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Hubbard defends KSTP-TV’s Hodges story after SPJ seeks disavowal

“I believe that any news organization which is concerned with the news, and not political correctness, would run the story that Channel 5 ran,” Hubbard writes.

The following is a letter that Stanley S. Hubbard, chairman and CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting, sent Nov. 26 to Jonathan Kealing, president-elect of the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists, after the SPJ chapter called on Hubbard to disavow KSTP-TV’s recent coverage of Mayor Betsy Hodges at a community event — coverage that quickly was dubbed #pointergate. It is republished from the SPJ website with permission. The SPJ’s earlier call for disavowal, dated Nov. 19, is reprinted on the righthand side of this page.

Dear Mr. Kealing,

Stanley Hubbard

As a member of the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (Minnesota SPJ or Chapter), I am disappointed in how the Chapter has responded to KSTP-TV’s coverage of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’s participation in a get-out-the-vote event with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC). I believe the Chapter lacked professional protocol in its actions regarding same.

On November 19, 2014, the Minnesota SPJ asked KSTP-TV to “disavow” its reporting, saying that our story was “fundamentally flawed and based on a faulty premise.”  This, because you decided the image in the report showed Mayor Hodges making what the Chapter called a “silly gesture.” KSTP-TV reported that gesture as a known gang sign. We were informed of that fact by several law enforcement agencies. You even went so far as to suggest that we would try to mislead. To suggest that KSTP-TV would ever deliberately distort any fact in any story is totally out of line. We have never done so and we never will do so.

Putting aside the question of whether it is an appropriate role of the Chapter to decide whether any particular news story should or should not air, we acknowledge that our reporting resulted in a great deal of criticism.  As a responsible news organization, we understand that appropriate public critique, criticism and scrutiny of the media’s work play an important role in society. However, when professional journalists themselves criticize another news organization, I hope we can all agree that it is incumbent on those journalists to follow the highest standards of professional journalism.

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We know that social media is able to control Internet conversation on any given topic. As I am sure you know, much of what appears on the Internet lacks credibility. We have read all too many Internet messages about our coverage from people (and, in many cases, “bots”) who obviously had not seen our coverage, or who came to the Internet with a predetermined point of view. Sadly, a number of respected news organizations  have engaged in what any  unbiased professional journalist would recognize as inadequate independent reporting about our story. The fact that our report was the “top trending” story in the Twittersphere for a day or two does not lend veracity to the tweets, blogs and posts it engendered.

Two national news organizations reported critically on our coverage without bothering to ask us about our coverage. One such organization interviewed a law enforcement source used in our first report, and did not include his interview in their on-air product — perhaps because what he said did not support the tone of the Twitter comments.

I am concerned that some members of the Minnesota SPJ and its board have been “taken in” by a deliberate attempt through misinformation on the Internet to embarrass and discredit KSTP-TV. The SPJ Code of Ethics itself says that a journalist should verify information before releasing it. Had you done so, you would have found that KSTP-TV has not, in this instance or ever, allowed itself to be used by one political group to make points against another political group, however, KSTP-TV will always welcome any credible and corroborated critique of its work.

Truth be told, those in the Chapter who have criticized us have not addressed any of the facts pertaining to our coverage.

•   This story was brought to us by law enforcement personnel not affiliated with the Minneapolis Police Department or Police Officers Federation (POFM) — and not, as you contend, sources who “cannot be defended.”


•   Our reporter’s source informed him that the reason the subject photograph created concern in law enforcement was the then-current feuding between rival Minneapolis gangs, including the Stick Up Boys. Because of the ongoing investigation being undertaken by law enforcement at the time — which we now know resulted in 11 federal indictments last week — our reporter was asked not to report that specific fact in order not to jeopardize the investigation. We did, however, accurately report on November 6, 2014 that, “5 EYEWITNESS NEWS was alerted to the photo by law enforcement after they discovered the photo on the man’s Facebook page while doing investigative work.” Especially in this context, our reporter was told that the Mayor’s use of a gesture that local law enforcement associated with the Stick Up Boys “could create serious problems for guys on the street and the public.”

And given the U.S. Attorney’s actions on November 21, 2014, it should now be clear that KSTP-TV did not, “deliberately distort facts or context,” as you assert.

•   We were aware that there was friction between the Mayor, the Chief of Police, and the POFM, but we determined that should not deter our reporting on what we were told by multiple credible sources was an incident that had the potential for jeopardizing public safety.


•   As for KSTP-TV’s use of the President of the POFM in its report, he was the only
uniformed, active duty police officer willing to go on the record.  To be clear, we did not seek out a representative of the POFM for our story, and, again, nor was the POFM our source. Given the U.S. Attorney’s actions on November 21, 2014, it should now be clear that KSTP-TV neither “deliberately distort[ed] facts or context,” as you assert, nor “allowed itself to be used by one political group to make points against its political opponent.”

•   We contacted the Mayor’s office two days before the story ran. Following the
exchange of a few emails and one phone conversation with a spokesperson from the Mayor’s office in which the spokesperson claimed not to understand the story, the Mayor did not talk to us. As a result of a subsequent Data Practices Act request, we have since learned that our email exchanges with the Mayor’s office were shared with NOC prior to the airing of our story, as well as emails between the mayor’s office and NOC evidencing their coordination.

•   We tried to contact Navell Gordon through his employer, NOC, which was the only contact information we could find for him.  In response to our request for an interview with Mr. Gordon, the NOC’s executive director replied, “Not a chance.”

•   Our reporter spoke to eight different law enforcement officers from three separate law enforcement agencies, each of whom independently confirmed what we had been told about the hand gesture. Not one person associated with  law enforcement we interviewed characterized it as a “silly gesture.” The Minnesota SPJ offers no attribution for its characterization of the gesture in the relevant context of its use by Mayor Hodges with Mr. Gordon. (Nonetheless, we note that in our November 13, 2014 coverage, we reported that, “5 EYEWITNESS NEWS admits, and reported, that the poses struck by Hodges and Gordon appear to be playful — simple pointing — and it’s hard to understand why such a seemingly innocuous photo could bepotentially dangerous. But police say the mere existence of it could put the public, and possibly police, in danger.”)

•   What we were told by local law enforcement was corroborated by the president of  the  Midwest  Gang  Investigators  Association,  an  out-of-state  voluntary association of law enforcement agencies that researches and addresses gang violence in nine Midwest states, including Minnesota.

•   Prior to our story airing, Mr. Gordon’s social media posts featured pictures of himand others making the hand sign in question, plus offensive, provocative and derogatory comments about the police, with what appears to be a gun in his belt, along with numerous photos of what appear to be automatic weapons.


•   Public records reflect that Mr. Gordon had been arrested for aggravated armed robbery on August 2, 2014, two months before the picture in question was taken.

•   KSTP-TV made the editorial decision to blur Mr. Gordon’s image, not name him, and not name his employer, because the story was never intended to be about him or the NOC.  Instead, as noted, our story accurately reported what several law enforcement personnel were telling us was an incident that they felt created the potential for creating a risk to public safety. And, again, the Mayor and her office were given ample opportunity to respond, but chose not to. We do not know who initially identified Mr. Gordon as the person appearing in our report, or who was behind making it seem that he was the focus of our story, but it was not us.  Only in response to criticism of our reporting did we address Mr. Gordon’s presence in the report, long after it had already been made public, including by Mr. Gordon himself.

Since our story first aired, a number of prominent community leaders have expressed support for our coverage, confirmed that our story raised a legitimate issue of public importance and was not “deeply flawed,” and commended us for airing this story. Similarly, we have received support from many different law enforcement personnel, as well as a number of reporters, all of whom are members of the Chapter.

We do not make editorial decisions based upon popular opinion, Twitter trends, or potential social media backlash. We recognize our obligation to our community to report the news responsibly, and that’s what we did.

Finally, it is important to consider the context in which this tip was brought to us and in which our report aired. This tip was brought to us by law enforcement (to reiterate, not by the MPD or POFM) shortly after the Brooklyn Center shooting referenced in the U.S. Attorney’s November 21, 2014 news conference. We do not know whether the tip we received was in any way related to that shooting, but it does reveal the context in which law enforcement was operating — as the StarTribune reported on Saturday, November 22, 2014, “a foothold of area gangs clashing over control of the local drug and weapons trade” — and the information with which law enforcement was working, at the time.

Perhaps most disappointing of all is the fact that most, if not all, serious news organizations that addressed our coverage — including, the board of the Minnesota SPJ — simply “followed the herd” and tracked the trend on Twitter in their derision of our coverage. Rather than responsibly questioning law enforcement’s motivation in bringing this story forward, and digging deep into whether it truly represented a public safety issue, they instead chose to simply ignore that which was reported, and go with the much easier and much more popular “silly gesture” angle.  We respect other media’s right to do just that, but object to the Chapter’s “rush to judgment” in the absence of any of its member organizations or board members doing any independent, critical analysis prior to publishing its demand for a disavowal.

Clearly it is disturbing to many that otherwise playful gestures presumably innocently made by a public official can have a totally unintended meaning in a different context.  Nonetheless, that is exactly what our reporters were told by numerous law enforcement sources. Namely, that while a “gun” gesture may be funny and innocent in many contexts, it is neither funny nor innocent in a neighborhood plagued by gun violence and a “foothold of area gangs.” The recent announcement by federal officials that the indictment of 11 high profile individuals from two warring gangs, allegedly involved in the North Minneapolis drug and weapon trade, underscores the seriousness of the current gang situation. Our decision to broadcast the story stemmed from law enforcement comments that that they were seeing a significant uptick in gang related activity and the picture of the Mayor making the gesture they believed could be used by one of the gangs to “disrespect” the other, possibly sparking a new round of violence.

I have a great deal of  respect for the many fine journalists and news organizations that are members of the Chapter. But I believe that, before the Chapter and its board take the drastic and unprecedented step of calling on another member organization to “disavow” a report, they must first conduct a thorough, thoughtful, critical and independent investigation.

I note that there is to be a forum at the Silha Center regarding the so-called “Pointergate” story. I was a friend of Otto Silha’s. He and I had mutual respect for each other. Otto Silha was a great journalist. Based on my friendship with him, I am sure that if he were alive today, he would be sadly disappointed at this non-professional criticism of a respected news organization by those who either haven’t done their background work properly or have an axe to grind. It matters not whether a mob is on the street or on the Internet.

I believe that any news organization which is concerned with the news, and not political correctness, would run the story that Channel 5 ran.

Sincerely,

Stanley S. Hubbard


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