to dwindle. I know this is no great insight, but it doesn’t make it less sad.

3) Police agencies have enormous power to drive news: It is striking to read Laughlin’s piece and see how all these people with the sheriff’s office, who I know as incredibly open and friendly to daily crime reporting, have very little to say about this case.

They’ve had even less to say in the aftermath of the story. In fact, agency policy seems to be to ignore it. That’s smart, from the sheriff’s office point of view. The news cycle starts fresh each day. Hell, almost each hour now. And the nature of it provides almost limitless opportunity for Grady Judd and his folks to get on television, say something charmingly forceful about criminals, and win the day. I don’t say this as a criticism of the sheriff’s office. It’s just the skillful recognition and exploitation of the world as it is. I’d do the same thing in their place. There’s no price to pay for ignoring a critical report if no one else chooses to emphasize it. And if it’s complicated, no one’s going to pick it up.

It’s the visceral stuff – dumping somebody out a wheelchair on camera, some sexual matter, or getting caught driving drunk – that has legs. Abuse of power, because it’s almost always complicated, doesn’t.

This appears very near the end of Laughlin’s story:

Hank B. Campbell, attorney for Polk Sheriff Grady Judd, recently wrote the Times a letter: “The accusations you are apparently making that this accident was not fully investigated, that the allegations regarding Scott Lawson were not fully investigated, or that there has been some cover up … are false and without factual basis.”

Should the newspaper persist with its “deeply troubling campaign of misinformation,” Campbell wrote, his law firm would recommend that the sheriff take action “to properly communicate the truth.”

Believe me, Hank. There’s no need.