Friday, July 21, 2006

Indecent Trial Reporting

"Investigative reporters don't have a sense of humor. They can't afford one."
As we 'noted' the other day, after the latest round of reductions-in-force at the Pensacola News Journal, the unfortunates who remain in Gannett Corp.'s employ are being required to double-up, or worse, in journalism assignments. Increasingly, it seems, editors are sending them far afield from their usual beats to cover subjects about which the reporters couldn't care less -- or aren't competent to handle.

This doesn't make for an informed readership. But we have to admit, it is entertaining to watch.

Take two of today's front-page courtroom related stories. The first one was covered by Michael Stewart, one of the few left at the PNJ who justly might be considered a skilled investigative reporter. He was assigned to waste his talents reporting on the federal court prosecution of the "Christian" proselytizer Kent ("Dr. Dino") Hovind.

The second story was handed off to Nicole Lozare, who formerly malpracticed her trade on Pensacola Beach. This week, she was dispatched to the state courthouse to cover the trial of Janelle Bird, the 25 year-old school teacher who is accused of bedding a 15 year-old student of hers.

Time was when the Pensacola News Journal, aware of the rich veins of public policy -- not to mention local lunacy -- to be mined in the depths of local courthouses, hired actual trial-wise reporters for such stuff. No longer.

Neither of today's reporting assignments make much sense.

We've mentioned the Dr. Dino story before. Hovind and a fervent band of college students from Pensacola Christian College for some time, now, have been shaking down credulous simpletons by thumping on the Bible and telling them dinosaurs and mankind shared the earth together a few thousand years ago. Now, "Dr. Dino" and his wife have been charged in a 58-count indictment with failing to pay nearly half a million dollars in income taxes, employer Social Security withholding, and Medicare employment deductions.

Hovind raked in the money and stiffed the callow college kids at "Dinosaur Adventure Land," a pathetic backyard of a house he festooned with ridiculous-looking yard ornaments and playground equipment resembling cartoon dinosaurs. Then, he started charging money to see them and buy his propaganda books.

Now, "Dr. Dino" claims all that money really belongs to God and he is merely guarding it from the Darwin-loving grasp of the IRS.

The latest twist in this hilarious tale is that Hovind, based on various cockamamie constitutional arguments, is demanding that the federal court return his passport while he's out on bail so he can fly to South Africa next month. The trip was planned, as Stewart writes, so Dr. Dino could "'square off against several luminaries who hail from different scientific disciplines,' according to the Web site for Power Ministries."

He'll hurry back for the trial. Yeah, sure. As long as God buys him a return ticket.

Much as we appreciate his talents, this courtroom story doesn't deserve heavy artillery like Michael Stewart. It needs a comedy writer.

As is well known in the world of journalism, investigative reporters don't have a sense of humor. They can't afford one. Otherwise, they'd be giggling all the way through the interviews with crooked public officials, hypocritical politicians, and randy religious leaders caught with their hands in the till or up the skirts of parishioners.

As for the Nicole Lozare story, the inappropriateness of sending her to cover a court trial of any kind should be evident to anyone who knows her work. She lacks the substantive knowledge, listening skills, and critical thinking ability to report on anything more serious than a beach bathtub race.

But -- who'd a thunk it? -- Nicole does have a talent. As a steamy romance writer! Get this lede:
Tears rolling down her face, a former teacher who faces up to 60 years in prison testified there was nothing lewd and lascivious about her relationship with her 15-year-old student -- just love.

Janelle Bird, 25, said she loved him so much that, despite a Pensacola Christian College education that preached against premarital sex, she gave him her virginity.
"Gave him her virginity?" If that's a quote from the defendant's testimony, you'd think Nicole would have given her readers some sort of clue -- like quotation marks, for instance. Perhaps she feared that doing so would make it seem, to borrow Lynn Truss' words, like "a kind of linguisitic rubber glove, distancing [herself] from vulgar words [she] is too refined to use in a normal way."

Apart from the steamy prose, obscurantism, and the (yet another) example of Lozare's carelessness with quotations, she seems to have missed entirely the story-behind-the story. According to Lozare, the teacher --
didn't deny that she had sex with the teen nearly a dozen times in August and October. But she denied that it was lewd and lascivious.
Now, here is where a real trial reporter might have done some good. What on earth is the defense doing? Why would the accused teacher take the stand and testify so explicitly to her long-running affair with a 15 year-old male student? Why would the defense lawyer let her? Don't they watch Law & Order?

These are questions we imagine most readers are asking themselves today. They have to ask because these questions don't seem to have occurred to Nicole Lozare.

Could it be that the Florida Supreme Court has "reserved" approving a standard jury instruction for "lewd" and "lascivious" to share with juries? Might it be that the state's statutory definitions of those words are vague and even contradictory? Even on-line dictionaries offer what some could argue are incompatible definitions of lewd ("lustful" or "indecent") and "lascivious" ("expressing lust" or "salacious").

Add to that the fact that the whole of the "common law of England" -- we're talking over seven centuries of judicial decisions, now -- is expressly made part of Florida criminal law by the very first section (775.01) of the Florida Criminal Code, and you can begin to see there may be some method to the madness of having the defendant testify that, sure, she had an affair. So what?

At the least, there seems to be enough confusion in Florida law over what "lewd" and "lascivious" mean that even a linguist would have trouble reaching a reasoned judgment. Even if the jury eventually throws out whatever definitions the court may give it and concludes -- as Justice Potter Stewart once did about what constitutes obscenity -- that they know lewd and lascivious when they see them, it's a good bet there will be protracted appeals to higher courts.

Is that what the defense has in mind? We can't be sure. The reporter covering this trial isn't saying.


Anonymous said...

Law and Order. Good one.

Bryan said...

Based on the testimony I would think that attending PCC qualifies as proof of being incompetent to stand trial.

These people are just bizarre.

Gannett will be out of business before they figure out that people buy the local paper for local reporting, otherwise they can watch television.