July 12, 2009

Out of the Past: Ordeal by Newspaper

By David Paulin

Americans were shocked by the story of a petite 72-year-old grandmother getting “Tased” during a routine traffic stop in Texas last month. Dash-cam video of the screaming grandmother and strapping, Taser-wielding deputy was a YouTube hit.

Now, a second story from central Texas has emerged involving the “Tasing” of an elderly woman. However, this was what might be called a journalistic “Tasing.”

The victim was 81-year-old Lori Adams of Smithville – a town of 4,400 residents about 40 miles southeast of Austin, the capital. Adams' tormentors were a young newspaper reporter, Andrea Lorenz, and her editors at the Austin American-Statesman.

What happened to the 81-year-old in the space of three days is a parable on how easily the news media can hold up people to public admiration, and then destroy their reputations – all for the sake of the public's right to know. It raises questions about the ethics and values of Lorenz and her editors. And it provokes larger issues related to forgiveness, redemption, and how one should measure a person's character.

Readers of the Statesman, an influential Cox newspaper, were recently treated to a front-page feature by Lorenz: “81-year old pilot still flying high."

The 750-word story described how Adams -- a “bubbly and energetic” 81-year-old -- is an active pilot and flight instructor with 29,000 hours of flying time. Calling her the “Queen of the airport bums,” it noted the spunky redhead enjoys hanging out with the guys at Smithville's small airport.

On top of that, the story noted Adams enjoys doing aerobatics in a single-engine airplane, a Citabria that she co-owns. She even took the plane up for a solo flight -- doing loops for the benefit of the Statesman's reporter and photographer. Adams had for years operated the “Lori Adams Flying Service” in the Houston area, until selling the business in 1982. She returned to Smithville, her hometown, nearly 20 years ago.

“When she gets into an airplane, she goes into her own world,” Smithville resident Austin Wampler was quoted as saying. A friend of Adams, he's one of her flight students and co-owns the Citabria.

The story's first paragraph started cheerfully:

"As the saying goes, there are no old, bold pilots. And 81-year-old Lori Adams said she certainly isn't bold."

In the newspaper trade, such stories are called “feel good” or “puff” pieces. Generally, they rely on what the reporter is told by the interview subject and maybe one or two of the person's friends and associates.

Soon after the story ran, somebody sent the Statesman an e-mail revealing a dark episode in Adams' life. Forty years ago, police in the Houston area charged Adams, then 42, with beating her 5-year-old stepson to death.

The Statesman checked out the allegation, and sure enough, it learned Adams had pleaded “no contest” to such a crime in 1973, 36 years ago. Lorenz and her editors were intrigued: Some follow-up was definitely needed. So the next day, Lorenz phoned Adams to get her side of the story.

Adams told me, during an interview, that she was shocked to hear Lorenz on the phone -- urging her to talk about the tragic episode in her life: Nobody in Smithville even knew about it, she noted. “I said: 'That's 40 years ago!” You're not going to bring that up, are you? Why would you do that? It has nothing to do with that story (on my flying) that you did about me.'”

Adams grew concerned that Lorenz was irritated at her refusal to give her side of the story – and would write something if she refused to talk, she said.

'Skeletons in the closet'

What happened next provoked much controversy in central Texas about the Statesman's ethics. It also highlighted a clash of values – the small-town values of Smithville's residents verses the urbane values of the Statesman's editors, who fancy themselves as guardians of the public's right to know. In a sense, this was a dispute over "journalistic values" verses "human values."

For the rest of the article, go to the American Thinker.

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