March 14, 2012 11:08

Rhino Times distorts facts in drug story

I can’t pretend to be surprised by John Hammer’s article in the March 1 issue of the Rhinoceros Times. Even still, the sloppiness of the piece, “Somebody dropped ball on pot delivery,” is inexcusably rife with errors, speculation and bad journalism. To be completely honest, it’s embarrassing that it was published as news at all.

The article claims that the Greensboro Police Dept. knew that a package containing 30 pounds of marijuana was mailed to the Beloved Community Center, and that somehow it was still delivered. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that anything remotely close to this scenario actually occurred, and even Chief Ken Miller doesn’t believe it did.

Here’s what really happened, according to Miller, and is what he shared with the BCC staff and board on March 7. Law enforcement raided a motel room in Arlington, Texas and seized around 30 pounds of marijuana and information that led them to believe a package was mailed to the BCC’s address, which they suspected could contain marijuana.

GPD notified the US Post Office, hoping to intercept the package addressed to someone who does not work at the BCC, and use a drug-sniffing dog to obtain probable cause for a warrant on the package. Miller claims the USPS failed to contact the appropriate officers, that the package was delivered on a Saturday in January, that the BCC never knew about it because they were closed and that someone else picked it up there. I am unable to verify any of this, but it is Miller’s explanation.

When you are writing a news article, the credibility of your sources are important. Yet Hammer quotes from an anonymous comment on the internet to conclude that the Texas Rangers and the BCC were involved.

At the time the article ran, there was no evidence the BCC was connected at all — Miller refused to say where the package was delivered — and there is still no indication that Texas Rangers were involved, Miller said. More importantly, it seems the rumor that the package contained 30 pounds of marijuana is a twisted version of the actual raid that happened in Arlington, yet Hammer printed it as fact.

In fact, Hammer built the credibility of the entire article on a blog post by Ben Holder, “The Troubemaker,” and a vague quote from Chief Miller. Holder’s post, while not referencing any sources, is mostly accurate, according to Miller, but the information Hammer printed simply isn’t substantiated.

Holder said sources within the GPD told him there was a package of marijuana sent to a Greensboro address, and that somehow the vice and narcotics division didn’t intercept the package despite being aware of it. The important omission is that the package was suspected to contain drugs. Miller emphasized there is zero evidence that anything about the package was illegal, and didn’t even know roughly what size it was.

It is perfectly possible that Hammer relied on sources other than Holder, anonymous comments and the Miller quotes — but he never cited other sources, confidential or otherwise. If you can’t cite sources, you cannot print it as news. Hammer’s article doesn’t use important qualifying terms like “allegedly,” “according to” or “suspected.” The closest he comes is saying it “reportedly” went to the BCC, but he doesn’t say who reported it and chose phrasing that connotes factuality rather than suspicion.

For whatever reason, Hammer specifically mentions Nelson Johnson and Jorge Cornell, who have been the target of countless attacks in his paper over the years. Putting two people’s names in the article that have no connection to what allegedly happened is inappropriate, irresponsible, possibly libelous and criminalizing. Miller confirmed that police do not think the package had any connection to the Almighty Latin King & Queen Nation, and that nobody at the BCC is suspected of any wrongdoing. That isn’t what Hammer printed.

Hammer didn’t attempt to do his job as a so called journalist for the article, He didn’t talk to anyone at the BCC, according to staff, relied on some sources with no credibility (are we really getting our facts from anonymous internet comments?), printed rumors and information that couldn’t be verified, and inserted his opinion into a “news” story.

Trained journalists know they must rely on credible sources, refrain from citing anonymous tips unless absolutely necessary — and then still explain they are doing so — never print rumors, clearly distinguish between allegations and facts and refrain from tainting news coverage with a personal political agenda. It’s practically in the job description.

I don’t, for the record, buy Chief Miller’s whole story, and won’t until I see evidence that proves countless aspects of it. Rather than presenting his narrative as fact, the point this column should make is clear: The credibility of Hammer’s article was worse than flimsy, and even if he knows something the rest of us don’t (which I highly doubt), he made no effort to back up an argument that appears more driven by personal and political vendetta than anything based in reality.

Disclosure: The author used to work at the Beloved Community Center and hasn’t trusted Hammer’s reporting for years.

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