Wednesday, April 11, 2007

WGN-TV smears Joe Birkett

There are few issues the news media worships more than the anti-death penalty movement. Throw together a sign, pick up a candle and show up in front of a courthouse expressing outrage over the death penalty and chances are you'll soon be rivaling Al Sharpton for TV time.

Today, a protest of exactly eight citizens at the DuPage County Courthouse in Wheaton drew TV cameras from at least three Chicago stations. To build up the suspense, CBS 2 Chicago led its report saying a "busload full" of protesters had arrived from DePaul University in Chicago. Later in the report, the reporter conceded that only a handful of students had showed up, despite advance stories in newspapers heralding the protest. He blamed the lack of passion on the devastating 1-inch snowfall that blanketed the region. Another "rally" is planned in May, weather permitting.

The "protest" was against DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett for seeking the death penalty for Brian Dugan for the murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in 1983. I have no problem with anyone expressing that viewpoint. If I was a news director, however, I wouldn't give much play to a protest of eight people—unless I had a political agenda. When's the last time you remember a protest of eight pro-lifers getting TV time?

WGN-TV felt differently. Not only did they give the story good play (see video link on right side), they allowed one of the protesters to say this about Joe Birkett:
….This county has got a State's Attorney who likes to kill people. He likes to go after the death penalty for political reasons…
I called WGN-TV and asked a person in the newsroom whether it was fair to air that outrageous statement. She told me Birkett chose not to respond so it was fair. (Birkett's office says it was offered a chance to respond to the generic eight-person protest, not the specific statement that he likes to kill people). I asked her if a drunk person was stumbling around outside the courthouse muttering that Birkett had killed 50 children that morning if it was OK for WGN to air the charge. She said as long as Birkett had a chance to respond it was OK.

In other words, she said, WGN-TV could smear anyone it wanted to. Pretty amazing attitude, if you ask me.

For the record, I've known Birkett for many years. I covered him as a reporter and in more recent years have provided political advice to him. He's a smart, tough, hard-working prosecutor who's spent his life protecting DuPage County residents like me from criminals for a salary many times lower than what he could make in private practice. He's also highly respected among his colleagues in Illinois and across the country. He's a stand-up guy who is one of the few political figures in the state who directly answers reporters' cell phone calls. I find it stunning that a TV station can say it's fair to air a statement saying he likes to kill people.

This report came a few segments after a lengthy piece profiling U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, who had the most liberal voting record of all senators in 2006. Despite Durbin's long history of sharp partisanship, the story had not a single critic, harsh word, or mention of his extreme views or controversial statements. Calling it a puff piece isn't sufficiently descriptive. It was a promotional video.

A few minutes later WGN was allowing a woman to look into the camera and say the conservative Republican prosecutor from DuPage County "likes to kill people."

It was an embarassing evening of journalism by the Tribune-owned WGN-TV. Mr. Zell, were you watching?

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