An Iowa newspaper faces financial ruin because it held a police officer accountable for hitting on teenage girls

The concept of a “free press” is really a misnomer, in that what we mean is that the press should operate unfettered by government interference. When we hear “free press,” people incorrectly assume one of the following things:

  1. Journalists can write whatever they want with impunity.
  2. The press can exist without fear as long as it tells the truth.
  3. It won’t cost you anything to defend yourself as long as you are right.

The truth of the matter is a lot more nuanced, as we explain in the law chapter of both the reporting and the writing books. Journalists have to be right if they want to publish content and not get smacked by the law. Reporters who tell the truth don’t always get embraced for it, with readers crying “Fake News” at stuff that they don’t like to hear.

Even more, the public’s right to know can be costly when news organizations are dragged into court for no good reason:

The Carroll Times Herald in the small town of Carroll, Iowa, heard from a source that a local police officer was having inappropriate relationships with teenage girls.

It was exactly the type of accountability journalism that co-owner and vice president of news, Douglas W. Burns, thought the paper should be doing, and before long, reporter Jared Strong was chasing leads. He spent at least two months gathering Carroll police officer Jacob Smith’s personnel records, private messages and other public documents, interviewing the teenagers and others — until finally, just as the Times Herald was ready to publish, the officer resigned.

And then he filed a libel lawsuit immediately.

Now, even though the newspaper handily won the case, the legal expenses have left the family-owned local newspaper in financial peril…

(You can read the Times Herald’s story here to see what it was that got the paper into this tussle.)

This approach to using the frivolous law suits to threaten or bankrupt media outlets is known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP. Several states have anti-SLAPP laws on the books that allow media defendants (and others) to recover financial legal losses related to suits like the one the Times Herald faces.

Unfortunately for the paper, Iowa isn’t one of them.

Burns started a GoFundMe fundraiser to try to cover the $140,000 in court costs and other losses the paper sustained as a result of this incident. As of this morning, the paper has raised about $81,000, much of it coming in small donations from thousands of donors.

And, according to Burns’ most recent update, that money has made a huge difference to the paper:

I had a tearful interaction Friday with a talented young reporter who can remain on our staff as a result of this funding. This reporter produces excellent accountability journalism and asked me for an expanded role in that regard. This not only boosts our paper but benefits others as the reporter has an enormously promising career and will no doubt excel at other newspapers someday.

We will continue to post updates and links to the work we do.

Journalism has a lot of risks associated with it, even when it is done well and right. Some of the largest cases of outstanding journalism that your professors celebrate in reporting or law classes carried with them serious ramifications for the journalists and their publications.

If you watched the movie “The Post,” you can see how a lot of the concerns associated with the publication of the Pentagon Papers dealt with the way publishing this content could destroy the paper financially. For some people in that film (and the real life it depicted), it was less about “Is this journalism?” and more about “Is it going to kill us?” in those discussions.

Think about this and then realize less than four years later, that same paper went into some particularly dark territory again to break the Watergate story. The risks were the same, if not worse. Even more, although we now lionize Woodward and Bernstein for their acts, they weren’t “name” journalists at the time and they took a few swings that missed as they kept the story alive.

In the case of Burns’ paper, it was clearly right on the money. This wasn’t a case of a newspaper pushing a vendetta against a cop over some speeding tickets. This wasn’t a case in which there was levels of nuance to the situation. It was quite literally exactly what the paper thought it was: A cop who was doing some shady and sketchy stuff.

If I lived in that area, I’d want to know if an officer was abusing his power. If a police officer out here was cruising the high school for the next Mrs. Shady Cop, I’d REALLY want to know what’s going on (and I’d probably start homeschooling Zoe…). The degree to which I know about a situation like this one should not be dependent upon how much cash the local newspaper has in the bank or how scared it would be about losing a lawsuit.

I often push for donations when possible, and pony up myself before I ask for help from others, but even if you don’t (or can’t) contribute, this story is an important one to keep an eye on.

Leave a Reply