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Occupy skepticism: Journalism and the fallacy of authority

“In the end, the questionable credibility of the folks in the video may do more to undermine the Occupy movement than the half-baked suspicions in the video will derail the volunteer traffic-safety effort.”

Rubén Rosario
Rubén Rosario

Last year, shortly after he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, I praised Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario as a “tireless reporter, buttressing his conclusions with street work, rather than twirling in his chair and lazily spraying opinions.”

Rosario’s cancer is incurable, but the Bronx native has battled back from medical leave to resume column-writing, surprising no one who knows him. He’s still in ass-kicking mode, and doesn’t fall back on his condition when the media critic comes calling.

Ten days ago — after Occupy Minnesota-affiliated Rogue Media made allegations that Minnesota law enforcement officers had given drugs to test subjects — Rosario wrote the italicized paragraph above. Reading it, I winced.

I’d watched the 35-minute YouTube video that contained multiple accusations of Minnesota sheriffs and cops giving people illegal drugs as part of training program to recognize drug-impaired drivers. When it comes to Occupy, I’m your typical bourgeoisie lefty: support the politics, hate the intersection-blocking.  But the video seemed surprisingly credible: multiple recountings (with some faces unobscured) and many shots of the same people getting into and out of squad cars non-confrontationally.

It wasn’t slam-dunk proof — immediately judging the Occupiers right would’ve also been misguided — but there was enough to justify further journalist digging.

Rosario instead pawed the ground, relying on a State Patrol spokesman’s statement that “We do not give anyone drugs,” paraphrasing the conclusion that “the videotaped testimonials are essentially stone-faced fabrications.”

I remember thinking, “Boy, Ruben’s putting a lot of trust in the cops’ self-denials to heap scorn on the Occupiers’ veracity and credibility.” While you can’t reflexively take accusations as truth, authorities represent society’s truly powerful forces — and with power comes the journalistic responsibility to remain skeptical.

Sure enough, a few days after Rosario’s column ran, the State Patrol began a criminal investigation of a Hutchinson, Minn., cop after another officer saw him allegedly giving a test subject marijuana. I emailed Rosario and said, “I see this as a cautionary tale for taking one side’s word for it, and doing that on the basis of authority. I wonder if you regret that now?”

Rosario replied, “I don’t regret it, though it may look like I completely discredited the allegations. What I was taking issue with was the way the video was shot and the questionable testimonials.”

This strikes me as too lawyerly. Rosario’s column stated there “some questions … worth exploring” about the underlying, legal drug-recognition program: “who’s overseeing such programs and whether targeting a vulnerable segment of folks is ethical.” Missing: the video’s fundamental question — did the cops provide people illegal drugs?

One of the things I admire about Rosario is that he hasn’t been a toady for cops or those who confront them. I believe opinion journalists can rate one side’s credibility over another. But summary judgments require more than “because I said so.”

When we talked, Rosario noted that the allegations were “against one cop out of hundreds that have taken part in the DRE training program. And I also understand that the allegation under investigation did not come from a subject in the video, but a fellow cop.”

Since then, even that has changed; the State Patrol put a state trooper on leave after a Peavey Plaza protester said the officer handed him a bag of pot.

Both officers may be exonerated, but at the very least, Occupy-affiliated media uncovered very real potential wrongdoing. If you’re a journalist keeping score, that accrues to Occupy’s credibility. But that's no license to suspend skepticism for anyone.

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Comments (7)

Question More When Police are Involved

Even if the officers are not charged, it does not mean an action didn't happen. We have only to look at the Metro Gang Strike Force for example of well documented issues that were not prosecuted. The problem remains, who calls and prosecutes police when the police are the ones committing crime? The answer frequently is no one. Only intense public outcry causes some action.

double standard

It seems every time James O'Keefe or Breitbart's sites come out with one of his fake videos, it's instant news, taken seriously enough to cost innocent people their jobs, despite their record of fraud. Here the occupiers made a charge and proved it upon scrutiny, yet whose reputation is damaged? It seems if coverage overall were fair, the people who made the occupy video should at least have their credibility enhanced, and their next claims taken seriously.

Echo!!!

Maybe because there is a conservative echo chamber but not a liberal echo chamber?

Bad progressive comment

Hey Grace,

Your comment is just gratuitious. Shame on you. If you do not have information about the Strike Force that is new, how dare you try to leverage this MInn Post thing into a comment about that unit. You give progressives a bad name with this kind of tactic. Get Over Bob Fletcher....You do damage to your own cause.

The Strike force may be relevant here...

The fact that not one Strike Force officer was prosecuted for their well-documented crimes is very relevant to this DRE discussion. Officers were literally invading the homes of vulnerable citizens without a warrant, stealing their money and other valuable possessions without filing any charges or civil forfeiture paperwork, and using the seized property for personal purposes. The legislative auditor found tens of thousands of dollars and many vehicles were unaccounted for. One of the officers in a leadership position was driving an illegally seized Cadillac Escalade with spinner rims as a personal take-home car. When the auditor released his report, officers were caught having a late night Enron-style document shredding party at their New Brighton headquarters.

Many well-documented incidents suggest that the Strike Force routinely used their official position of power to intimidate, harass, and steal from vulnerable citizens. As more and more young people and minorities see the police as violent thugs, this threatens public safety for all of us. If citizens are too scared of the police to report crimes, criminals will go unpunished.

When the Hennepin County DA announced he would not press charges he gave two reasons that stuck with me. He said he couldn’t prosecute because no officers would cooperate and he doesn't have enough evidence since it was destroyed (by the offending officers) and they didn't keep good records of their crimes. Seriously.

This type of injustice reinforces the growing notion that the rule of law doesn't apply to law enforcement. We watch time and time again as officers are put on paid leave after committing an egregious offense and then quietly let off the hook when the furor has waned.

Now we have another case of officers being accused of breaking the law. We wonder if anyone will be held responsible. Paul, do you really think that past experience isn't relevant?

I disagree with Paul...

She was using the strike force disaster as an example; no new information was required for it to serve as a cautionary tale. Not quite sure what your cause is here though. Just don't like people pointing our that cops can be criminals too?

It was certainly popular

back in the 60s, though I doubt it originated then. Still, it's a useful phrase, and seems to me to be QUITE relevant in this case – and in many others. The phrase is: "Question authority."

Most cops are honorable people doing a tough job that the rest of us don't want to do – or aren't cut out for temperamentally. The operative word there, however, is "most." Like many a business organization, a police force of any size is going to have people in it who should NEVER be given any real authority because their temperament inclines them to abuse it. I've seen that work in business, and since I spent 30 years in a public high school, I've seen it in school environments, as well. Some people let even the faintest whiff of authority short-circuit their brains, to the exclusion of reason and fairness. Police officers, as a group, are no different.

That doesn't mean every police action necessarily merits microscopic inspection, but most of us don't have the legal authority to draw a weapon and kill someone, so it makes sense to hold the police – as skeptical voters are inclined to do with other public-sector workers – to a high standard. It happens far too rarely that the police are held accountable for fairly egregious behavior and actions, including shooting innocent people and doctoring evidence. I wasn't here for most of the Strike Force fiasco, but it doesn't surprise me in the least – it's a story that, with variations for local culture, could have been written to describe quite a few big-city operations that were similar in scope over the past decade or two.

That doesn't make every Minnesota State Trooper a felon, or every local police officer someone to regard with suspicion, but I'm not inclined to give the police carte blanche in ANY environment. They need to be able to do their job effectively – that's what my tax dollars are paying for – but the limits of what's permissible should be absolutely clear, and there ought to be genuine consequences for those few (I hope) bad eggs who believe that they're somehow above the same laws that the rest of us are expected to obey. Just as important – and something that police forces have historically been VERY reluctant to accommodate – is transparency. Police disciplinary hearings don't need to be held on the plaza in front of the courthouse downtown, but they should also not – NOT – be behind closed doors that only fellow police officers are allowed to enter.