I had thought I’d be writing about how much I enjoyed Thanksgiving with my family and friends, how I may have eaten too much of a delicious feast and dish on some things I’m thankful for this year. But hanging over my Thanksgiving was good ol’ social media, and a narrative that developed about how and when the newspaper (and other local media outlets) report certain stories, namely crime.
So, rather than some wholesome, feel good content, I’ll will — once again — explain how real-world journalism is so very different than what you see on TV.
The story involved here is the arrest of Reno Mayor Bart Jetton, charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Information about Jetton’s arrest and the Reno Police Department response to the Oct. 27 incident on which the charge is based was released by the City of Reno on Wednesday, the same day Jetton was booked into and released from the Lamar County Jail on a $100,000 bond. Details of the incident have not yet been released.
Days before the arrest, we heard rumblings that Jetton had been involved in some sort of altercation and there was concern the Reno Police Department was covering up the incident. Unfortunately our hands were tied to learn more from official records because Texas laws allow police departments to keep confidential any information related to an open investigation. Such records only become subject to the state’s Open Records Act laws when charges result. And even then, some information may be kept from the public if officials determine its release would interfere with the law enforcement agency or prosecutor’s ability to detect, investigate or prosecute a crime.
To what lengths do law enforcement agencies exercise this exception? A few years ago, a Paris News reporter pulled up to a road closure because there had been a terrible crash. They asked the officer if the road was partially or totally closed, and the officer told them he couldn’t provide that information because it was an open investigation.
Back to the Jetton story, one of the comments on social media was about how the story could have been reported but the newspaper (and other local media outlets) are too scared of being sued. It’s not that we’re scared. It’s that we cannot print unverifiable information. Unlike social media, we can’t print rumors, anonymous tips or any other information that does not come from a source on the record. Doing so is a direct line to a libel case that could bankrupt the company — and we know that because it has bankrupted media companies.
However, now that an arrest has been made and some information about the incident has been made public, there are some questions about this investigation I hope we’ll be able to answer. That includes why it took a month, from Oct. 27 to Nov. 24, for an arrest to happen in this case, and why that arrest came only after word of the incident from anonymous sources began to spread on social media. We know the investigation was turned over to the Texas Rangers, and getting information from the Rangers is worse than pulling your own tooth with needle-nose pliers. It’s possible we won’t get answers until the case goes to court.
I’ve written several times about my disgust with the condition of Texas Open Records and Open Meetings laws — they are literally the worst open records laws of any state where I’ve practiced journalism — and it’s incidents like this that show just how lacking they truly are. If you want things to change, there’s only one group that can make it happen — your state lawmakers. Write them, call them, email them, send a pigeon if you have to, but find a way to tell them they need to restore trust in the government and its agencies by upholding and restoring Texas Sunshine Laws.