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Is The Marshall Democrat-News picking on Wally George?Posted Friday, January 23, 2009, at 2:08 PM
Jimmy Carter had his brother, Billy (infamous for beer swilling and boorish behavior).
Hillary Clinton had her husband, Bill (infamous for, er, extracurricular activities).
George Bush had his brother, Neil (questionable business dealings).
Sarah Palin has her daughter, Bristol (had child out of wedlock).
Public figures on the national stage often find that journalists consider their families to be fair game as objects of scrutiny, and family members' behavior sometimes proves to be vexing for the office-holder.
The same applies, to a lesser extent, perhaps, to local public figures.
Saline County Sheriff Wally George, for example, has his son, Jerry.
On Aug. 30, 2007, George, along with deputies, Missouri State Highway Patrol troopers and members of the Mid-Missouri Drug Task Force executed a search warrant at a Gilliam residence and reported finding evidence of methamphetamine production. Our story the next day did not mention the name of the suspect because no charges had yet been filed.
The suspect was Jerry George, son of the sheriff. I knew that not only because his name was in the sheriff's department report but because Wally George hand-delivered the report and told me so. He also told me Jerry would be treated the same as anyone else accused of a crime in Saline County.
By my count, we published nine stories about Jerry George's case, the first on Aug. 31, 2007, the last on Dec. 11, 2008, when he was sentenced. Because we generally do not publish names until formal charges are filed, Jerry's name was not mentioned in the first story. In six of the subsequent eight stories, we mention the fact that Jerry is Wally George's son.
Readers have responded with e-mail, phone calls and comments posted on our Web site, and there is a range of opinion about the case, a number of them coming to the defense of Sheriff George. For example:
"I personally feel that after the months and months of coverage that this case has been through, we all know that Jerry is the 'son of Sheriff Wally George.' I feel that it is unnecessary to continuously throw that in these articles. I mean honestly if Wally were not the Sheriff and he were a school bus driver would the media write 'Jerry George is the son of School Bus Driver Wally George.' Give it a rest already!!! Our prayers are with you Wally and Jerry!!"
--Posted by Steelmagnolia on Sat, Oct 25, 2008
I replied at the time:
"I'm sympathetic to your point (made by a number of others, too), but like it or not, public officials receive different treatment by the media than do other citizens. They know that when they sign up for the job. We mean no disrespect to Sheriff George by noting his relation to Jerry George. It's a fact that readers have a right to know. It should be clear from our stories that it is Jerry -- not Wally -- who was accused and has since pleaded guilty to drug law violations. Whether the fact of their relationship needs to be mentioned in each story is arguable; however, each story is part of a public record created by the paper. In years hence, someone may read one story and not another, so I would argue each story needs to include that fact. Others can (and do) argue otherwise."
Like most people, journalists have tasks they must do that they really would rather not. This story, and our obligation to note the relationship between Jerry and Wally George is one.
As a parent, I can empathize with the sheriff. I know how I would feel if a member of my family got into serious trouble with the law. I know this is an extremely difficult situation for him to be in. I certainly don't want to make it worse for him.
But perception matters, and repeatedly mentioning their relationship along with the details of the case as it unfolded actually served two purposes: to hold a public figure accountable and to protect a public figure from unfounded accusations of favoritism.
Because there is plenty of precedent -- everywhere, not especially in Saline County -- for people in positions of authority showing favor to friends and relatives, it's important for journalists to report on matters where the potential exists.
Wally understands that well. He has been very prompt and forthcoming with information about his son's case, making sure we got every new bit of information available. He was interested in assuring the public that the case would be handled professionally, and it was our duty to convey that information to the community.
I checked with Wally a few weeks ago in preparation for writing this column. He assured me he has no hard feelings toward the newspaper for its coverage of his son's case.
The staff of The Marshall Democrat-News has long had a good working relationship with Sheriff George. We value his service to the people of the county (us included) and appreciate his practice of promptly releasing information about his department's activities.
I hope readers will understand that while we personally regret the need, we had a professional obligation to report the story the way we did.
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Eric Crump is a former editor of The Marshall Democrat-News. He lives elsewhere now but still loves Marshall and Saline County. He's trying to catch up on all the stories he should have written while he was on staff.
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