When public officials become the accused

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 29, 2005

When I was at General District Court Friday obtaining a copy of the warrants filed in the case involving School Board Attorney Wendell Waller and Wineford Rice, I looked around as I entered to make sure no one was within earshot of me as I requested the file because it just felt weird.

I felt uneasy for a lot of reasons that many people would never associate with a journalist-considering that most people view us as cold-hearted news vultures preying on innocent subjects for the next big headline.

That’s never been the case with me, or the reporters I’ve been acquainted with throughout my career. But back to my weird feeling Friday…

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First of all, Mr. Waller is well known in the community and I have never heard a remotely foul word about him. In my early days of working for the News-Herald, new to the government and education beat, he was one of the first city officials I remember meeting–always very pleasant.

Reporter Allison Williams and I often talk about the challenges of covering controversial subjects in our hometown. Both of us were born and reared in Suffolk, and throughout our careers we’ve had the misfortunate of having to write unflattering stories about people we’ve had acquaintance with outside of work via church and community interaction, for example.

I can speak for the News-Herald newsroom in that we do consider the impact of our stories on the central subject(s) and their families, and we balance that with an accurate accounting of the events based on concrete sources. We strive daily to guard ourselves against sensationalizing, solely reporting on the issue as it stands, but ensuring that we’ve provided our readers a factual exploration of all angles of the story.

In the case of assault and battery charges filed against Waller, and the charges the attorney, in turn, filed against Rice, attempts were made to find out what transpired between the two gentlemen. In all fairness, it hasn’t been proven that anyone assaulted anybody. It’s all just what the record states by its very definition…charges.

Let’s face it–this story is only a story because it involves a public official. And there will always be a school of thought that argues this should not be the case, but public officials are held to a higher standard than John Q citizen. Just ask Bill Clinton.

We don’t care if &uot;Jimmy&uot; and &uot;Bob&uot; get in a brawl that leaves no serious injury, or better yet, does not take one or both of their lives. But add a prominent public figure to the equation and it will likely become a story.

Stories involving public officials also raise questions as to what degree, if at all, are they protected from public detection when they’ve been accused. As I copied information from the warrants Friday, a curious clerk, appearing to have personal interest in the case, questioned who told me about the Waller case. This led me to think that perhaps someone’s hopes to keep this out of the public’s eye had been defused.

My reply to the clerk: We get the police reports everyday.