The Game of the Name
"The Star Tribune generally does not name suspects until they are charged." Last Tuesday, June 22, that familiar, high-minded phrase was conspicuously absent from the paper's front-page coverage of Donald Albin Blom's arrest the previous day. Not only did the Star Tribune identify Blom; its stories noted his myriad aliases, his extensive criminal record, and even included damning excerpts from a psychological evaluation done on him in 1992. All this despite the fact that it wasn't until late Wednesday that Blom, a convicted sex offender, was charged with kidnapping 19-year-old Katie Poirier from a Moose Lake convenience store on May 26. Poirier has been missing ever since.
On any other day, the paper's decision to break precedent might have gone unnoticed. As managing editor Pam Fine points out, it's not all that unusual for the Star Tribune to make exceptions to its carefully worded policy regarding the naming of suspects--especially, as in this instance, when the case is high-profile and charges seem imminent. Besides, by the time the paper came out on Tuesday, many local media outlets had already blared the 50-year-old Richfield man's name, his criminal convictions, even his foggy mug shot. But as it happened, three prominent local media sources--the Associated Press, WCCO-TV (Channel 4), and Minnesota Public Radio (KNOW 91.1 FM)--did just the opposite, choosing not to name Blom until after he was charged.
For some in the news business, deciding whether to identify Blom prior to his being charged was a question of ethics, of balancing the rights of the accused with the public's right to know. For others it was simply a calculated risk: If he's charged, you're ahead of the story; if he's set free, you have some explaining to do.
MPR's senior news director Bill Buzenberg told his staff to make sure all copy was free of the suspect's name. "What if he's not charged?" Buzenberg posited when called for comment for this story before Blom was charged. "Then you have a Richard Jewell situation. I think the media was wrong then, printing the name of a suspect in the Olympic bombing before he was charged. And I think they're wrong now. Of course, I've learned to never say never in this business. But in this case I'm surprised how the local newspapers have run Blom's name without hesitation. I'm concerned that the media in general is convicting someone who's not yet been convicted, let alone charged [at that time]."
Mark Ginther, assistant news director at KSTP-TV (Channel 5), says the issue was a topic of discussion in his newsroom. "The majority concluded we should run his name and picture," Ginther reports. "That's because the Carlton County sheriff held a press conference, handed out a photo, and went to great lengths to explain the specifics of the arrest. That's unusual in a story like this. We talked through all the scenarios, looked at his previous convictions in similar cases, and concluded viewers deserved all the facts."
Counters WCCO news director Ted Canova: "It's not like we withheld information about this suspect's prior convictions by not naming him. We reported all the same information as everyone else. But the guy was in custody. He wasn't a public threat. So why reveal his identity prematurely? It's no surprise that journalists rank with used-car salesmen in public perception. We shouldn't just regurgitate everything we know. We have to use perspective and consider issues of fairness." In initial reports that followed the arrest, WCCO news anchor Don Shelby put some spin on Canova's rationale, explaining to viewers that his station was withholding the suspect's name so as not to hamper the police investigation and the ongoing search for Poirier.
Walker Lundy, editor of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, is unmoved by the argument that Blom's reputation might have been unfairly sullied. Ethically speaking, he's from the old school, where a paper's responsibility was to its readers, period. "I'm uncomfortable with any policy that allows for inconsistency," says Lundy. "So our policy is that if we know something to be a fact, we publish it. And it was a fact that this fellow was arrested and being held. I can't accept the idea that it's unfair to publish the name of someone arrested and not charged, but somehow more fair to print the name of someone charged but not convicted."
Responds WCCO's Canova: "I think that's a copout. You don't get charged unless there's compelling evidence. This isn't about waiting for something to play out in the judicial process. This is balancing the public's right to know with a suspect's right to fairness."
Still, Canova admits, even WCCO will bend its rules, depending on the circumstances. In 1996, for instance, the "Hometown Team" was quick to identify Brad Dunlap, who was a suspect in the murder of his wife Anne, but who has yet to be charged. "When someone dies, family members are always put under a big microscope. And that, more than the arrest, seemed to be the story," the news director rationalizes.
Carlton County Sheriff David Seboe has no quibble with the news organizations that outed Blom. He is, however, steamed that three local TV stations, KARE-TV (Channel 11), KMSP-TV (Channel 9), and KSTP, ignored his request that his mug shot not be run. "We put out his mug shot at the first press conference, which is standard practice. Then, after thinking about it, we decided that if it got out, it could taint our witness pool," the sheriff says, explaining that he was planning a lineup for Tuesday morning and didn't want to give Blom the future opportunity to argue that the prosecution's two best witnesses were biased because they'd watched the nightly news. "We then sent out a fax to all the news organizations, requesting that they not publish the mug shot until noon the next day."
Pioneer Press editor Walker Lundy says that it was Seboe's request that prompted his paper to hold off running Blom's photo with the first day's report. The Star Tribune's Fine isn't sure whether her staff saw Seboe's fax but says of her paper's decision not to print the mug shot, "It's a higher level of attribution to use a photo, and we didn't think it was necessary to make the suspect recognizable to people before he was charged." KMSP news director Dana Benson and KSTP news director Scott Libin say they are unaware of any fax and add that had they known of Seboe's wishes, they would have complied; KARE news director Tom Lindner says he did get the fax but green-lighted the photo's use all the same. "It was not a demand, but simply a request; an 'anything you can do to help, we appreciate it' kind of request," he maintains. "I think everyone in town got that memo, and everyone--except for maybe WCCO--made the decision to go ahead and use the photo anyway."
Shelby, of WCCO, says he'd air a photo only if police were looking for the suspect. "I'd argue for it if the public were at some risk," asserts the Channel 4 anchor. "But if a person is arrested by police on suspicion of drug possession and we blow it up and it later turns out to be baking soda, then we have to apologize and give that story equal play. I'd rather err on the side of caution and avoid those types of corrections." (Libin, Fine, and the rest agree that if Blom had been released rather than charged, that story would have been given the same play as his arrest.)
On the subject of corrections, Fine does admit to one lapse in judgment in the Blom case: Given that the Star Tribune never fails to trot out its "we generally don't name suspects" disclaimer when withholding identification, it would have been a good idea for the paper to note why an exception was being made. "I think when we depart from our usual practices we ought to explain ourselves to readers," she says. "I think it was an oversight in this case, a reminder that we need to help people understand our decisions either way."
Not surprisingly, Fine's daily nemesis Walker Lundy would appreciate an explanation--though he can't imagine a cogent one. "If the reason for the policy is fairness, then why do you deviate from it?" he asks. "I don't understand. If you think it's unfair to report that someone's been arrested and not charged, then it needs to be an across-the-board policy. In the case of the Star Tribune, they don't name him unless they want to--and then they do."
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