By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item
One afternoon some time after a homicide in Selinsgrove, a man charged with the shooting death asked us to get a message to the family of the deceased, explaining that he was most regretful for what happened to their son.
The suspect, David Cannie, then a 27-year-old from Philadelphia, would later be convicted and sentenced as the gunman who killed Steven M. Rodriguez in Rodriguez’s apartment over drug dealing that became complicated.
But when he first approached the newspaper, Cannie did not have admission and confession in mind. “I have no way of contacting the family, but I believe you do,” he wrote.
The story, back in July 2009, reported this: “Interviewed at Union County Jail, Cannie tapped his heart and said, ‘This letter came from my heart, about what happened. I wanted to let the Rodriguez family know exactly how I feel.’ ”
He had written the letter in pencil on college-ruled paper and sent it to the newspaper for delivery without telling his attorney. Cannie said he contemplated sending the letter “a thousand times. There is no other way to do this other than publicly.”
That was not the first or last time an individual in those circumstances has turned to this newspaper. One of our reporters seems especially adept at acquiring jailhouse interviews and has reported in at least two separate instances the interpretation and explanation of homicide from the perspective of the accused awaiting trial.
It is a strange phenomenon, not quite a Dostoevsky moment, but not something we would automatically avoid, even knowing the risk of what would probably happen next.
What occasionally happens next is a subpoena from an attorney requiring we show up in court with all notes, documents, tapes and recollections associated with what appeared in the newspaper. From our perspective, that is when the trouble starts.
We rarely possess anything more than what appeared in print. The subpoenas typically arrive months after the story appeared. Memories are worn. Notes are gone.
We end up trying to keep the reporter out of court. Being a witness for either side compromises the reporter’s independence, blocks the reporter from covering the trial and sends the message that talking to reporters is like surrendering your Miranda rights.
People in risky or dangerous circumstances still turn to the news media, including newspapers, to unburden their consciences or to balance the intimidating power and authority of government, corporations, other public and private institutions and well-placed individuals.
Our little community newspaper is a far distance from the phone records scan and national security debate being discussed as the “criminalization of news reporting” in New York and Washington. Still, we regularly receive tips, run down leads and hear from people who want the newspaper to check out and make the public aware of situations they cannot themselves reveal.
In the process, we follow a fair number of blind alleys to dead ends and sometimes these tips and contacts just put us in the visitors room, across the table from a person wearing an orange jumpsuit.
We do not always pick sources. They pick us or they emerge in the pursuit of information. Good or bad, we do not discuss sources. That is how it works and why it works.
When local, state or federal prosecutors interject themselves into that process, the justification is always presented as a means to root out evil, secure the homeland and protect the citizens. Often that is true.
These actions, however, are rarely the only avenues to discover threats and prevent crimes. When they are conducted secretly, the media has no opportunity to test the government’s assertion that the information cannot be found any other way.
Some cable talkers have characterized the media backlash against the Obama administration’s surveillance methods as evidence the media is thin skinned — can dish it out, but can’t take it when it comes to scrutiny.
The reaction is not about protecting the people who work in media. It is about protecting sources – named and unnamed. Few news consumers can fully appreciate how much less they would know if secret government intrusion were either widespread or believed to be widespread.
More than we could all live with.