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Patrick Dennehy Coverage

July 8, 2003 Columns No Comments


All the News That Isn’t Fit to Print

by Dean Austin

I write this today on our Nation’s birthday (although it will be posted later) and my thoughts turn to our rights, of the First Amendment, our right to privacy, the presumption of innocence and the right of due process. It’s been an interesting off season, one of the wackier ones in recent memory. First off there was the LeBron lovefest, a perfect metaphor for our society’s need for instant gratification. Then we had the absurdity of the overly pious, in this case the apparent downfall of Coach Rick Neuheisel due to an office pool. Now once more college basketball is back in the news, this time highlighting what I believe is the appalling lack of ethics and morals in the modern journalistic society.

But let me digress for a moment to Atlanta seven years ago and a case that the media should have learnt from. On July 27th 1996 in the Olympic Centennial Park an unassuming law enforcement wannabee displayed the kind of bravery that we can only hope to emulate given similar circumstances. Finding an unattended backpack, Security Guard Richard Jewell alerted his fellow workers and started to clear the area. Tragically the backpack exploded killing Alice Hawthorne and injuring dozens of others. Richard Jewell was a hero but unfortunately for him his desire to be in law enforcement and other particulars of his background fit a possible profile of a potential suspect. That information was leaked and faster than you can say media frenzy Jewell went from hero to zero. For some useful perspectives on all of this see Greg Boyd’s excellent summation and Ann Woolner’s analysis.

Richard Jewell was completely exonerated by the F.B.I. three months after the bombing in Atlanta, he sued a number of media organizations for libel, settling with some. Curiously one defense offered was that in taking his heroic actions, Jewell had become a public figure and therefore any coverage should be judged to that standard – “public figures” have a harder time proving libel.

At the time there was great debate about the journalistic standard of not naming a suspect before someone is charged.

This brings us back to today, or more accurately the last 10 days or so and the troubling case of Baylor college basketball player Patrick Dennehy. My first inkling of the story was Mike Finger’s brief June 26th piece in the San Antonio Express News. Finger noted that Waco police were investigating the apparent disappearance of Dennehy who had not been in contact for two weeks. All well and good, an excellent standard article. In similar fine fashion the next day the Dallas Morning News followed up with the additional information that foul play was now suspected. The article quoted a fairly extraordinary statement by the Waco police which included, “From that lead and others, potential suspects in the disappearance of Dennehy potentially include fellow Baylor basketball players.”

This way Kenny Taylor, Ellis Kidd Jr., and Corey Herring; Step right up Matt Sayman, John Lucas, and Terrance Thomas; Paging Tommy Swanson, R. T. Guinn, and Lawrence Roberts; Final call for Tyrone Nelson, Harvey Thomas and Carl Marshall. You gentleman, the 2003-2004 Baylor basketball squad, just got slimed by public opinion and innuendo.

Now the story took on national prominence. Baylor Athletic Director Tom Stanton issued a statement, ESPN, CNN and others covered it and newspapers coast to coast ran their own stories or used Associated Press feed. From one such dispatch on the 28th for the first time I saw the name of Carlton Dotson, a teammate of Dennehy last year, as he is quoted in the Fort Wayne News Sentinel. More news trickles out on the 29th, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that Waco police are investigating alleged threats from a teammate. Meanwhile the F.B.I. joins the investigation. Then the bombshell, on June 30th the San Luis Obispo Tribune breaks the AP news story that a police informant had alleged that Dennehy had been shot and killed in an argument with Dotson and this information had been used in a search warrant affidavit. Covering themselves most outlets make note that the allegation was contained in court documents that were released. Why those documents were released and if any news outlet asked for them to be released does not seem to have been covered.

Wisely at least one online newspaper (not one of those listed in this article) whom had run the headline, “Baylor player shot by teammate” removes the article from their archive.

Dotson becomes the focus of the story, headlines such as “Report: Teammate shot Baylor player,” and “Baylor player likely shot,” appear. Some outlets don’t even try to quantify their headlines with one website of a radio station headlining “Former teammate says he shot missing Baylor basketball player.”

An image was being created of Dotson, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. The innuendo would lead any reasonable person to believe it was Dotson that had been threatening Dennehy, and additionally reports were coming out that Dennehy had money stolen from him.

And then an interesting thing happened. Dennehey’s friends and family started coming forward to tell a different story. Dennehy and Dotson were room mates and good buddies. It was on July 2nd that Dennehy’s “long time friend” Daniel Okopnyi was quoted in a number of places saying that Dennehy had been afraid for both himself and Dotson and the pair had armed themselves. Dotson’s wife, Melissa Kethley who reportedly recently sought a divorce for their brief marriage also commented that Dennehy and Dotson were friends who spent time with each other every day.

Not surprisingly Dotson hired a lawyer, Grady Irvin Jr. as the Waco police continued to describe him as a “person of interest.” Irvin Jr. was interviewed by CNN’s Paula Zahn on July 3rd. All of a sudden the national tone changes, now the opening line in the article is “Police have questioned Carlton Dotson, the roommate of missing Baylor University basketball player Patrick Dennehy, but they say he is not a suspect.” Zahn in an unfortunate choice of words gave Dotson’s attorney the opportunity to “shoot down some of these rumors.”

Okopnyi also talked to the USA Today. In it he mentions that a person named Harvey, a new ball player might have been involved. Naturally attention then swings to incoming transfer Harvey Thomas. Also naturally Thomas’ “mentor” Anthony Poole is less than pleased telling Andy Katz at ESPN.com that Thomas had nothing to do with the disappearance of Dennehy. In a classic understatement Poole adds “The media is running his name in the mud,” a statement about Thomas that could also apply to Dotson.

Now let me state this as clearly as I can. I’m not a lawyer; I don’t even play one on TV. Whether libel (see a definition of libel) has been committed is something only highly priced lawyers can fully articulate. This is not about the technicalities of libel but rather regardless of the legalities there is, it seems to me, a lack of fundamental fairness. It is about the appearance that Dotson, not to mention Thomas have been wronged. While the media may try and couch it in terms of “court papers say” or similar there is still something fundamentally flawed in this entire coverage.

Carlton Dotson may turn out to be the embodiment of Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s more evil brother or he might just turn out to be as sweet as the Easter bunny. That is for the police to discover as they continue their investigation. Until that is complete and Patrick Dennehy’s disappearance is resolved it might do for the nation’s media to remember the lesson of Richard Jewell. For I hold this truth to be self-evident. Sometimes less is more.

And say a prayer, that however unlikely, Patrick is found safe.

     

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