Enemies list: A police chief thinks his job is to punish reporters

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It is all reporters' stock-in-trade -- asking the right questions to get factual answers so they can report the news of the day. And, while it is one thing for a news subject, such as the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, to decline to provide answers, it was outrageous and illegitimate for the bureau to circulate the Post-Gazette's questions and a summary of the facts its reporters had gathered, in a news release last Saturday to dozens of other journalists.

The action reveals an obnoxious defensiveness by the bureau on taking legitimate questions from reporters about the murder of a young woman and the suicide of the man police said confessed to shooting her -- a tragedy that perhaps might have been prevented by better police work.

Ka'Sandra Wade, 33, was found shot to death in her Larimer home on New Year's Day. But nearly 24 hours earlier, she had called 911 and the call-taker heard a commotion before the line was disconnected. Two officers responded but went away after speaking only to a man who said nothing was amiss. He turned out to be the woman's boyfriend, Anthony L. Brown, 51, who fatally shot himself Jan. 2 during a standoff with a SWAT team after admitting to the murder.

Questions naturally arose from these events. Post-Gazette reporters Liz Navratil and Jonathan D. Silver wrote their questions and emailed them to the bureau, as they have sometimes done before, for a response. Subsequently, Diane Richard, the public information officer, issued a press release that quoted Chief Nate Harper as saying that an investigation was in its early stages and the bureau would not provide a statement or answers to anyone. The release ordered by the chief also disseminated the questions of and the information obtained to that point by the Post-Gazette's reporters.

If a promise from the chief to be unhelpful was the sum of our complaint, this editorial would not have been written. The disgraceful aspect was that the press release pointedly included our reporters' questions and the material they had gathered -- all emailed to the police bureau with the reasonable expectation of remaining confidential.

Post-Gazette Executive Editor David M. Shribman said that this was probably the most horrifying and unprofessional PR behavior he had seen in four decades in journalism.

Arthur Yann, a vice president of the Public Relations Society of America, referred details of the case to his association's ethics committee. The panel called the city police's PR approach "ill-advised" and a "violation of an unwritten custom of journalism."

The Newspaper Guild, which represents Post-Gazette staffers, said this "was not just an attempt to ruin a 'scoop' for two reporters, it was an attempt to derail any communication between reporters and police beyond what officials offer at staged news conferences." The Guild said the department wanted "to punish and intimidate reporters who dared to demand answers to important questions. ..."

That is precisely the problem. Some members of the public in a media-hostile age may dismiss this as special pleading. But once a government agency arrogantly decides to punish perceived enemies, reporters from any news organization become candidates for the same treatment -- the Post-Gazette one day, WPXI the next, with the ultimate victim the public's right to know. To dismiss this as unimportant is to suggest that a young woman's life was unimportant; it is to suggest that the people of Pittsburgh don't deserve real answers about public safety, police performance and what their tax dollars are buying.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl professed outrage in a call to the Post-Gazette's executive editor at what his chief had done and promised that it will not happen again. We take him at his word, given that the episode made his police officials look petty and vindictive.

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