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.
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.
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.