Wednesday, October 4, 2006
The other night at Symphony at Sunset in Fondren, I was talking to a local newspaperman who told me about a lie Mayor Frank Melton had told publicly during his campaign—basically an item on his resume that was an outright fabrication.
But that journalist never reported the lie.
To his credit, I think he feels bad about the omission now—he told me about it, after all—and with all the doozies that Melton has told in the last year and a half, this one seems rather minor in comparison.
Yet, something much bigger is at play here: Why did the media give Frank Melton a pass for so long—not just in the early months of his term, but during the campaign and for years before that? Considering that not long after moving to Jackson from Texas, Melton anointed himself the Guardian of All Things Right and Proper in Jackson and started hurling criticisms and insults left and right on WLBT, why haven't local media, in turn, held him accountable for his words and actions?
The most outrageous media dereliction is unfolding this week in a Meridian courtroom, as Melton faces a jury that will decide the amount of damages he has to pay to two former Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agents. They sued him because he leaked what turned out to be a false memo accusing them of some pretty nasty stuff to The Clarion-Ledger in April 2003. (See page 14.)
Understand, I'm not criticizing the Ledger for publishing the memo. It's between the editors there and their consciences to decide whether or not they did enough to confirm its contents before publishing. As a journalist, I know, respect and use the "fair report privilege" that affords us the right to print what happens in an official proceeding or is printed in an official document, even if it turns out to be false. It's a vital privilege for a free press; we need it, but should not abuse it.
No, what incenses me here comes down to what the Ledger knew (or should have known)—and the fact that they turned around and endorsed Melton for mayor, anyway.
It has long bugged the hell out of me that the newspaper failed to report on the MBN case as Melton was running for office. As this vital story was unfolding in Meridian during the campaign, we didn't get a peep out of them about it. Not a peep. My only guess is that they didn't want to address their role in the saga.
There's more. Throughout the campaign, Ana Radelat, who was bylined on the original MBN story with "Clarion-Ledger Washington Bureau" under her name, was doing the honorable reporter thing and protecting her source (Melton), even as he was lying in court documents, stating he was not the source. Fine.
But here's where I get edgy: If The Clarion-Ledger didn't know that Melton was the source, it was an ethical lapse. If they did know, then endorsing him for mayor was problematic. The Clarion-Ledger's editors should have known that Melton was lying in a false memo to hurt MBN agents when they endorsed him in the Democratic primary in May against incumbent Harvey Johnson. They also should have known this ugly fact about Melton as they were throwing softballs at him that barely mentioned his more controversial actions and words, as a private citizen and a public official. Even if they believed they could not "out" him as the source, they could have used the knowledge to inspire tougher reporting about him.
Instead, in their May 1, 2005, endorsement, Ledger editors cooed: "We believe Frank Melton offers the type of dynamic leadership Jackson needs to help it move ahead and thrive at this point in the city's history. ... While he has been criticized for not making more arrests as director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, at least the people of Mississippi knew the agency was aggressively taking action. … [N]o one can doubt his motivations, commitment and dogged work ethic."
Actually, one would think that Clarion-Ledger editors might "doubt" Mr. Melton's motivations and work ethic, simply based on the lawsuit they were entangled in with him.
The Clarion-Ledger bent over backward in court documents to say that editors did not know Melton was the unnamed source in the story they ran about the agents, that it rested squarely with Radelat in D.C.
But in an Aug. 24, 2005, deposition in the case, metro editor Grace Simmons—who was named in the original suit against The Clarion-Ledger—said she assumed Melton was the source, but did not ask the reporter for the source's name before the story ran.
That's a problem. Beyond the fact that the paper has said it doesn't use unnamed sources, there is also the little fact that their parent company, Gannett Co., requires in their code of ethics that at least one editor know the identity of any unnamed source.
Clarion-Ledger editors either did or did not know that Frank Melton was the source. If they did not know for certain because they didn't ask, at least one editor assumed he was. This knowledge, or lack of knowledge, occurred during the campaign season—and the paper did not report on their role in the case, even as they provided glowing coverage and an endorsement of Frank Melton for mayor.
That is, they either knew he lied under oath, or they should have known.
How we go from that problem to an endorsement that declares that "no one can doubt his motivations, commitment and dogged work ethic" totally escapes me.
Story after story by various outlets, including The Clarion-Ledger, didn't question Melton's "unconventional" tactics, just declaring him a crime-fighting crusader, doing little to prove or clear allegations against Melton. They found nothing unusual in him pulling police officers off their JPD beats to help him "bring in" young "gang members"—with little thought to how that might affect the ability of a prosecutor to use them as witnesses (fast forward to Christopher Walker's tainted testimony in the Albert Donelson trial).
The media's negligence is at the heart of the nightmare we face now—civil lawsuits, indictments, political divisiveness and national embarrassment. If they hadn't been so obsessed with finding the latest crime sound bite—and Melton is nothing if not a sound-bite machine—we might not be in this ugly place now. Going forward, the people must demand civic-minded journalism, especially from national chains profiting from our problems.
Very well said, Ladd! This statement really chaps my a$$: **... While he has been criticized for not making more arrests as director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, at least the people of Mississippi knew the agency was aggressively taking action. …** Are we supposed to be dumb enough to believe that merely taking action--irrespective of whether it was legal or produced positive outcomes (convictions)--was reason enough for Melton to become mayor? Actually, that should have been a signal to the C-L NOT to endorse him since the surest measure of MBN's effectiveness are, IMHO, its arrest and conviction rates. Indeed, his dismal record at MBN and as a self-proclaimed crime-fighting mayor (with no significant drug busts or convictions despite a maniacal obsession with 'playing police chief') raises serious questions of another sort in my mind.
All I can say is Amen.
- Ray Carter
What was the "outright fabrication" on fm's resume? Inquiring Minds want to know.