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Larry Lough

What did we know, and when did we know it?

When the police come to us and say, “We need your help,” we try to be accommodating.

We usually say, “Yes, but ...”

On one hand, we need each other – the police and the press – if we are to do our jobs well.

On the other hand, law enforcement is an arm of government, and a newspaper’s job (under the First Amendment) is to be a public watchdog of government’s activities.

That sometimes creates an adversarial relationship.

We don’t want to be a hindrance to good government, including effective police work.
But sometimes, we have to say, “No.”

YOU MIGHT RECALL a story from the editor’s past that he shared in an earlier column.

In a previous lifetime, the editor was approached by a police detective who wanted the newspaper’s cooperation.

“Indiana Sam” Satterfield had ratted out a former motorcycle gang associate in a murder case.

That associate was sitting in jail awaiting trial, trying to arrange a “hit” on Sam so that he couldn’t testify.

An undercover cop, posing as a hitman, had agreed to take the job.

Now, if the newspaper would just print a phony story about Sam being killed, the “hitman” could collect, and the conspiracy-to-kill case would be solid.

Then we could let readers in on the sting, and we would be heroes.

We said, “No.”

If we publish that phony story, why should readers believe anything we ever print?

They would rightly be suspicious that we were a mouthpiece for the police or other agency of government.

We’re supposed to be a watchdog, not a lapdog.

We don’t need that rap.

AND THEN THERE was the request from the sheriff’s department:

Please don’t publish any more letters from jail inmates. You never used to do it.

The sad truth is, we never used to do a lot of things we should have been doing.

But that was then.

Although inmates win very little public sympathy with their letters, they still have every right to express themselves on matters of public concern.

And the operation of the jail, along with treatment of inmates, is very much a public concern.

We always edit inmates’ letters, as we do all letters.

And some don’t get published, just like a few other off-the-wall letters don’t get published.

Otherwise, let the marketplace of ideas hear all men’s opinions.

WHILE READING THE Telegraph on a Tuesday morning this past October, the editor was a bit miffed by what he saw on Page A3.

A political ad for Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon was urging voters to “retain experience” in the Nov. 6 election.

“This is not the time for a new state’s attorney,” the ad said.

Dixon told us in that ad that “serious cases are pending,” and he listed five examples, including this: “An over 20 year old murder ‘cold case.’”

That’s it, the editor thought. The deal is off.

The editor showed the ad to reporter David Giuliani and asked him to file a formal request for public records related to the investigation of that “top secret” cold case that Dixon had exposed.

The newspaper had been sitting on that story at the request of ... State’s Attorney Henry Dixon.

When authorities come to us and say, “We need your help,” we try to be accommodating.

We usually say, “Yes, but ...”

This was a “but.”

SEVERAL MONTHS before, Giuliani had heard about a group of investigators from the county who had traveled to Hawaii.

After Giuliani began asking around about it, State’s Attorney Dixon and Sheriff John Varga asked that we not publish a story about that trip, which involved a witness in an unsolved 30-year-old murder case.

Any publicity could spook the suspects and jeopardize the investigation, in which new evidence promised to deliver long-delayed justice in a brutal killing.

Given those circumstances, we consented not to pursue a story for immediate publication – as long as they kept a lid on the case.

So we waited ... and watched.

The next thing we saw was that political ad in late October.

So we asked, through a formal Freedom of Information filing, to see those expense records from that trip to Hawaii.

THAT WAS WHEN Assistant State’s Attorney Peter Buh called on us.

He made the same plea Dixon had made months earlier: publication could jeopardize their case.

When the editor showed Buh the newspaper ad, he was obviously surprised.

So the editor made a deal with Buh: Get us those expense records, and unless we see something inappropriate, we’ll continue to delay publication of a story until later. He agreed.

Buh’s part of the deal was to keep the newspaper apprised of progress in the investigation, and to provide us with details as the arrest was made.

Well, Buh never produced those records, and never updated us on the investigation. As Giuliani reported this week, we went through the keeper of county expenses records – the clerk’s office – to get the information we wanted.

Giuliani then wrote a couple of columns that addressed the trip generally.

After that, we waited to hear word on the investigation.


SO, IMAGINE OUR surprise when we heard this week from a TV station in Missouri that an arrest in this cold case had been made in Arkansas.

Like all good journalists, they were looking for background information, and they knew there’s no better source than the local newspaper where the homicide is being investigated.

We traded information with that station as well as a newspaper in Carroll County, Ark., where the arrest took place.

When we called him, Varga asked us not to publish a story, and he declined to give us the information he had sent to the TV station. He later relented.

State’s Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller – who had proved that, despite Dixon’s ad, it was time for a new state’s attorney – asked us not to publish a story about the arrest. She said Varga had told her that the out-of-state journalists had agreed to withhold the story. We found the story on the website of that Arkansas newspaper.

At that point, we had to publish. It went online immediately, and later in print.

When the police come to us and say, “We need your help,” we try to be accommodating.

We usually say, “Yes, but ...”

This was another “but.”

WE LIVE IN A small world in the 21st century.

Information travels fast. Keeping secrets has never been more difficult.

But we are willing, almost always, to cooperate with authorities and withhold publication of information if it will further the cause of justice.

We don’t necessarily have to publish to monitor the activities of government agencies.

We insist, however, that we continue to be updated on developments so that we might follow the performance of government, to ensure it operates in the public interest. That’s our job.

After we show we can be trusted to cooperate, we are always disappointed when the other side fails to live up to its end of the bargain.

Fool us once, shame on you.

Fool us twice ... well, we like to be accommodating.

But ...

What did we know, and when did we know it? shaw-push-component-1