Fighting with Arnie

Friday, January 25, 2008

I don't know why, but I feel like duking it out with editor Arnie Robbins at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch today.

And, gentle readers, I must warn you that the topic of our dispute is executioners. Not a pretty thought as you're freshening your corn flakes with another dash of milk.

Our feud (by the way, he doesn't know we're fighting) is about the paper's crusade to identify executioners.

Why would a newspaper take on such a mission? You'll have to ask Arnie the next time you see him or he calls to ask for your opinion about the next major do-over of the newspaper.

All I know is this: In recent years, folks at the Post-Dispatch have been interested in exposing what they must believe are irregularities in how executions are carried out in the Show Me State. There was the dyslexic doctor, for example, who was responsible for pushing the plungers on three syringes in a particular order: 1, 2 and 3. The Post-Dispatch worried a doctor with dyslexia might inadvertently go 2, 3 and 1 or some other sequence.

The Post-Dispatch believes it has a journalistic right to tell readers the names of executioners. After it identified the dyslexic doctor, the Missouri Legislature passed a law prohibiting the naming of executioners.

My beef with all this is on two counts:

1. The Post-Dispatch is exhibiting in its news columns -- not on the opinion page -- the noble notion that it knows what's best. Everyone else is wrong. What's best, the Post-Dispatch says, is full disclosure so average citizens and death-row inmates can determine if our executioners are reputable killers.

Does that seem at all odd to you? In the imaginary world of Do Everything the Way the Post-Dispatch Decrees, we would feel comfortable interviewing a candidate for chamber president who lists on his resume that he is married, has two children, attends the You Name the Denomination church, has been a Scoutmaster his entire adult life, served honorably in the Army and is a part-time executioner.

In its latest flurry of reporting, the Post-Dispatch has identified another executioner. This one pleaded "no contest" to misdemeanor charges after he allegedly stalked a man who took up with the executioner's ex-wife. Good grief. The Post-Dispatch wonders if we can stand to have an executioner who is jealous -- and who, by the way, has no criminal record, since he was given a suspended imposition of sentence.

Instead of looking for executioners among the same pool that gives us teachers, nurses, pastors, shopkeepers, mechanics and lawyers, I'd be looking for the scruffiest, meanest, ugliest convicts domiciled in our statewide correctional system. Qualification: Can you count to 3?

2. The Post-Dispatch knowingly broke the law that prohibits the naming of executioners, providing this disclaimer from editor Robbins: "We believe the law is unconstitutional."

How many stories and editorials and columns and letters to the editor do you think the Post-Dispatch has published over its long and rich history that have condemned individuals, public and private, for interpreting the rules to suit themselves? Can you say "Enron"?

Good citizens, and that includes newspaper editors, obey the law. If a law is out of whack, newspaper editors ordinarily use barrels of ink and tons of newsprint to push for change.

There have been many occasions in the annals of American journalism when newspapers defied government restraints in the name of the public good. I leave it to you to decide if we are better off because of it. I have concluded from Robbin's defiant editor's note accompanying recent stories about executioners that he hopes he is arrested for breaking the law, which would give him a bully pulpit to discredit a law he doesn't like. He would rather rely upon a judge to undo the law rather than convincing a majority of Missouri's legislators.

Sadly, I conclude that all of this contributes to the worries of readers who no longer believe newspapers. When we start acting like petty lawbreakers, we start smelling like them, too.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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