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Unfit to print?

A daily paper's curious case of omission about a state senator

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Last week, media blogger Jim Romenesko noted that the Billings Gazette did not include charging documents in its story about criminal proceedings against state Sen. Jason Priest, R—Red Lodge. Priest has pleaded not guilty to one felony and three misdemeanors connected to a February altercation with his estranged wife, in which police allege he threw his 4-year-old daughter and broke the rib of his wife's boyfriend.

The print edition of the Gazette story said court filings were available at the paper's website, but the charging documents were conspicuously absent from the online version. Although the Gazette typically posts such documents with all its crime stories, editor Darrell Ehrlick explained that in this case he had decided to pull them, since they painted a picture of Priest that was "deeply troubling."

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  • Montana State Sen. Jason Priest.

"First, the case involves children," Ehrlick wrote. "More importantly, I believe the court documents could paint Priest in a harsh light. And, just as much as I am a fervent supporter of the First Amendment, I am also a big believer in the due process that says it's up to the courts to decide Priest's innocence or guilt."

You'll be relieved to know that none of the crime articles on the Gazette's website include charging documents now, so readers will be spared the court-reported details of "Man charged with raping girl, 6, and possession of child pornography" and "Man charged in hatchet assault." It took a family assault case against a Republican state senator to make editors realize that such cases should be tried in the courts, not the press.

The Gazette website is still running its monthly "Crime Watch" slideshows, though, which feature mugshots of everyone charged with a crime in the last month. The February gallery tells us that 62-year-old Edwin Cuch is facing DUI number 14, and that David Carlos Prien-Pinto was shot in a "drug heist gone awry."

Readers can comment on these stories, so the article about Prien-Pinto comes with the opinion of one "Top Commenter" who wonders, "why do we even waste our time on a court hearing on this loser???" No charging documents anymore, though—the Gazette is committed to the First Amendment, but it doesn't want to see anyone tried in the press.

"We followed some of the oldest and best journalism advice out there," Ehrlick wrote. "Just because you can print something doesn't mean you should."

That is old advice, and it's probably pretty good. If we're going to pick the best, though, I have to go with George Orwell, who said that "journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations."

I read the charging documents in State of Montana v. Jason Sheller Priest, so I happen to be in a position to do a little journalism. I am ever mindful of public relations, though, so I will euphemize those details that Ehrlick called "deeply troubling."

The documents report that on the phone with his wife, Priest said, "you [fudging] [coconut], you and Jon come over here and get your daughter right now." Priest's daughter says Priest said "[fudge] you" to her before police arrived. And the senator himself told officers that "when the man who is [fudging] your wife and your wife is acting like white trash in front of your children, it's not that easy to always maintain your composure."

As anyone who routinely uses the phrase will tell you, white trash is the second-worst kind. Regardless, these are the details from which Ehrlick's editorial discretion protected us. Everything else—the felony charge alleging he assaulted his daughter, the misdemeanors for breaking Trapp's rib and resisting arrest—is in the Gazette article.

If Ehrlick traded his journalistic ethics to protect Priest's reputation, he didn't get much out of the deal. After I read that police had to pull Priest off Trapp while he lay on the ground in a fetal position, it did not substantially alter my opinion of the senator to learn that he called his wife a [coconut.] Surely, Ehrlick has the talent and experience to do a better job of whitewashing than that.

It seems more likely that the publisher of the Gazette—Mike Gulledge, who has refused multiple requests for comment on this issue—tried to shield Priest without understanding how his paper's crime reporting really works. Gulledge is vice president of marketing and sales for all Lee Enterprises newspapers, including the Missoulian, which ran the same story as the Gazette and also omitted Priest's charging documents.

The daily newspapers of Montana are seeing to it that Priest is tried in the courts, not the press. The senator deserves due process. Still, readers might deserve to know that the man who told voters "we need policies that strengthen families, not undermine them" also allegedly told his daughter to fudge off.

What Priest said during a domestic disturbance was information as real as what he said on the campaign trail. It may be an act of journalism for the Lee papers to withhold it, but it's also an act of public relations.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and public relations at combatblog.net. His column appears every other week in the Independent.

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