The Rest of the Story: Fair & Balanced Article

Last week, Bryce Martin wrote an article entitled Investigation details Dunn County Sheriff candidate’s misconduct.

By Pat Merriman

I’m going to show you the difference between an objective newspaper article about a candidate and a hit piece. Bryce’s article read as follows:

Dunn County Sheriff candidate and former Dunn County Sheriff’s Deputy Kenny LaRocque allegedly used extensive company time and resources to elicit an extramarital affair last year, according to official reports obtained by the Dunn County Herald. [No legal conclusions about LaRocque’s motivation or culpability, just the allegations and facts ma’am cited by a named author (Bryce) to a specific source–the LaRocque Papers]

Records of nearly 2,000 text messages, many of which were explicit in nature, sent between LaRocque and a Bismarck female last year were contained in a June 6 investigation conducted by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. [241 pages comprised of 512 Instant Messages (over 3 months) and 1,989 Text Messages over a 4 month period in 2013. Actual, concrete, verifiable, unimpeachable, written documents compiled by a neutral, detached law enforcement agency with no ties to either campaign and which are a matter of public record under North Dakota’s Open Records law. All compiled BEFORE Bryce wrote his story.]

The BCI began an investigation into LaRocque’s alleged activities at the request of Dunn County Sheriff Clay Coker, after he received an email from a woman suggesting LaRocque may have committed some type of illegal or wrongful activity while on duty. [ditto]

LaRocque was terminated from his position as deputy seven months earlier, in November 2013, for unrelated issues, according to his termination paperwork, which is public record. LaRocque continually acted in an insubordinate manner and disobeyed Coker’s directives, which led to his dismissal, as indicated by the records. [ditto]

The alleged incident regarding overuse of LaRocque’s department cell phone, which purportedly occurred over a seven-month span beginning in early 2013, was investigated and the information was forwarded to Dunn County Assistant State’s Attorney Pat Merriman for his review for criminal charges. He wrote a legal memo detailing his conclusions. [name, source, location of information]

In his memo, Merriman wrote that there was “absolutely no doubt” that “a large number of [the] communications occurred while LaRocque was on duty, working as a member of the Dunn County Sheriff’s Dept.” He also noted that other deputies’ personal texting on their work phones, during the same time period as the alleged incident, averaged less than 25 per month while LaRocque’s averaged over 900.

The conduct, which would have been grounds for discipline in his employment status, was discovered after he was relieved from his duties. [citations to the actual document itself and the basis for the analysis]

“I have taken into consideration the grossly disproportionate time that LaRocque spent on this activity (in comparison to other deputies who used their county cell phone for personal use), but, again, I cannot justify having BCI commit scarce resources on this matter given the unlikely result of any criminal charges,” Merriman indicated in the memo. Merriman closed the file as “no charges filed.” [ditto]

Calls were made by the Dunn County Herald to two different numbers supplied by LaRocque, over the period of more than a month. Those calls continuously went unanswered and unreturned. [Fair and balanced. The subject of the story is actually given a chance to tell their side of the story for a protracted period of time. You don’t want to speak up, the newspaper waits a respectable period of time and then moves on with the story]

Although LaRocque’s conduct could be classified as an issue of morality, Merriman stated in his weekly newsletter that, just like a comparable case in Belfield regarding a former sheriff deputy, similar conduct is always relevant to public service because it bears on “character and integrity to wear the badge.” Running in the November elections himself, for Dunn County State’s Attorney, Merriman declined to comment further. [Again, no conclusions or hyperbole, just citations to the actual document itself, the basis for the analysis and the conclusion drawn as to why the story is relevant]

In several of the text messages that LaRocque sent to the woman, he would indicate that he was on duty and wanted to “ditch” his fellow employees. In a specific situation, LaRocque texted the woman that he was training a new deputy and expressed his desire to leave the trainee and be with her. [ditto]

“The only victims here are the two women, and the people,” Coker said. The woman involved with LaRocque ended contact with him. After several months, according to Coker, the woman was approached by an individual that “harassed” her because of her previous connections with LaRocque. She felt unsafe, said Coker, which led her to contact with the sheriff’s department, via email, and detail her relationship with LaRocque. She knew little of his professional life, only that he was a deputy in Dunn County. She had no idea he was running for sheriff, Coker said. [again, fair & balanced. The candidate’s opponent is given a chance to put in their personal 2 cents]

Conclusion – Yes, voters need to be able to evaluate their candidates. That is why a responsible Fourth Estate (the Herald) and I have all been pushing for public debates so we can kick the tires and feel out what our local candidates’ goals are. You know…educate local voters about the facts and visions for political office not, just throw mud at the other guy. One proposition I do agree with is that, far too often, it seems that a vote is cast as if public office were a popularity contest like a Homecoming King/Queen when, the best qualified candidate should always be the correct choice. Political ideology is a terrible way to pick a civic leader and, always has been. PBS, not an organization known for its right-wing tendencies, has touted the publication of a book analyzing the problem. In his April 15, 2011, article Are bad voters like drunk drivers? New book says they are, and that they should stay home on Election Day, reporter Sal Gentile states:

Regardless of whether you believe the facts…you are allowed — even encouraged — to vote. But should you? Not everyone thinks so. Polls have shown routinely that large numbers of Americans know very little about how our political system works. And it’s not just a lack of factual knowledge — Americans’ skewed understanding of how the government functions (or fails to function) also influences their proposals for how to fix it. Take, for example, foreign aid. When asked what percentage of the budget the government should spend on international assistance, most Americans said about 10 percent. That may seem like a fair proposal, but consider this: As it stands now, the government only spends about one percent of its budget on aid to other countries. Americans seem to vastly inflate how much the government spends on foreign aid. Some said it comprised as much as 30 percent of the budget — which is why they suggested “cutting” it down to 13 percent…

If most voters decide, ‘We don’t know anything, we’re just going to kind of choose whatever we find emotionally appealing,’ then they’re imposing that upon other people,” said Brennan, a professor of political philosophy at Brown University. “And not only are they imposing it upon other people, they’re imposing it literally at gunpoint.” Brennan is the author of The Ethics of Voting, a new book that questions the conventional belief that voting is a civic duty, and that a person’s vote is sacrosanct. Brennan argues that voting is more than just an expression of personal preferences… Voting, according to Brennan, is actually a decision about how other people should live. And that, he says, makes it a “pretty hardcore ethical situation.

When I’m at a restaurant deciding what to eat, I’m deciding for myself. I choose to have a hamburger, I’m the person who lives with the consequences. If it’s overly fatty, I get fat, you don’t get fat. If it causes heart disease, I get it, not you,” Brennan said. “When we’re voting, we are imposing costs upon one another. We’re not just deciding for ourselves.” And because of that, Brennan argues, there is no moral obligation to vote — in fact, not everyone should vote. “I don’t think people have a duty to vote. I argue that voting is just one of many ways you can exercise civic virtue,” Brennan said. “I think it’s sort of morally optional. If you do it well, it’s praiseworthy, but it’s not anything special.

The point isn’t merely that you should feel free to stop reading newspapers or paying attention to elections when they roll around. As Brennan put it, misinformed choices at the ballot box have harmful consequences for society, and we’re all forced to live with those consequences. So we need to reconsider what voting is, and who should do it. Of course, deciding whether you are qualified to vote is a tricky thing. Because we tend to view facts and evidence through the prism of our political ideology, we’re unlikely to be swayed by the argument that we shouldn’t vote because our beliefs are “unfounded,” or that they’re “contradicted by evidence.” We view the evidence however we want to view it. Some voters even seem to pride themselves on their ignorance. That, Brennan says, is “irrational.” In a way, it’s like driving drunk.

When you’re driving drunk, if there’s a kid crossing the street, like in a crosswalk, you have an obligation to stop, not to hit the child. However, because you’re drunk, you might be unable to even notice that there’s a child there, and you just smash right into him,” Brennan said. “It might be that voters are kind of like that too. They have this obligation not to do the equivalent of ‘crashing’ — they have an obligation to vote well. But they’re in sort of an ‘intoxicated state’ when it comes to assessing themselves and their own character as political agents. So they have a hard time figuring out whether they should vote or not.

Woah! I’m not agreeing with this author because I simply believe there is another, saner and less elitist approach. The individual voter should educate themselves as to what a candidate actually intends to do. It is too simplistic to say that all politicians are liars and, therefore, everything they say is a lie, so, why bother. If that is really true, then we’re all doomed. My experience is best summed up in a speech by an old Missouri Senator that I once heard named Mel Hancock. Paraphrasing Hancock (who was, himself, paraphrasing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s “Consensus is the absence of leadership” remark), he said that there is a vast difference between a statesman and a politician. A statesman gets up every morning and leads from the front and challenges others to follow. A politician gets up every morning, holds his/her finger in the wind to determine popular opinion and then decides what direction he/she is going to go that day. Hancock said that the world needs statesmen not politicians. Anytime you don’t want to go the direction the statesman is headed, vote for someone else.

Our entire system of government is based on one, basic premise–each man/woman has a right to pursue happiness under the social contract that this prime directive must still strive for the common good. If we assume that a certain faction of legal, qualified voters (in North Dakota, “qualified elector”) should not be allowed to vote at all, we are doomed and our representative republic falls by its own hand into elitist tyranny. I don’t know about a “civic duty” to vote. I only know that people died for my right to vote and, I think that my honor requires that I repay their sacrifice by not only voting in each election, but, to educate myself and vote for the most qualified candidate for each office, particularly, at the local level where I am most directly affected. Mel Gibson’s famous quote in the movie The Patriot rings true to me, “Why would you trade 1 tyrant 3,000 miles away for 3,000 tyrants less than 1 mile away. ”

But, of  course, the flaw in my logic is that, even assuming voters want to be responsible and educated, all candidates in a particular election must also actually agree to appear in public together and, truthfully, actually answer questions about their background, experience and vision instead of engaging in political spin for a populist view, i.e., be a politician. I want a statesman, who will stand up, face public scrutiny, side-by-side with his/her opponent, show their warts and all and commit as to their agenda for local office. And, this 1-candidate “town hall” nonsense, really promoted by President Bill Clinton, is all smoke and mirrors. Small, hand-picked audience, with hand-picked questions and no debate or opportunity to respond. It’s the rankest form of Madison Ave. packaging and marketing with no scrutiny. Shouldn’t we, at least, vote for a candidate better than we buy toothpaste?

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