It’s somewhat shocking to consider that prior to the passage of the Freedom of Information Act some 50 years ago, Americans largely had no legal right to view government documents. As a result, malfeasance on every scale took place, from the infiltration of labor, antiwar, and civil rights groups by government agents to the actual machinations that led to the invasion of Vietnam and years of illegal bombings in Southeast Asia to garden-variety corruption on the local level.
Of course, governments still routinely engage in questionable behavior, as do pretty much any large bureaucratic organizations for that matter, but today there are laws in place that allow citizens and the press wider access to documents showing the inner workings of our government agencies. The hope here is that the Fourth Estate can fulfill its role as a government watchdog and stop the abuse of power. (Corporate power, of course, is typically still immune from observation.)
My first reaction on hearing about the gag order placed by the judge presiding over the Dylann Roof trial was to wonder just how much of it was meant to protect the privacy of the victims’ families and the survivors. I also wondered how much of it was to protect the integrity of the judicial process and how much of it was to protect the police from public scrutiny. The lawyers representing local media seem to be zeroing in on the latter, challenging the gag order by proclaiming “the public’s right to know how authorities responded to the mass killing.”
This assertion is a bit odd. I, for one, cannot remember anyone questioning the police response the night that Roof killed nine Mother Emanuel parishioners. We’ve all heard stories about police responding slowly (or not at all) to crimes or 911 operators failing to take calls seriously. Nothing of the sort seemed to be an issue with how Charleston police handled the tragic night of June 17.
Still, it is reasonable to understand local media’s belief that there’s something in those documents that might explain how Roof could have gotten out of downtown Charleston that night without being apprehended. It’s also understandable to wonder if the police followed procedures or properly dealt with the crime scene.
Last week, some of those questions were answered when Judge J.C. Nicholson lifted parts of the gag order and 362 pages of heavily redacted reports were released to the press.
The media, to say the least, was miffed. There was still a sense that the redactions were far too much. Where were the evidence lists? What did the survivors give police? Where were all of the little details that have absolutely nothing to do with the media’s stated reasons for wanting these documents released? After all, the actual response of the police in this case is laid out in some detail in the dispatch and incident reports. From the time of the initial 911 calls to the arrival of the first units on the scene to the calls for chaplains and the need to set up a command center, it seems as though the entirety of the police’s response is laid out for all to see.
So, why the fuss about the redactions?
If we infer these redactions are meant to provide privacy to the victims and survivors, then we must infer that the redactions of police interviews that night contain details that, similar to photographs of the scene, would be difficult for the family to see in print. As for the evidence lists, the inference is that those records contain something that is pertinent to the continuing investigation and that perhaps there is something there that the police don’t want to be made public, lest it warn possible accomplices they are in jeopardy of being arrested.
My feeling is that for some local media outlets what is left out of the documents released so far is precisely the sort of details that would deepen the eventual publication of a long-form story on the Mother Emanuel shooting. After all, our local daily, The Post and Courier, has spent a lot of time and money over the last year crafting some arguably fantastic pieces about serious issues that need to be addressed, from police shootings to the abusive conditions at group homes for children. In this case, however, the P&C and other media outlets may be pushing too hard for information that isn’t necessary for a good story.
While it’s true that some of the redacted information might lead to a more complete story, one has to wonder if pushing for this type of public interest reporting is truly in the public interest or in the interest of public interest reporting.