Trashing of Paso chief shows bad journalism

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comFebruary 4, 2012 

I hesitate to get in the way of the hyperventilating mob storming the castle, drooling to capture and destroy the Paso Robles police chief. If I’m not careful, I might catch a pitchfork, or get set on fire by one of the torches.

But really, can we slow down just a bit and look at this rationally? Can we eye the accusations skeptically, as professional news people do, and with judiciousness, as grown-ups do?

The accusations — if I can call them that — against Chief Lisa Solomon began to surface a couple of weeks ago. I say began to surface because when they first belched in a noticeable way they were roiling around in a putrescent online swamp swarming with wannabe journalists. I will call this outfit Swamp Gas.

I’m not going too deeply into what Swamp Gas supposedly “revealed.”

Here’s why: We in the responsible news media do not rush into print with every salacious rumor whispered into our ear. That’s not fair to the subject of the rumor, it could misinform the public, and it certainly harms the profession, which demands a higher standard.

We also worry about libel laws.

We are not, in short, sock puppets, easily manipulated. We vet information, we verify, we try to get comments on the record and not use blind sources. If someone goes on the record, we question his or her motivation. We try to find a paper trail — formal grievances filed, lawsuits submitted.

We bounce information off one another and run it by our editors. In this newsroom there is half a millennium worth of professional news-gathering experience.

So, given that context, let’s take a look, in the most general of terms, at what the swamp marionettes have been saying about Solomon.

Sorry, no can do, for the most part. There is very little official documentation that might back up the accusations that began to appear online 10 days ago. As of this writing, it appears that, in particular, the more lurid complaints about Solomon were made to Swamp Gas and not to city officials who could do something about them — if they had merit.

It is true that one guy, a male officer that Solomon had fired, did file a complaint alleging that the chief sexually harassed him.

There is also a secondary allegation from a cop who accused Solomon of forcing him to meet quotas for issuing tickets. But, in my view, while it’s worth looking into, that’s not really what this mini-scandal is all about.

However, because one must be open-minded, let’s say for the sake of argument that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and Swamp Gas got it right this time. Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while, right?

How do you look into allegations like those that are floating around?

A sucker for context

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m a sucker for background and, especially, context. So I began by looking up Solomon’s history, as revealed in our files here.

Her first entry is in 1999. Taken over time, a picture emerges of an active, involved officer who was very much a part of community events, raising money for kids, even singing at public events.

She rose through the ranks and became police chief in 2007, one of the few women in California to hold the job.

I had to ask myself, if Solomon is what Swamp Gas says she is, how did she land the job? So I called Frank Mecham, a straight-shooter who is now a county supervisor but was part of the City Council that signed off on the city manager’s selection of Solomon. He told me she tested well and came highly recommended, including high marks from the city manager and the former police chief.

At this point, I paused, like Philip Marlowe or some other gumshoe, to look over what I had.

I had a popular, outgoing officer who became police chief after testing well and receiving strong recommendations.

I had — on the record — one fired cop complaining about her sexually harassing him.

I had a notoriously unreliable website parroting stories about Solomon that, to put it charitably, made her look bad.

A couple of questions noodled forth.

• Did any of the cops that were whispering in Swamp Gas’s ear about Solomon also want the chief’s job that went to her?

• Did the kinds of activities they accuse her of take place before she became chief?

• This is the big one: Are we dealing with backlash from members of an old boys’ police network who simply don’t like a female boss and will go out of their way to discredit her?

I’m not saying that last one is necessarily the case. But any reporter worth his or her salt would ask the question. Remember what I said about being skeptical about your sources? Swamp Gas never is, that I’ve seen, and there are people and organizations in this county that play them like a baby grand.

It’s not easy

I’ll give Swamp Gas this — it’s not easy to extract information from Paso Robles official sources because of all the privacy issues involved. You might think that the aggrieved officers, to counter this and to buttress their case, would make public their employment records. But they have not had the intestinal fortitude to do that.

It’s easier to get Swamp Gas’s pulse racing about a possible hot story and make allegations against your former boss in a way that she can’t respond to. Whatever happens now, her reputation already has been stained, and that may have been the end game all along.

This is not a brief for Chief Solomon. I don’t know her, and I don’t know whether any of the things that have been said are true. Maybe Swamp Gas will be proved right and bask and gloat in the attention it so craves.

On the other hand, maybe Solomon will finally defend herself, hire Gloria Allred, and watch Swamp Gas dissipate into the noxious swamp air. This is not, I repeat, a brief for Lisa Solomon. It is, however a brief on behalf of responsible journalism.

I’m saying that Solomon — and anyone else — deserves to be treated as innocent until proved guilty. And I mean innocent in the public eye as well as in whatever quasi-legal proceeding she faces, if any.

We have standards in this profession, measures to judge the truth of a story, rectitude about when to go to press, deeply held beliefs about treating people fairly.

I have watched Swamp Gas trash those standards time after time. This is merely the most recent — and most egregious — example.

We’re not supposed to be stirring up mobs into mindless passions. We’re supposed to be seeking the truth and getting it out to our readers. That means something to me, always has, and it means something to most professional journalists.

In the malodorous quagmire of a fetid swamp, those noble goals of our profession cannot be seen for the miasma, and sink beneath the muck.

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