Idaho Law Enforcement as Ministry of Information
I was working Thursday morning when a member of my audience told me there was an accident backing up traffic in Jerome County. I made a quick mention of it to alert drivers tuning in and who might know a detour. Later in the day, when I left work and drove home, I decided to stop and do some grocery shopping. I was at a store when a friend told me a trooper was badly hurt, and it was a Sergeant who appears on my program on a regular basis.
When I got back to my car, I telephoned KLIX’s news director and gave him the news. He followed up with a brief call to the state police and then wrote a brief story.
After I unpacked my groceries, I logged into my personal Facebook page and asked for prayers for the Sergeant, whom I named. About an hour passed and I had a reply from a guy I don’t personally know, but I believe he works in local law enforcement. He chastised me because troopers hadn’t yet released any names.
A couple of notes here. I didn’t have all the facts of the accident, but I wasn’t at work broadcasting details, and I wasn’t posting any of this on our station’s website. Again, my personal Facebook page. We live in a growing community, but we still are very much a small town. People get these details whether from my Facebook page or in a local café.
For the sake of argument, had I broadcast the name, I wouldn’t have broken any laws. Had I published the name on the KLIX website, I wouldn’t have broken any laws. Newsrooms generally weigh a series of questions before publishing a name. Nearly 40 years ago, I was working at a radio station and learned several local businesses had been burglarized over a matter of a few days. A local detective told me he was close to cracking the case and asked me if I could keep it under wraps.
I did. A few days passed and he made an arrest. Then he gave me several hours lead on the exclusive. At no point did he ever attempt to tell me how to do my job.
For much of the 90s, I served as a board member of the Syracuse, New York Press Club. We would then pass out copies of court decisions on prior restraint to reporters. We instructed them to keep a copy and present it when someone in law enforcement and the government decided to bar us from doing our work. An example came after a prison riot. The next morning I was with a photographer, and we were getting some exteriors of the facility from several hundred feet away. A guy in a state truck stopped and ordered us to stop. We didn’t.
At about the same time, a local sheriff told me he was keeping details on a story under lock and key because he didn’t want to cause a panic. When I asked why he wasn’t panicking, he looked confused. Was he born with a panic-free gene? The story was about a series of rapes occurring in a suburban community. I did a story and used the words “serial rapist”. The Sheriff’s public information officer then refused to speak with me for several weeks because, once more, he said my description caused panic. Or it caused women to take some sensible precautions!
Law enforcement, prosecuting attorneys, and coroners aren’t the Ministry of Truth. The latter once (a normally jovial man) once chewed out my fellow broadcasters. The Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office had provided the same co-worker with the name of the dead man. The coroner apparently believed it was an infringement on his turf.
News media today usually doesn’t have the resources to challenge some of the decisions made by the government. Or doesn’t want to lose access.
It has been said that our federal government classifies far more information than is worth the designation. Simply because it can. There’s a considerable amount of unnecessary secrecy at all levels of government.
Oh, and the trooper's wife posted on her personal Facebook page a few hours after my post. At the time, the agency still hadn't released his name.
One last point. We appear to have had an officer-involved shooting in the county a couple of weeks ago. It's only conjecture, but someone may have been killed. Are we waiting on a possible resurrection?