Police Chief Kurt Wahlen had asked the JT to provide all the pictures it took of the August 2006 apartment building fire on Durand Avenue, including those not published. Following JT policy, Editor Steve Lovejoy declined the request.
The exchange between Lovejoy and Wahlen raises interesting, long-standing questions about the newspaper's role in the community. Does the JT, which serves as Racine's primary source for news, exist as an integral part of the community? Or is it a dispassionate observer of events more focused on business than community?
To be fair, the answer likely lies somewhere in between. But Wahlen lays bare the JT's shortcomings in its zest to cover (and profit from) crime, while at the same time removing itself from the story with a simple recitation of journalistic principles.
Here's Wahlen's letter to Lovejoy:
Steve: We have come a long ways. A while back I reviewed the photos from the Tina Davidson homicide which occurred in 1973. The JT did the photography work for us. (It would have been nice if the JT would have taken a few more photos too.) Now I find that you do not wish to be considered an arm of law enforcement and will not relinquish possible evidentiary photos without a subpoena.
What happened to taking a stand for what is right and doing the right thing? It is interesting to note that the JT makes a profit off violence in our community, yet it backs away from assisting our community with addressing violence. As for fear of retaliation, I am thankful for the few brave souls in our city who have had enough and stand up to those who would keep them locked in their homes. They live in close proximity to those you fear and yet are willing to take a stand and do what is right.
The photos I requested concern the untimely death of a mother and her daughter in a fire. Should you not be on the side of justice for these victims? If you are going to make a living from reporting violence in our community, you should likewise take a stand against it.
We will seek the subpoena.
And here is Lovejoy's response to Wahlen's initial request for the photos, which ostensibly would help the PD's investigation of the fatal fire:
We’re always glad to cooperate when we can but we do not release unpublished photos or videos to police agencies unless they are subpoenaed. We do not want our reporters and photographers being viewed as arms of law enforcement and possibly subjected to danger.
Give me a call if you would like to discuss it.
I was working as the JT's city editor at the time of the 2006 fire, and recall the newspaper publishing a number of photos both in the newspaper and on the website of the tragic blaze. I'm pretty sure the JT's photo staff won awards for their coverage of the event.
At the time, no doubt I would have supported Lovejoy's stance. Reporters can lose the trust of the public if they are seen as agents of the law. But now, a few years removed from corporate journalism - and firmly enmeshed in community journalism - I find myself siding with Wahlen in this particular instance. Why wouldn't the newspaper help investigate this crime? What do they have to gain from not helping?
I remember former editor Randy Brandt coming up with an elegant solution to a similar situation. He had the photo staff publish all of its photos from a crime scene on the website. It met the newspaper's guidelines for only turning over published photos, and allowed police to review all of the images.
In this particular case, it's unclear what photos the JT would have left from the Durand Avenue fire. But there doesn't seem to be much upside in keeping any unpublished images hidden, simply because police asked for them.
The bigger issue for the JT is an urgent need to rethink its role in the community. The paper spends relatively little time challenging people in power - including the police department - compared to its aggressive retelling of people's crimes and shortcomings. The paper would do well to focus on helping people in need and challenging the people who aren't meeting those needs.
Interestingly, one of the JT's best community-minded journalists is Mark Hertzberg, the paper's tireless photo director who has spent years working to improve the city and its image. Hertzberg's career is the JT's best response to Wahlen's accusations; it's also a model for everyone else at the newspaper to follow.
Until the paper reviews its role in the community, and makes needed changes, it's susceptible to questions about its motivation. Here's a letter to the editor I wrote to the paper on Jan. 25, but was not published:
I read with interest your coverage of SC Johnson's new Fortaleza Hall in Sunday's paper. The impressive new building on SCJ's historic campus is a remarkable architectural accomplishment and a monumental tribute to the late, great Sam Johnson. The story explained the project well and the photos were, as usual, superb.
However, I found a surprising omission in the coverage. At no point did the story report that a large portion of SC Johnson's new building is exempt from property taxes. The corporation found a loophole in state law that allowed Gov. Jim Doyle to sign an executive order exempting Fortaleza Hall from property taxes. The Journal Times itself reported this fact on May 23, 2009, noting SC Johnson was the only corporation in the state to receive such an exemption. But this detail, which will cost local taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, was left out of the celebratory story announcing the building to the public.
The Journal Times does itself no favors in securing "exclusive" tours with SC Johnson CEO Fisk Johnson, and then failing to recount its own reporting on questionable public policy that will benefit a multi-billion dollar corporation at the expense of local taxpayers. Either The Journal Times left out the information as part of a deal for the exclusive tour, or simply forgot to include critical piece of back story to Fortaleza Hall. Neither possibility speaks well for our daily paper, which once again failed to report on Racine's rich and powerful with the same vigor they relay the crimes and shortcomings of our city's downtrodden. The Journal Times can, and must, do better.