Snitching on a Snitch
Although you wouldn't know it by monitoring coverage over the past several days, on October 15 Minneapolis was making national headlines and local news outlets were in overdrive to own the sort of story that can make or break careers. At a press conference orchestrated by community advocates on the city's north side, Stephen Porter claimed that veteran Minneapolis police officers Jeffrey Jindra and Todd Babekuhl sodomized him during a Monday afternoon drug raid. That Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson had already called in federal authorities to investigate the case only served to feed the media frenzy.
"The allegation that a black man was sexually assaulted with a toilet plunger, much as the New York City Haitian immigrant [Abner Louima] was, threatens to derail ongoing efforts to rebuild trust between Minneapolis police and communities of color," columnist Ruben Rosario observed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press the next day. He was not the first, nor would he be the last journalist to compare Porter to Louima, an innocent man who was tortured with a broom handle in a Brooklyn station house in 1997. In fact, during the first couple of news cycles, there was a sense that the comparison alone would keep the cameras whirring for weeks.
Local TV coverage, excepting the lack of first-day focus on KARE-11's early evening broadcast, was noticeably thorough and, in terms of putting the incident in historical context, unusually straightforward and hard-hitting. Competition, it seems, is still a powerful motivator when the stakes include a network feed. In particular, Tom Lyden, an investigative reporter at FOX 9, proved to be one of the best sourced and least compromised cops reporters in town. In large part, his work helped set the tone early on, both in print and on the tube.
Then the Star Tribune ran a piece that not only altered the story's trajectory but eclipsed the original allegation. "The man accusing a Minneapolis police officer of sexually assaulting him during a drug raid was a confidential informant for the officer, sources with knowledge of the case said," read the first sentence of the top story in the newspaper's Metro/State section on Friday, October 17. The time to choose sides had arrived.
The headline, "Alleged Victim Was Informer," instantly reduced Porter to stereotype; just another lying drug dealer hustling on the north side. The right-leaning cynics rolled their eyes and looked away. Left-leaning cynics, and a goodly portion of Minneapolis's African American populace, protested that publishing the claim was as good as putting out a contract on Porter.
Lost in all the white noise, dwarfed by the palpable disappointment that Stephen Porter might not be the MPD's Waterloo after all, were the second and third sentences in the Star Tribune's story. "It was unclear Thursday whether the alleged victim, Stephen Porter, was still informing for accused officer Jeffrey Jindra or other officers at the time of the raid in a north Minneapolis apartment Monday," staff writers David Chanen and Paul McEnroe concluded. "It also was unclear whether his informant status played any role [emphasis added] in the drug raid or allegations that Jindra used a toilet plunger handle to assault Porter..."
The rest of the piece, which runs another several hundred words, features a number of topics related to Porter's credibility, including his past criminal history, motives he might have to lie, and a growing perception that he may have been exaggerating his injuries. The original hook, that Porter was a snitch, received no further scrutiny, however. In fact, while readers learn that Porter was unavailable for comment, it's unclear whether the Strib asked anyone outside of the Minneapolis police department, let alone someone with access to Porter's side of the story, to comment on the charge.
There was also no acknowledgment that by labeling Porter an informer, the Strib was literally putting his life in peril.
After reporters at the Star Tribune decided they had enough information to out Porter, staffers Chanen (who reportedly received the inital tip), McEnroe, and Howie Padilla joined Pat Doyle and public saftey team leader Beth Podtburg in an hour-long meeting--the longest of several discussions that reportedly took place throughout the day. "The line editor, Pat Doyle, made a very persuasive argument as to why it was relevant to put it in the paper," McEnroe says of that first confab. "He spoke to how it showed a relationship existed between Porter and the police, and that we were reporting the news about it. It was relevant, because it moved the story forward. And we did not take the issue of his personal safety lightly at all."
Joe Williams, the paper's new assistant managing editor of local news, was also part of the daylong dialogue. "The conversation was ongoing and it was anything but cavalier," he says. Ultimately, Williams explains, managing editor Scott Gillespie and executive editor Anders Gyllenhaal were the ones who decided to run with the information; they also signed off on the story's headline and its prominent placement in the Metro section.
"The central question, I think, is, was this accurate information," Gyllenhaal says. "And we felt confident that it was--we still do.
"It's not a decision that's made lightly, and not the sort of thing we do very often, as a rule."
What was it about this particular story that necessitated the temporary change in policy? "It shows that there's an ongoing relationship between Mr. Porter and the officers that were alleged to have assaulted him," Gyllenhaal says. "I think it changes the nature of the case in significant ways, and we will find out more in time."
To be sure, the informant claim was new, which is why it's understandable that the seasoned reporters and front-line editors caught up in the rush of a breaking story would not only feel obliged to seriously discuss everything they hear, but would likewise scratch and claw to get every fresh fact into print. Upper management, however, has a higher charge. In this case, they have to weigh the value of a tangential piece of personal testimony against a man's safety. There's absolutely no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that Porter's status as an informer was at issue before, during, or after the alleged assault. As a result, it's hard not to conclude, as many have, that aggravated cops seduced the paper into operating as a mouthpiece--especially since the key sources in the story, no matter how "reliable," remain anonymous.
At the very least, the paper should have put the charges in context, either by allowing a named source to theorize on the relevance of the relationship (and how it may well have motivated Jindra to behave violently) or by putting together a separate piece of news analysis to justify its decision to alter an informal policy not to name informants. When asked about those options, though, Gyllenhaal falls back on the tired bromide that a journalist's job is simply to supply the facts, even if, taken out of context, they can threaten to overshadow the story itself. "I don't know if this situation is the kind of thing where [a piece of analysis] would be helpful. In a case like this, you just have to go back to how powerful and disturbing these allegations are. The most important thing we do is put out as much information as possible and let people make their own decisions about that information."
On Saturday, October 18, the morning after the informer story hit the streets, the Strib ran a follow-up piece in the same space on the Metro/State page, entitled "Man Denies Being Informant." Chanen, McEnroe, and staff writer Rosalind Bentley unveiled a series of arrest records, which would have made the initial story markedly stronger, that indicate Porter "tried to help himself by offering several times to assist police, including once as recently as June 4." Still, the reporters fail to establish an explicit link between Porter's alleged status as a snitch and the alleged sexual assault.
That task is left to the Pioneer Press, which printed a story in its Saturday paper that made it clear that police, unlike editors at the Star Tribune, are careful never to out their informants, since more often than not the results are deadly. "I wouldn't want any informant name out there," Dan Grout, a recently retired lieutenant with the Minneapolis Police Department, told PiPress reporter Hannah Allam. "That's signing a death warrant."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter