Monday, January 21, 2013

Publishing list was splashy, lazy journalism

Occasionally, something happens in the world of journalism that causes conscientious journalists to question their deeply-held beliefs about the scope of the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution. The recent publication of the names and addresses of handgun permit owners should be just such an incident.

On Dec. 23, ostensibly as part of its extended coverage of the Sandy Hook school shootings, the Journal News of White Plains, NY, published the names and addresses of all of the pistol permit holders in Rockland and Westchester counties. New York state law and the U.S. Constitution clearly make such publication legal. Nonetheless, a lot of people, including the county clerk of nearby Putnam County, where the Journal News also has requested such a list, are crying foul. As of this writing, County Clerk Dennis Sant had refused to comply with the newspaper’s request, although it’s likely that, should the Journal News decide to pursue the matter, Sant would be forced to turn over the list.

The Journal News, and every other journalist in the United States who is asked to comment on the incident, claims it has every right to publish the list. And so far, the only defense the Journal News has offered to critics is exactly that: They did it because they could. That is an excuse offered all too often when it comes to publishing information that is of no real use to readers but causes a kerfuffle on Main Street. No doubt the staff of the Journal News thought they were being pro-active and edgy when they published the clickable interactive links on their web site and the list of permit holders in their pages. I'd be willing to bet they even invoked Ben Bagdikian's immortal defense of publishing the Pentagon Papers: "We don't just have the right to publish, we have a duty to publish!"

But the gun permit lists aren't the Pentagon Papers, aren't even in the same category. The Pentagon Papers were highly secret documents that chronicled the extent of deception and incompetence at the highest levels of the U.S. Government in prosecution of the Vietnam War. The list of gun permit holders is just another list of perfectly legal licenses and permits that any moke can get for the asking. And some of the people who's names and addresses are on that list are former police officers, prosecutors, and judges, some of whom are responsible for putting away some really bad guys -- guys who'd probably like to know where those people live. At best, it's a shopping list for any gang banger who wants to get his mitts on handgun and isn't afraid to break a window to do it.

 The question then becomes: Just because it’s legal, does that make it right? The Journal News hasn’t even offered the clearly obvious defense it could be making, and that is this: Handguns in the possession of private citizens are dangerous things, and Americans should know who among their neighbors are dangerous. One reason they haven’t made that defense might be because it’s disingenuous. Having a handgun permit doesn’t make a person dangerous. Few mass killings are ever done with handguns because they simply don’t render a high enough body count. Tying legal ownership of permitted handguns to the Sandy Hook killings is like tying everyone who has a license to fly an airplane to the 911 attacks.

But here’s my biggest problem, as a journalist, with the lists that were requested and published. It’s lazy journalism for the sake of sensation. If the Journal News really wanted to perform a public service to its readers, and really wanted to tie that service to the Sandy Hook killings, it should have published the names and addresses of everyone in its readership area who owns a Bushmaster AR-15 assault-type rifle. Ah, you say, but there are no such records, and what records there are are kept secret by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms! True, and that’s the point. If the Journal News had expended two or three times the effort trying to get records of people who own assault style weapons, it would have come up empty-handed, and could have reported about the gaping hole in record-keeping on guns. It would have run head-first into the BATF, which considers the public records law a minor nuisance (while it funnels illegal weapons to Mexican drug lords.) And reporters would no doubt have been thrown out of every gun shop where they asked for names and addresses of customers.

So yes, in one sense the JN would have come up empty-handed, but they would have had a better story. They would have been able to document the complete failure of gun legislation when it comes to protecting you and me from people like Adam Lanza and James Holmes. They could have canvassed local gun stores to find out how many such weapons have been sold (although that would have required the burning of shoe leather, something reporters are loathe to do in this age of the Internet.) They could have documented the pitifully thin shield the gun reporting laws present and started a real dialogue about beefing up registration and records of guns in New York. It could have provided a foundation for a cause, the cause of making it easier to know who does and who does not own guns capable of killing twenty people in five minutes.

Instead, the JN did the easiest, fastest, splashiest thing it could do: It demanded, and got, a completely irrelevant list of law-abiding citizens and put their names and addresses in a clickable, interactive web page, and pretended it had practiced real journalism. Alas, it has not. It has only exposed several hundred of its readers to even greater danger than they faced before they got their gun permits. And that’s a shame.