Commentary

The slap

nat herz

Reporter Nat Herz’s Twitter publicity photo

Commentary

As a working journalist, it’s hard to avoid feeling sorry for Alaska Dispatch News reporter Nat Herz, and the box into which he has now fallen.

Herz is the reporter who gained his five minutes of national fame after he filed a  criminal complaint saying he was slapped on Tuesday by Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla.

Given the evidence, with Herz tape recording the sound of a slap, there seems little doubt the slap took place even though Wilson, who isn’t talking, must be considered innocent until proven guilty.

But the slap isn’t the story anymore. The story now is the criminal complaint filed over a minor incident (Juneau Police say the slap left no mark) that could have been dealt with by  the Legislative Ethics Committee, a body specifically charged with maintaining the “high moral and ethical standards among public servants in the legislative branch of government…to assure the trust, respect, and confidence of the people of this state.”

First, though, let’s be clear. What Wilson did was wrong. Period. He shouldn’t have done it.

Yes, more than a few people have likely wanted to slap Herz. And yes, slapping a reporter for the liberal Dispatch News might actually win votes in Wasilla, the home of pol-ebrity and one-time liberal turned conservative Sarah Palin, a former governor and the state’s first-ever and to this point only candidate to make into a  Presidential race albeit as the vice-presidential choice.

But hitting each other is not how we properly settle disagreements in this country. It sets a bad example for the children.

Sadly, the same might be said for filing a police report over something this minor.

The victim

When Herz went to JPD and swore out a complaint, he committed not one but two actions about which he and his bosses should have thought long and hard.

First, he made a statement, whether he thought about it or not, that he didn’t believe the Ethics Committee was up to the task of telling Wilson that his behavior was unacceptable and levying some sort of punishment.

Secondly, and even more importantly, he publicly declared himself the victim of a crime.

From a journalistic standpoint, this raises a problem, a big problem. Once someone publicly declares him or herself a victim of a crime, it becomes incumbent upon others to react to this victimization.

You either stand with the victim or not. There is no middle position.

You can’t do what the Senate Majority did and say in a statement that “the Senate expects professional conduct and decorum from all members. Until all the facts surrounding the situation described are available, we have no further comment.”

That essentially amounts to saying, “Nat, we’re not willing to believe you were the victim of a crime; someone is going to have to prove it to us before we accept it.”

And while that might be the perfectly right and proper position to take in the American legal system with its standard of innocent until proven guilty, how does it look to the victim?

Here’s the problem

It’s obvious how it looks to the victim: “The Senate Majority doesn’t care that I was slapped. The Senate Majority is standing with their guy.”

As a reporter, once you get yourself in this position, how do you objectively cover those people? And it’s not like Herz didn’t have issues before this.

He’s never denied his liberal roots. Does that mean he couldn’t fairly cover the Senate’s Republican majority? Certainly not. Herz is, at heart, a fair-minded guy.

But when you take that first issue, and you add to it this second issue, it’s got to start getting hard to be fair no matter how much you want to be fair. And then there are the public perception issues.

When Herz decided to make a criminal case out of this, he boosted his issue with Wilson to a whole new level as ought to be obvious from the national new coverage of  the incident.

Given that and given the public perception that the publication he works for leans left, sometimes heavily left, it would be easy to understand some Senate Republicans today wondering “would Herz have filed that complaint if he’d been slapped by a Democrat?”

If the waters weren’t poisoned before, they’re certainly poisoned now.

Anonymity

As someone who has been a reporter in Alaska since the 1970s, it’s hard to avoid getting a little personal here for a minute. There are fair number of people in this state who know me by name and too many who know me by appearance.

I’ve never liked it because the baggage that comes along with being recognized gets in the way of doing the reporter’s job. It’s not as easy to quietly sit in a corner and simply watch and listen. Questions become different, too, because they go through the filter of “why is he asking me this” created by people who don’t know you constructing some profile of you based on what they think they know from what they’ve read or what others have said.

Celebrity is, I’d guess, nice for people who want to be celebrities. They usually end up doing talk-radio or television news. Good on them.

Celebrity is not good for reporters. It’s bad baggage. It’s something one should try to avoid not attract. Given this, I have to admit to having been a little shocked at the criminal complaint. The truth is that when another journalist first alerted me to the story, I thought it was a joke.

But times have changed. The reporters of today, or at least most of them, live in a much tamer world than the reporters of yesteryear.  The world isn’t what it was, which is probably a good thing.

The late Sen. Bill Ray, D-Juneau, once grabbed me by the jaw when I was a smart-ass young reporter in the capital city, and I doubt I was the only reporter Ray grabbed.

As former Juneau radio personality Warren Wiley wrote in the Juneau Empire in 2000, “Ray was often highly critical of the media, particularly newspaper people from the railbelt, but he was not averse to raising hell with local reporters too.”

No kidding. Wiley noted he first met the well-known legislator when grabbed by the arm:

“‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,'”Bill Ray said. It was a line I was to hear from him a thousand times.”

Ray was a physical guy. He’d grab you by the arm. He’d poke you in the chest. Nobody ever filed a criminal complaint to my knowledge. What purpose would it have served, which is the question that stands out here:

Exactly what purpose does this criminal complaint serve? Why go to the police, who become duty bound to investigate, instead of to Wilson’s peers? Why elevate this clearly bad behavior to the level of criminally bad behavior?

Hopefully, Herz and his bosses will at some point answer those questions.

 

 

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17 replies »

  1. Well, Craig, I suppose this ends it. I also suppose there have been stranger doings in Juneau than this story, but … it’s pretty strange.

    Herz doesn’t look too good here. It’s always a risk when a reporter or editor becomes the story, because then the shoe is on the other foot, etc. Reporters cannot force interviewees to answer questions, and when he becomes an interviewee, a reporter cannot be forced to answer questions. But it does not look good (Herz is not the first journalist who stonewalled another reporter when on the opposite side of the interviewing table). It’s clear Herz wants this to die and — what I detect, assuming you’re reporting accurately — is some regret he ever made a case of this. And that leads me back to one of my speculations: Perhaps Herz never wanted to go to the cops with this in the first place but Hulen and/or ADN mgt. insisted. He says, “… it’s not my choice.” That could refer to the police who are continuing to investigate, or to his boss. But he wouldn’t explain. (Maybe you should ask Hulen.)

    Meanwhile, what has happened with that criminal complaint? Has it been dropped? It doesn’t look as if ADN intends to report on this story any further, so someone — you? — will have to dig it out of Juneau P.D. (or the Senate? Or ADN?) to see if the complaint was cancelled.

    It’s been fun throwing up all the speculative possibilities and hypotheticals in this case, and of course, when you do that, when you fling every possibility at the target, one of them is likely to stick. So it is that one of the options I gave Herz & his boss at the moment when this thing first happened and they had to act — that of demanding a one-on-one apology from Wilson — may be just the road they took in the end. In any event, for the most part it appears the air has gone out of this story. Thanks for carrying it to this point.

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  2. In the past 10 years 125 Mexican journalists have been murdered because somebody didn’t like what they wrote. The Philippines is even worse. In places like Kazakhstan journalists are tortured. The reality is journalism gets better under stress. When everything is legal and polite journalism atrophies. When we start finding reporters floating face down in Goose Lake we’ll have something to worry about. But a slap? Not even worth mentioning.

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    • Thank you, James Mason, for bringing up a critical issue. Not just in Kazakhstan, but in many other countries — for example, Russia and Mexico — journalists are under intense pressure and threats, and many of them lose their lives at the hands of warlords, drug cartels, oligarchs & dictators. I don’t agree that the slap to an Alaska journalist is not worth mentioning. It is a small matter weighed in the balance of what goes on elsewhere, but if the slap was delivered, the slapper needs to pay the cost, no matter how benign (comparatively speaking) journalists in Alaska may have it. But I’m glad you mentioned the extreme dangers they’re dealing w/ elsewhere.

      For those wanting more info — https://www.cpj.org is the link to they Committee to Protect Journalists.

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  3. Good article Craig. For sure, times are now “tamer” than when we grew up. If police reports were filed every time someone was slapped or punched back in our day, especially in public schools, there would be no trees left in North America. All the forests would have been cut to make paper for police reports. But another way to look at this modern day slap is that it is good business for the ADN. It generates more web site clicks, more traffic, web site statistics can be shown to customers to justify increased ad costs. Plus, it helps polarize even more the us (libs) versus them (non-libs) division that modern day media outlets fervently push. And it might even get one of those evil ‘Rs’, that the ADNers hate so much, out of Juneau. So right or wrong, Hertz “took one for the team”. And the ADN team will come out ahead on this. Not that it is a good way to come out ahead though.

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  4. Millennials are an interesting breed. They eschew institutional authority, yet run to it to mediate their disputes.

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  5. … one other thing. You say that this has gone national only because of the criminal nature of the investigation. But it likely would have become a national news story even if Herz had gone only to the Legislative Ethics Committee. In that case ADN still would have reported the slap and the referral to Ethics, AP would have picked it up, and it would have taken off from there. Again, as important as it is that ADN made this a criminal matter, I think you’re making too much of it.

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  6. A couple of points, Craig:

    1. You write, “You either stand with the victim or not. There is no middle position.”
    This is just about a textbook example of the either-or fallacy. You’re so bloody certain problems will arise for Herz when it isn’t necessarily so at all.

    There are any number of positions a person can take in regards to how he or she relates to the victim of a crime (whether the crime has been adjudicated or not). If it’s a personal relationship (family or friend or social acquaintance), there are still gradations of sympathy, credibility, emotional connection, schadenfreude. If it’s a business or professional relationship — like that between lawmakers and reporters — unless the matter those individuals are dealing with contains some echo of the crime, or concerns an issue that is somehow involved in the crime, then the victimhood of the one should not matter or interfere with their business. It may come up in conversation at first, but it can soon be forgotten or pushed aside, ignored. So, for example, Herz would have difficulty, I’d guess, in covering Sen. Y’s introduction of a (hypothetical) bill that would grant full immunity to Alaska lawmakers who act aggressively toward journalists, including everything from browbeating to grabbing them by the jaw and even slapping them. His editor would have to assign that to someone else. But just about everything else that comes out of the Capital, Herz can go ahead and report it, and if any lawmaker brings up his criminal complaint or tries to make an issue of it, Herz can shake it off and educate the member that it’s not germane to the business of passing bills.

    2. You must be a mind reader, Craig. Or you talked to Herz but didn’t tell us, because you put these thoughts in his mind as his rationale for going to the cops: “The Senate Majority doesn’t care that I was slapped. The Senate Majority is standing with their guy.” That’s a hell of an assumption. Not to say you’re wrong. But you damn well could be wrong and in my view probably are wrong. I have not seen it said anywhere yet (it’s always possible I missed it) what precisely was Herz’s and ADN’s motive(s) for filing a criminal complaint. As long as we’re speculating, here are several possibilities for why he reported the slap to the police:
    — he didn’t trust Legislative Ethics Committee for whatever reason;
    —he wanted to keep this out of the Capitol to whatever extent he could so it would not interfere with or complicate his job covering the Senate;
    — he was outraged by the bullying and wanted Wilson to be punished more than he would be if the issue was kept in-house;
    — he didn’t want to go to the police but Hulen insisted they file a report.

    On reading your post, I initially agreed with you and thought Herz should not have gone to the police. It was making too much of what, after all, was only a slap and apparently not even a hard one. But you have it backward. Wilson is the issue — not, as you say, the criminal complaint. Wilson’s arrogance — the insolence of office right there in the flesh — and his offense need to be punished more strongly than is likely to come out of Legislative Ethics.

    That said, I won’t be surprised if the complaint is actually dropped, the ethics committee reports a grievance against Wilson, perhaps the Senate even censures him, and Wilson issues an apology, on the floor, to the reporter. That would be a good outcome.

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    • Pete: before i respond in more detail, i’ve just got to note that you’ve overlooked the simple, legal problem inherent in this case. the alleged victim says on tape he thinks the act might be “playful” and then he chuckles about it. how do you go to the police with that? what are police supposed to do? even if they investigate and forward this to a DA, what is the DA supposed to do? take a case to court with a tape recording of a “crime” in which the victim suggests it might not have been a crime at all but a playful act? are we at the point in this country where we prosecute people for what the victim thinks in the moment might be a playful act and laughs about, but later decides is a crime? and the latter question, in this particular case, opens a whole lot of other questions about what transpired in the hours between the slap and the decision to file a criminal complaint? how did this go from being a possibly playful act and something to laugh about to an act that warranted filing a criminal complaint? and why are those not questions reporters should be asking? i’ve been a victim of real crimes. they didn’t leave me chuckling. if i were a defense attorney defending Wilson, i would argue that anything that leaves the victim chuckling falls short of a crime, and i’d tend to think any Alaska jury would agree.
      now, as to specifics.
      1.) these things are an either-or for you or me, but this one in this case is certainly not an either-or for the Senate majority. in today’s world of PR, it has no options on the victim issue, although it did gain a temporary out in being able to say it needs to let the legal process runs its course. meanwhile, anyone who doesn’t like the way Nat is covering the legislature can accuse him of having a vendetta because the Senate Majority didn’t censure Wilson for bad behavior, and it’s hard to avoid that influencing what Nat does going forward. i could provide you a long list of pretty interesting, some very interesting, ADN stories i’ve spiked to try to avoid people accusing me of having a vendetta because of how things ended between Alice and Tony, Amanda, me and others, and yet i see Casey Reynolds was leveling the vendetta accusation today because i lent some journalistic perspective to this mess as a 40-year Alaska journalist. it’s also probably worth noting i’m not writing about all the questions at the start of this point for the same reason.
      2. i think i made it clear i was speculating on what someone would think in this situation. if that wasn’t clear, let me know, and i will go back and make it clear. is it possible that Nat is so much better than the rest of us that he doesn’t have negative thoughts about others? yes. it is also unlikely. we’are all human. i have many times wrestled with the issue of fairly reporting on someone i thought was an asshole. in my personal case, i’d like to think i erred in overcompensating and being too fair to them, but there is no way of knowing for sure. two of your bullet points, it is worth noting, underline my thinking in that regard. one of your bullet points “he wanted to keep this out of the Capitol” makes no sense in that he didn’t keep it out of the Capitol, he escalated it. and your last bullet point would be so deeply, deeply disturbing on so many levels if true that i don’t even want to think about it. see the questions above on which i’m NOT reporting.
      3.) it is possible this would have gone national without the criminal complaint. it is guaranteed it will go national when a reporter, especially in the Trumpian climate of the moment, files a criminal complaint against a Republic Senator alleging a physical attack. a reporter filing an ethics complaint against a Senator after laughing about being slapped – possibly playfully – i’m not sure that clears the bar of national media interest. have you listened to the tape?

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      • Yes, I did listen to the tape. And yes, I think the “playful” remark is going to be a big issue for the police and the D.A. The tape shows that this was not even close to a serious physical assault. In fact, Herz’s recorded reaction may be the game changer and lead Juneau P.D. or D.A. to drop the investigation for lack of evidence, due to the ambiguous nature of his response. Personally, I can come up with a good reason for the reporter’s initial reaction: Getting slapped in the face, even if not hard enough to leave a bruise, is not just insulting. It’s also embarrassing. (I don’t know about you, but it would have taken an awful lot for me not to respond in kind, which is one of the reasons why I think Herz and his boss handled this well.) Nat does sound embarrassed and even a bit confused by what happened. And hard on the heels of the slap, another person arrives — “what do I say? Should I tell her? I can’t believe this happened! It’s weird, I feel like an idiot, but I’m pissed off that it even happened” — those are the thoughts that, admittedly without a shred of evidence, I would place in Herz’s head.
        So all of this is to say that the criminal case may go nowhere even if Herz was in fact genuinely victimized by a bully.

        I’m not going to address your own issues in similar matters (i.e., Alice & Tony et al) or what others are presently saying about you or a vendetta here or there or whatever. I simply don’t have any information about those things that I can trust. Let me stay with Herz and the slap and what alternatives he and the paper were faced with.

        One of the more interesting things you say is this: “anyone who doesn’t like the way Nat is covering the legislature can accuse him of having a vendetta because the Senate Majority didn’t censure Wilson for bad behavior, and it’s hard to avoid that influencing what Nat does going forward.”

        I strongly disagree. The burden of proof is on the accusers to show how Herz’s coverage is different pre-slap and post-slap. I think we both would agree it won’t make a bit of difference to him. He’s professional and he’ll get on w/ the job. Meanwhile, no one needs a slap or its aftermath to accuse Herz or any reporter of bias, liberal or otherwise. I’m sure either of us could throw a stone into a crowd and hit someone who doesn’t already like his coverage and is finding some lame excuse for it. Those folks generally have little credibility and I’m not concerned about them, since they’re unpersuadable to begin with.

        This brings up what I think is the most important aspect of this issue. The incident began not with Herz but with Wilson. But Herz — and his boss, under the assumption that Nat called in to the Newsroom right away, although I don’t know that for sure — had a limited range of reactions, with their ultimate and most critical goal being that Herz gets back to work as usual, with little to no distractions arising from the slap:
        1. Demand a personal one-on-one apology from Wilson, made by Herz but certainly by Hulen. If Wilson gives it — and if it seems sincere — this could end the matter entirely, and there’s little disturbance to the reporter’s working environment (which is the most important criterion). I personally would have chosen this option first. ADN actually may have tried it. If so, did Wilson not agree to apologize? Did ADN want to go further anyway?
        2. Get rid of the issue as much as possible by throwing it to the cops, which is what they did. This way, neither the Senate nor Legislative Ethics is involved. Nat can still do his job and forget about the issue, although he’ll be questioned by the police when the time comes. But he can get back to work right away.
        3. Report the slap to the Legislature’s authorities — to the ethics panel, to the Senate Majority to which Wilson belongs. This could be done alone or in conjunction with a criminal complaint. This may be just what happened. The Senate Majority did issue a statement, so somehow they knew. Someone had to tell them. You’ve faulted the reporting on this story. This is an area where I would fault the coverage: What was reported by Herz/ADN to Wilson’s colleagues, and when? (Do you know? Did I miss it?)
        4. Do nothing. Let the slap go. But this lets Wilson get away with an outrageous breach of professional decorum, equivalent to milder forms (verbal, light touching) of sexual assault. That just cannot happen. Moreover, this could affect Herz’s work because the slap would stew in his gut (I know it would in mine). How then could he cover anything Wilson did or didn’t do?

        By the way, I did know that you were speaking in hypotheticals regarding Herz’s imagined thoughts. But they were still an assumption on your part (like some assumptions I’ve made in reply). They still represent your best guess about an aspect of the issue. That’s what I’m looking at.

        As for my last bullet point, I think you mean the possibility that Nat didn’t want to go criminal with this but his boss did. I don’t know why that (or any of the others) “would be so deeply, deeply disturbing” to you. It may well be but I don’t know why.

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  7. So the mere sound of what could be a slap is now enough to say that Senator Wilson is guilty as charged? How do we know that Nat Herz didn’t make the sound himself?

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  8. I can answer one of your questions, Craig. If he’d been slapped, even slapped to the ground and injured, by a Democrat not one word would ever have been heard about it. Wilson is the ultimate apostate; a Black man who isn’t on the Democrat Plantation. If you’re a fanatic like most leadership cadre Democrats and their media lapdogs, especially the young ones, the penalty for apostasy is death.

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