Late last year television station Valley News Live (full disclosure: I appear on their station frequently and have been paid to guest host) stirred controversy with an act of journalism that involved one of their reporters walking into Fargo/Moorhead area schools to test security. Reporter Mellaney Moore wanted to see how far she could get before someone challenged her presence on school grounds.
As it turned out, she could get pretty far, and she must have proved a point because shortly after the report Fargo Public Schools announced that they would be upgrading their security.
But in an unfortunate turn of events, fueled by big government intimidation condoned competing media outlets, the school districts decided to file trespassing charges against the reporter. Those charges have been dropped, and today comes news of an agreement between two of the school districts and Valley News Live which has the districts not pressing charges in return for Valley News Lives shutting up about the story.
I had made an open records request to attorney Joseph Wetch, of the Serkland Law Firm, who is representing Fargo Public Schools and he promised to email the agreement to me after an unpleasant conversation which involved me explaining the state’s public record laws to him. Apparently he decided to send the information to the Fargo Forum instead, because I still haven’t received anything.
According to the Forum report, Moore and Valley News Live escape prosecution for “trespassing,” and none of the parties are allowed to talk about the issue other than to say the charges have been dropped. I confirmed this by speaking with Valley News Live News Director Ike Walker who would only say he couldn’t comment.
What’s the reaction from other media outlets to this gagging of a media outlet through threat of prosecution? The Grand Forks Herald condemned Valley News Live in an editorial, as did the Fargo Forum. And today the Forum mocked the television station in an editorial cartoon.
That, apparently, is the state of journalism in North Dakota. Or, at least, in Fargo.
Real journalism that reveals uncomfortable truths, informs the public and spurs action is punished by legal threats while other media outlets, more concerned with getting an edge in a competitive but small market than protecting the institution of journalism, pile on.
Their excuse? Journalism should never involve committing a crime. But what crime did Moore commit? Is every lost mother or grandfather who wanders into a Fargo-area school, unsure of where the office is or the gymnasium, to face prosecution? That’s unlikely. Besides, it wasn’t like Moore barged into someone’s living room. She was in public buildings and cooperated fully when she was approached by officials there.
How does that meet any reasonable standard for trespassing? How could such a law stand up to judicial scrutiny?
It’s hard to know what Valley News Live’s reasoning was for taking this deal – after all, they can’t talk about it – but I’m inclined to put some blame on them too for not fighting this. As bad as VNL’s competitors are for piling on, rather than coming to their defense, the TV station is equally to blame for not standing up for itself. At least based on the facts we know.
There doesn’t seem to be any good guys in this sorry spectacle, and the people who lost the most are the public who now, more than ever, will be served by a cowed class of journalists who can see what awaits them if they anger the powers that be.
You can read Moore’s original report here. Apparently, the video report has been taken down.