BOB GARFIELD: On Wednesday, January 16th, police raided an adult video store in Johnston, Rhode Island and issued summonses to 7 people on morals charges. Their names and addresses were all printed in Friday editions of the Providence Journal, the region's dominant daily newspaper. Two days later, one of those arrested, Stuart Denton, the 55 year old chairman of the Plainfiled, Connecticut Planning and Zoning Commission, hanged himself in his backyard -- fomenting criticism of the paper for shaming the suspects and making them the only victims of an otherwise victimless crime. Joining us now is Joel Rawson, executive editor of the Providence Journal. Mr. Rawson, welcome to OTM!
JOEL RAWSON: Hi. How are you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Before we get to the particulars of this case, what is the Providence Journal's policy regarding naming those accused of crimes?
JOEL RAWSON: We have a lot of crime news in the Providence Journal. Most of it is gathered every day from the police stations around the state. We routinely name the names of people who have been arrested and charged, and the people who were the victims of the crimes.
BOB GARFIELD: All crimes, large and small; serious and petty.
JOEL RAWSON: Most crimes large and small. There will be some towns we don't get to every day.
BOB GARFIELD:Now obviously sexual misdemeanors carry with them a stigma of humiliation and shame, maybe out of proportion to the crimes themselves. Does your policy take that into consideration or is it like if you can't take the heat, stay out of the porn shop?
JOEL RAWSON: Our policy doesn't take it into consideration. We don't differentiate between crimes and whether or not we'd use the accused names.
BOB GARFIELD: Why?
JOEL RAWSON:Well, the basic reason is that if you begin to say this crime is a crime that we don't report and that crime is one that you do, you're beginning to reflect your own personal judgment on crimes. There was a white collar worker at the Providence Journal who was arrested in Fall River for soliciting a prostitute, and his name, address and association with the Journal, the fact that he was employee, was included in the story. If we had not run that story and not had a policy of routinely running this thing, I think we would have been open to the criticism that we covered up for people who we knew or were our colleagues. So the blanket policy just kind of makes it a even playing field and makes it, if unpleasant, fair for everyone.
BOB GARFIELD:Well I think these are complicated matters, and you're faced with balancing the community's right to know against the sort of cruel and unusual publicity. Do you ever discuss that conflict internally?
JOEL RAWSON: No, I think a, a long time ago one of the things I resolved is that publicity itself is not the punishment. I mean there's a popular conception that if you are arrested for drunk driving, you're further punished by being in the paper. I don't think a professional newsperson can look at it that way. I think you have to look at it that your basic duty is to print the news and the public record.
BOB GARFIELD:The naming and shaming of alleged violators, whether it's your intention or not, certainly serves the local government's purposes of creating a disincentive to patronize a porn-related business. Are you in that sense letting your paper be used as a weapon by police and by politicians?
JOEL RAWSON: Well I think the first answer is that in some small way, yes. In making high profile cases out of such things as arresting people who solicit prostitutes which goes on fairly frequently in the City of Providence. We've also seen it done with drunk driving, and an attorney general who had a crusade against drunk driving made sure that lists of all drunk driving arrests were provided to us, and we cooperated in publishing them, knowing that that was part of what he was doing -- was trying to shame people. So yes, that does happen; it does happen frequently. In this case it happened with a pornographic movie theater.
BOB GARFIELD:So when Mr. Denton hanged himself-- the Journal obviously took a lot of criticism; some people were blaming the messenger. But internally, did this incident cause you to re-evaluate your policy?
JOEL RAWSON: No. You know, you -- I-- nobody can ignore a death. I-- And-- you're taken aback. I mean you ask, you know, what's going on and what did we do here? But-- I think the coverage policy is sound! I think the first ethical position of any journalist, any newspaper is to publish the news.
BOB GARFIELD: What follows is a question. It is not a statement or an accusation coyly camouflaged as a question -- it's a question.
JOEL RAWSON: Okay.
BOB GARFIELD:When people said to you that you have blood on your hands for your callous treatment with respect to Mr. Denton, what was your reaction?
JOEL RAWSON: Well, I-- Tell you the truth, Bob -- I was a soldier in Vietnam. I was a reconnaissance pilot. And people at that time were pretty angry with soldiers. The way you deal with that is you look at it and say well, you know, I did my best. I did what I could to conduct myself honorably. The actual fact of the matter is that people probably died because of what I did, and some people who had very little to do with the war probably died because of what I did. And I looked at this, and I thought is there blood on my hands? And I thought well, no. I did my job. It is a job worth doing --informing the public. I did not deviate from any common practice that we have and has stood the test of time. And then ultimately what Mr. Denton did was his choice.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, well thank you very much. Thi--This is where you say you're very welcome. [LAUGHS]
JOEL RAWSON: [LAUGHS] You're welcome. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Joel Rawson is executive editor of the Providence Journal. [MUSIC]