Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Crazies Come Out

Okay, I resent being right about that heat making people crazy thing within 15 hours of writing it. Right now the forecast calls for the temperature to peak out on Sunday, but we've already got nutters like David Floyd coming out of the woodwork trying to blow things up on Capitol Square or scare the bajesus out of people or whatever he was trying to accomplish. I hate to think what this weekend will bring.

But as busy as the alleged bomberman kept us today, I would still rather touch on the meeting between the Madison press corps and the Madison Police that took place this morning. Given the mood of late, I was expecting something akin to a Conference of the Five Families. Eerily, 911 Center Director Joe Norwick could easily have gassed the studio the gathering took place in and eliminated a hearty majority of his critics among the police and press.

Instead, I was reminded more of a massive, gloves off counselling session between a married couple that hasn't spoken in months. Even though there was a neatly-typed agenda outlining a variety of topics, both sides leapt straight for the throat and spent the entire two hour session griping on the crux of the relationship problem: communication.

There were certainly some heated exchanges between the press and the police that would have made any marriage counsellor wince. Overall, I felt just facilitating the face to face communication was a huge positive step toward bridging the gulf that's developed between this side and that side of the thin blue line. But we're certainly a long way away from the crazy make-up sex that follows the resolution of any serious conflict.

Uh... that last part was purely in keeping with the metaphor...

There was little consensus reached, but at least we're talking. The press still maintains the police are playing their hands too close to the vest. The police maintain the constraints of convicting the perpetrators of these crimes are such that the fact lockdown is appropriate. The old tug-of-war between full disclosure and utter information blackout will probably go on forever, when the optimum solution always lies somewhere elusive in the middle.

It's gone all the way up to this point, but the problem now is it's become too impersonal. Until today, I could only put faces to a few of the names on the force I read and write about every day. In today's Modern American Mediascape (***see footnote***), being competitive means every passing minute is another deadline, and that doesn't leave a lot of time to sit down over a coffee or a brew and catch up. That doesn't leave time for personal understanding. That doesn't leave time for trust.

So the police don't trust the press enough to share more details about these sensitive crimes, and the press don't trust the police when they say the information they're squelching is for the good of the investigation.

And as I pointed out during the meeting today, that negativity is bad for all of us. Being a police detective, a reporter or any kind of public servant is a thankless job. 95% of the time, if you're in the spotlight, it's because you screwed up in a major way.

And yes, I lump reporters in with public servants. Trust me when I tell you I could be making a lot more money in another, less stressful line of work.

The due credit, the kind the public owes the police for their hard work solving the Joel Marino homicide, gets lost in the darkness. And for every time some loose-lipped jackass of a reporter violates someone's trust -- police officer, victim or otherwise -- there are a thousand instances when a journalist's conscience outweighed the potential for self-gain.

I don't have the answers, but I'm happy to have the opportunity to try and figure them out with the Madison Police. Everybody involved probably needs to adjust their expectations and learn to communicate a little better, but that's needed in any dysfunctional relationship. And that's what I hope to see happen if we're able to meet regularly with the police.

(***I would just like to make it known that I am claiming the term "Modern American Mediascape" as my own. I coined it, and I'm staking my claim, damnit. I used the term extensively on "Slightly Off Kilter," the radio show I hosted from 2005 to 2007 on Madison's Student Radio Station, 91.7 FM WSUM, as a means of describing the increasingly convoluted and polluted excuse for discourse bred by sweeping media deregulation and the massive corporate ownership it spawned, as well as the growth of the 24-hour news cycle and the decline of the American attention span. I consulted the Google Gods, and it looks like I was the first. Having dibs on the term may seem petty now, but it'll come in handy some day when I'm publishing a book on what the hell happened to our country... if we still have books, that is.***)

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