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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Seattle Media Intimidated Into Silence?

An interesting aspect of the Sturgis shooting story seems to have made a lot of people wonder why all the media and blogs in Seattle kept silent about the name of the Seattle police officer who shot a Hells Angel Motorcycle Club member in a South Dakota bar while off-duty this weekend. It seems a good question since the Meade County authorities have already released his name due to the Grand Jury testimony being taken over the case and so has the media outlets in South Dakota and elsewhere.

So why, when the officer's name is readily available, won't anyone in Seattle dare utter the officer's name?

That's what I tried to find out. I have questioned several media contacts in Seattle asking if they've heard of any pressure coming from the Seattle Police Officer's Guild or the Seattle Police Department over keeping the officer's name out of print even after his name was widely released in the South Dakota press. It seemed odd to keep his name out of the Seattle media due to security concerns when his name has been revealed elsewhere after all... and people were calling them and us on it.

Of course, as you can see above, some of our readers took us to task when we didn't release his name when we knew it as well. Well, first, when we realized who it was it hadn't been released yet, but we kept a lid on it originally because we don't want to see any officers or their families hurt due to the valid concerns for the officer's safety. But, after the officer's name became public knowledge we wondered why the press in Seattle still kept it quiet... after all, his name was reported in at least 4 different articles and television stations, albeit in states other than Washington. While the original reason hopefully was for the officer's family's safety, that reason didn't seem plausible anymore, unfortunately.

Since officer safety didn't seem a valid reason anymore and since the press, with it's own legal departments and on-staff lawyers, won't print the name, we sure as heck wanted to be cautious about it as well. After all, the Seattle Police Officer's Guild is no stranger to using lawyers to intimidate people into being quiet about misconduct. For example:

It's clear, given their past history, that the police officers make good on their threats to investigate or sue reporters and their employers for publishing their stories. So we had reason to worry and we wondered if others had the same reasons in mind when keeping it quiet.

Adding to our own reasons for being cautious was an incident where this site also had to deal with threats of legal action when, ironically, the same person involved in the Sturgis shooting himself threatened legal action when we published a picture from the Seattle Police Officer's Guild's monthly newsletter "The Guardian" which was critical of civil rights that was also published in the Blogging Georgetown blog (who also told us that they were similarly threatened as well).

With pressure like that, it's little wonder why the free press in Seattle might not be as free as you think. However, this case of self-censorship on the part of the press may not be the direct result of any undue pressure.

One reporter responded to our questions by speculating that it might be a case of reporters holding to a long standing tradition in Seattle of not naming people who might be the potential subject of a criminal investigation when they have not yet been charged or detained. This seems like a valid policy that should be applied to officers and citizens alike and may well be the case as the officer in question has not been charged over the shooting nor for bringing a firearm into a bar while off-duty in a different state. However, this reason didn't stop reporters in South Dakota from revealing his name. So, perhaps there are different journalistic standards in play, but we'll never know for certain.

No matter what the reason, for now, the officer's identity remains a secret... though only to the people of Seattle. Given past pressures police have put on the press in Seattle, it's no wonder that people are asking why the media is keeping information from the public, even if the reason is ultimately innocuous.

UPDATED 08/13/08 16:18 - One area reporter's response noted.
UPDATED 08/15/08 10:13 - The Seattle Times finally released Lt. Ron Smith's name 

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