THAT’S HOW IT STILL GOES

     

That’s how it goes

The Newseum's Five (5) freedoms guaranteed by ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking  Everybody knows that the captain lied  Everybody got this broken feeling  Like their father or their dog just died.”

-Leonard Cohen

This coming weekend, I will be publishing a contribution to the Mic check guest blogger series from Claire O’Brien, whom I met through our interactions at her exceptional blog, Eléctrica in the Desert. Journalism is a profession that, in my not so humble opinion, falls under the category of “higher calling”, as it is entrusted with the widely coined mandate to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” In this context, Claire is an honorable reporter whose story serves as a reminder that following one’s conscience may come at a price. I would like to share with readers the extraordinary attack that was coordinated against her in the midst of a racially and politically divisive murder trial several years ago that served to derail her career as a journalist. O’Brien worked as a reporter for the Daily Globe in Dodge City, Kansas, at the time a Latino man named Sam Bonilla was on trial and facing decades in jail for killing a local man, which he claimed was in self-defense. Bonilla was a Mexican immigrant who feared he could not get a fair trial and opted to forego a jury trial. In the course of her investigative reporting, she interviewed a source who corroborated Bonilla’s claim that the man he killed when confronted had “a base of support that is well-known for its anti-Hispanic beliefs” and a “supply of semi-automatic weapons.” O’Brien was pressured to reveal her source and when she refused was threatened with contempt by the presiding Judge. As a result of her actions, she was unceremoniously fired from her job at the Daily Globe, which went so far as to change the locks in their offices. She found previously proffered job offers and invitations to appear at journalism conferences withdrawn. This despite the fact that O’Brien won multiple awards for her investigative reporting, helped bring Bonilla’s case into the light of public scrutiny and was instrumental in establishing a Shield Law, in 2010, by the Kansas legislature.

Journalism is not  a crime

(Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

In Claire O’Brien’s own words:

“I feel it’s important for me to make my position clear, and I want to start sharing it with people. It’s my only path to justice, so I must take it, even if any of my arguments are flawed and/or my efforts still fail. 

I wrack my brain daily re: why no one considers my position worth even investigating. During fierce national threats to our civil liberties, I had acted to derail a state frame up funneling a Latino victim of a Hate Crime to a 40-year prison term. My coverage shone a light on “one of the most repressive and disturbing racist systems” the Mexican American Defense Fund had ever seen. Next, the U.S. Dept. of Justice showed up. No one had ever been made aware of the plantation system exploiting 9,000 slaughterhouse workers and their families in a corner of SW Kansas. Next, I’m hit with a subpeona to reveal the name of a confidential source. The nations premier Free Press organization, founded by four Black reporters 40 years ago because they couldn’t interview a member of the Black Panther Party without getting arrested, sends its biggest big shot, the famous Lucy Dalglish (FYI, the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press is now a white-dominated organization).  

For the first time in the history of journalism, the DEFENDERS of reporters make a secret alliance with Corporate media and they knock this heavily supported reporter to the ground with a statement to the national press accusing me of lying. 
 
The very worst thing you can do to a reporter. I never got up. Reporters who had flooded me with support disappeared. When I returned to the Daily Globe, the doors were all locked-the locks had been changed. 
 
The Latino community got the message about what happened to reporters who spoke up for them. They were silenced. Every reporter in Kansas also got a message. Big shots who knew the truth said nothing, this reporter was silenced. No one can tell me that wasn’t a sucessful national atttack on the First Amendment.
 
And the American press won’t say a word?”

Dodge City, Kansas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are the facts of O’Brien’s case and then there are the facts. Dodge City, where Wyatt Earp once served as a deputy marshall, is known for once being a major part of the Chisholm Trail where cattle were driven from Texas to Kansas railcars to be shipped East. During the cattle years, Dodge City became a booming frontier town known for saloons, prostitutes and gun slingers. So it was, some 150 years later, the descendants of the old West collided with the descendants of the new South. In O’Brien, the Latino community found a voice and a champion who was not afraid to stand with them in the face of monumental political and legal pressures. O’Brien paid a heavy price for her solidarity. The most crushing blow was the betrayal at the hands of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Lucy Dalglish, former director of the RCFP, and now the Dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism, refused to issue a statement in support of O’Brien and, in fact, questioned her refusal to initially appear before the grand jury convened to pressure her into revealing her confidential source and her notes from jailhouse interviews with Bonilla. According to O’Brien, Washington, D.C. reporter Tony Mauro, then-president of the RCFP Steering Committee, was present when Lucy Dalglish admitted to Claire that, even after confirming Claire’s statements as true, she subsequently lied about Claire to the Associated Press. To add literal injury to the insults against her professional reputation, O’Brien was in a car accident shortly after leaving Dodge City jobless and penniless. She clearly ruffled the feathers of the preening peacocks found in every American city for whom the status quo is the guarantor of the power and privilege they have become accustomed to wielding. If an innocent Latino man is imprisoned for decades for standing his ground against white supremacists, well, apparently the bell tolled for he.

Ford County Courthouse in Dodge City, Kansas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Claire O’Brien:

“And I’m supposed to accept it? What message is the Left sending me? If the Press leaders and the corporate media can stamp out rank and file reporters at will, that means their tens of millions of the unimportant readers have just had their First Amendment access to a free press shattered.

And the American public won’t get to weigh in because the American public will never know.
 
One Latino man’s life was at stake (he was 40, and was headed for a 40-year sentence) and another had risked reprisal from the Aryan Brotherhood on the basis of my word, which I have never broken.
 
When I stepped forward to take a big risk, I did not think I was standing alone. I have understood that our only power lies with one another since I was eight years old, and that refusing to stand for a worker who acted to defend all our rights was not a defensible choice. Personal feelings had no role whatsoever in this ongoing struggle. To deny support in such a circumstance was the strongest public rejection the Left could send.
 
Every day I still wonder: what does it mean to write and speak about oppression and resistance, yet allow someone we know to be singled out and picked off without even a chance to be heard? My beliefs have been shaken to the core, although my blog doesn’t reveal that, because I cannot grasp the idea that I am not considered worthy of the rights we’d all defend for the worst wife and child absuser: the right to present my defense, to be heard, and to be represented by counsel. I risked a charge of felony contempt, 4-6 months in jail, a fine of $1,000 a day, the combined wrath of a power I had no chance of facing alone, the loss of my reputation, the regard of my peers, my way of life, a voiceless community I had been honored to serve, my political honor, my income, my home and my family. One minute I had the only protection the working class may rely on-numbers and publicity. That’s what the Left DOES. I looked up and realized that I was facing that vast corporate power alone.”
Solidarity

(Photo credit: BlueRobot)

I was privileged to meet O’Brien through a series of conversations on our respective blogs. Her story needs to be shared and reshared because it’s our story. The implications of her legal case do not exist in a vacuum but are part of a much larger pattern of organized censorship and controlled discourse engineered by the corporate media and political interests they serve, with the ever present currents of systemic racism bubbling just underneath the surface. I must confess that while I have known superficially of the circumstances of Claire’s case, I failed to absorb the full impact of the suffering she has experienced and the toll it has taken. In America, where the global hunger games masked as austerity are taking effect, it is essential that we stand together rather than allow ourselves to continue to be divided. Europe is seeing a rise in fascist ideologies in Greece and other countries hard hit by austerity as people seek someone, anyone, to blame. As the corporate media act as gatekeepers of knowledge on behalf of their capos in lower Manhattan and the Beltway, the American public is kept on a short leash and information is doled out on a strictly “need to know” basis. The controlling of the discourse is by definition the managing of dissent. As Paulo Freire cautioned, “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.” As long as the ruling class is the one telling the stories, their straw narratives will continue to be spun into gold. If we turn our backs on the Claire O’Brien’s among us, who will be there to speak up when they come for us? Will the way that it has always gone continue to be the way it always goes?
______________________________

Update: If there’s a journalist whose editor won’t kill the story, I have a ton of evidence and info. You should know that Jeremy Peters at the N.Y. Times said he was ready to write it, but they killed it, and that Charlie Savage knew of the problems I was having with GateHouse Media three months before anyone else did, and has remained silent.  Calvin Trillin wrote a piece in the New Yorker, and admitted to me right before his May 10, 2010 story that he’d been informed of my innocence before arriving in Dodge City. All I’m saying is, be prepared to get your story killed. I don’t know how to express how much any support will mean to me. Frankly, I have been devastated. Any blogger could make a huge difference by urging every connection they have to re-blog and tweet and re-tweet, demanding that the U. of Maryland Board of Trustees investigate these allegations. State law actually requires it. Also, the RCFP steering committee – the organization lists the many members, but refuses to provide me with email info for each of them. Reporter Tony Mauro, former president of the RCFP Steering Committee has participated in this cover-up, as has the Society for Professional Journalists – most prominently and ironically David Cullier, national Freedom of Information Act Officer. I have proof that he removed evidence of his actions from his SPJ blog. I am sorry I don’t have the contacts right at my fingertips. I have not been expecting any help for at least two years, and am having myriad tech problems with my laptop. However, it will take me just a couple of days to assemble the crucial links. In the meantime, my blog is packed with posts about this case, and if I can just stay on line long enough to assemble those links without getting kicked off, I will post them ASAP. Perhaps Jeff will have time to select at least a few.

I thank anyone who is willing to apply some pressure to these people – and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Yours in struggle,

Claire O’Brien
claireobrien23@gmail.com

________________________________

Postscript: I encourage readers to contact Claire directly to offer support and to consider writing to Amy Goodman at Democracy Now. Perhaps, we can help her story gain a wider audience and see that justice is truly served for a change. Here is the contact info for Democracy Now: http://www.democracynow.org/contact
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Further links to Claire O’Brien’s legal case:

Kansas reported who exposed racism in Dodge City has new battle to fight

A racially charged crime in Dodge City, Kansas

An open letter to attorney Chris Grenz, Kansas City, from journalist Claire M. O’Brien

All of us or none of us: No one walks alone

Gutless GateHouse puts bottom line ahead of public service

Claire O’Brien at Latina Lista

Governor signs shield law

Daily Globe wins six awards in state contest

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