RESPONSE ON THE OLIVERIO MARTINEZ CASE: On May 28 and 29, I wrote about the distortion of the facts of a Supreme Court case by the Los Angeles Times. You can read my complaints in detail in my May 28 post, which you can access here, and my May 29 post, which you can access here. Those posts provide the detail of my complaints, which I will summarize more briefly here.
In a nutshell, the Times had written about a guy named Oliverio Martinez who had gotten into a confrontation with police, was shot, and is paralyzed. Martinez was questioned by police while in the hospital. He sued police for questioning him without first reading him his rights, and for shooting him. The paper explained that police claimed that Martinez had grabbed an officer’s gun, which is why they shot Martinez. Martinez denies grabbing the gun. What the paper didn’t tell its readers, in the main story or in a companion puff piece about Martinez, was that Martinez had admitted to police on tape that he had grabbed the gun. Not only did this fact go unreported, but in an editorial, the Times claimed that police had interviewed Martinez and “got nothing useful.” I wrote the Times‘s editor to complain.
Today, I got a response from the “reader representative.” This led to a brief exchange of e-mails between that individual and myself. I would like to share the entire correspondence with you, the reader. This will be a long post, so if you’re not interested in the issue, don’t worry about it.
Here is the e-mail I got today:
“Your letter was forwarded to the office of the readers’ representative. I apologize for the great delay in responding.
“I see your point about the fact that the Supreme Court news story on the day you wrote did not say clearly that Martinez took the gun. From that, you infer that the reporter was trying to make the man look sympathetic. While I agree that the detail could have been made more clear, I do think the information was there, in condensed form [the representative then quoted the following passage from one of the stories]:
“‘When he approached, an officer called for him to halt. He did so, but when the officer grabbed for the field knife on his belt, a scuffle ensued. . . . “He’s got my gun,” the first officer called out. A second officer then fired five shots, hitting Martinez in the eyes and in his lower back. He was left blind and was paralyzed below the waist.’
“I think that the editors and reporters saw the Supreme Court article as a legal story more than a step-by-step recounting of the event. I understand you feel that the newsroom was trying to ‘portray’ Martinez as a ‘complete innocent,’ but the bulk of the article was a rundown of the Supreme Court legal decision and implications, rather than an examination of the run-in, and that’s one reason they didn’t include a line about Martinez’s saying he took the gun. As you know, the other article did say: ‘At that point, police said, he tried to snatch the officer’s gun.’
“However, I do will [sic] pass along to editors, even now, your point that the articles should have alluded to the transcript in which he admitted taking the gun. Further, you see this as a sign of liberal leanings in the newsroom; and I’ll let editors and the reporter know that as well.
“Every editor I work with here is concerned with bias in stories, and the appearance of bias, and I’m sorry that you are among readers who don’t believe that to be the case. It helps when specifics like this are pointed out, so I can go back to editors and show them where readers feel their attempts at neutral reporting fall short. I hope you choose to write to this office in the future when you see coverage you feel is unfair; I send a weekly report to the staff on what readers are saying about Times coverage. I also work directly with editors in hopes of making the Times’ news coverage as accurate and straight-forward as possible.”
I responded as follows:
“Thanks for your reply. Although it took a while, I am pleased and encouraged that someone at the paper took the time to look into this. However, I do feel the need to respond to your e-mail. Perhaps the fault is mine for not being more clear in my initial e-mail to Mr. Carroll, but I believe that you have not understood the point I was trying to make at all.
“My complaint was specific and limited: that the paper never even hinted — in condensed form or otherwise — that Martinez had admitted on tape that he had taken an officer’s gun in the struggle. The stories reported only that officers had claimed this. That is quite different.
“Any defense that Martinez’ admission was not a crucial element of the story begs the question: why was it considered important to inform readers (in both stories) that Martinez currently denies that he took the officer’s gun? If Martinez’ current story is relevant, so is his admission to the contrary, made on tape.
“If such an admission had been made by a cop, as opposed to a poor Hispanic guy, would the L.A. Times report the officer’s current story — but omit a damning admission to the contrary that the officer had previously made on tape? Come on! And would there be a puff piece about the officer and what a rough time he has had dealing with some unfair situation — again omitting his taped admission that he was the one who caused the situation to begin with? (I realize the term ‘puff piece’ may appear argumentative, but it is an accurate description of the companion piece the Times ran on Martinez.)
“Perhaps the worst thing the Times did that day was to print an editorial that affirmatively stated: ‘officers got nothing useful from Martinez.’ This was not merely a suspicious omission of a highly relevant fact, as occurred in the straight news stories. This was worse: a flat-out misrepresentation. I found it interesting that you seem to offer no defense for this statement.
“The misrepresentation in the editorial makes my point about the omission in the news stories of any mention of the taped admission. I can’t imagine that the editorial writer intentionally misstated the facts. The only reason I can imagine that the editorial writer would have said something so blatantly untrue is that the editorial writer got snookered by your news coverage into thinking that the cops must not have gotten anything good from Martinez. I can’t think of a better illustration of how misleading the news coverage was, than the fact that it apparently caused an editorial writer to flat-out misstate the facts.
“I accept your representation that the Times is working to keep bias off its news pages. (Presumably it is also working to keep factual misstatements off its pages, period — even its editorials.) However, I must admit that I cannot feel even slightly satisfied with respect to this particular episode if I believe that my objections have not even been understood. It seems to me that there is no defense for what I have outlined to you above.
“I hope I have now made my point clear. Thank you again for your time and your
I got a fairly immediate response:
“Thanks for this. I am in the newsroom, which is separate from the editorial pages, which is why I didn’t address your comment about the editorial-page essay. I can send this as well to the editorial-page editors. Most likely they wrote their opinions based on news stories, which as you point out didn’t mention the Martinez admission.
“It occurred to me that reporters might have felt the admission was in itself questionable because of the nature of the entire case — that his comments were coerced — but that is just my speculation. Let me ask the reporter specifically if he was aware of Martinez’s taped comment, and if so why he chose to leave it out of the story. I’ll let you know what I hear back.”
I sent the following response:
“Thanks for the quick response. If you could, ask both reporters. I think David Savage did the legal piece, and if memory serves, someone else (don’t remember who) did the companion piece about Martinez’ life nowadays. Both stories reported Martinez’ current version of events, and omitted the taped admission to the contrary, so I would be interested in what both reporters had to say. (Incidentally, the fact of Martinez’ admission is reported at page 2 of the Supreme Court opinion, so I will be pretty surprised if at least Savage was unaware of it.)
“If either or both reporter(s) uses the defense you suggested — that the statement was coerced, and therefore was suspect — please also ask them why readers aren’t capable of making such judgments for themselves. (I would also be interested to have them re-read the editorial that may have been based on their stories, and make their comments in light of the fact that their stories may have misled an editorial writer.)
“Thanks again. Let me add that I give you credit for writing me back, and taking these other steps. I will be very interested to hear the reporters’ responses.”
I trust that you, dear reader, will also be interested. I assure you that I will report back as soon as the reporters have offered their justifications.