Sunday Commentary: Biased Coverage of Police Incidents by Local Paper Now and Then

Print Newspapers

A letter writer in the local newspaper calls veteran columnist Bob Dunning to task for what appears to be a slanted and one-sided account of what happened in the Picnic Day incident that has now drawn public attention.

I had a similar reaction as the letter writer to Mr. Dunning’s column, as he uncritically retells Chief Darren Pytel’s story.  The writer notes, “Bob Dunning fails to cite anything from the other half of the story in the same Davis Enterprise article that disputes the Police Department’s accounts, except to say that ‘one alleged witness claims the police were at fault for not properly identifying themselves.’ Further, he mischaracterizes and tries to discredit and belittle the witness.”

He also fails to observe flaws in the police’s account of what happened.

Adding to the intrigue was an editor’s note undoubtedly written by Debbie Davis, the paper’s Editor and Assistant Publisher, who writes, “Yes, Ms. Jones, commentary is biased. Commentary is the writer’s opinion. Bob Dunning’s job is to share his well-informed opinion on local issues, as he did in this case.”

I find this column troublesome.  Yes – commentary has a bias, and newspapers intentionally and rightly attempt to separate their editorial sections from their news reporting, which is supposed to be both factual and impartial.

The reality is not nearly as clear cut.  The best commentary, indeed the best opinion, is fact-based and insightful.  The problem with Mr. Dunning’s commentary is that it was blatantly and overtly one-sided, as he willfully ignored inconvenient facts and failed to offer true insight that the readers would be able to glean.

None of this should come as any surprise to longtime readers of the Enterprise.  Indeed, one of the main reasons that the Vanguard started on July 30, 2006, was precisely because the paper was over-the-top in its defense of police officers involved in a number of very controversial incidents at the time – none larger than the arrest of Halema Buzayan.

In the fall of 2005, Ms. Buzayan was a 16-year-old Davis High student whose parents were immigrants from Libya.  She was accused of driving her parents’ vehicle (though the evidence for that was sketchy at best) when it allegedly sideswiped a vehicle in the parking lot.

If it did make contact with the vehicle, it left superficial damage – and the family, apparently unaware of the collision, when confronted by police simply opted to pay for the damage repair.  In a non-injury hit and run, normally the matter would end there.  In fact, the judge eventually dismissed the charges on the grounds that the victim (who wanted no part of a prosecution) had been compensated for any damages to her vehicle.

But that didn’t stop the Davis Police from investigating what would have been misdemeanor hit and run.  And eventually the officer would come to the parents’ home on a school night at 10 pm and arrest the teen in her night clothing.

The parents were livid at the treatment and loudly complained to a number of people who took up their cause.  Under pressure, the DA’s office at the time released the audio tapes of the incident, even as the courts dropped the charges.

In a rather remarkable column, Debbie Davis summed up the situation that the officer was “doing his job and doing it well.”  It was a remarkably uncritical column that glossed over critical questions such as why the officer would effect a misdemeanor arrest at a minor’s home when the father offered to bring her in for booking the next day.

It also glossed over a relatively clear request for counsel by the minor that was summarily ignored.

The entire Picnic Day incident was badly mishandled by the department and the officer, and yet the paper, including Bob Dunning, was an unmitigated defender of the handling of the matter.

To Lauren Keene’s credit in this case, she interviewed and reported on what Isabel Lynch, one of the witnesses, observed.

While Mr. Dunning downplays the testimony, it is remarkably similar to what both the video we have seen shows as well as what other witnesses report.

The letter writer, for example, notes, “She described how unidentified men (later identified as Davis police) in an unmarked van approached her and a group of people while they were trying to cross the street — one occupant in the van was yelling out of the window, ‘Get the f— out of the road.’”

This is consistent with the account that we have heard – people looking at discrepancies in accounts need to remember that this happened very quickly and that people had obstructed and limited views of the scene.

The letter writer concludes, “For Dunning to selectively pick and choose what to print in order to paint his version of what happened does a disservice to Lynch and other witnesses thinking about coming forward with additional information.”

At no point does Mr. Dunning note that the police accounts at best seem to have critical details missing, as they would have us believe that the individuals on College Park simply surrounded an unmarked vehicle and attacked with no provocation at all.

Indeed, after reading his column, I sent Mr. Dunning my analysis with the screen-shots of the actual incident.  I received no response from him and neither he nor the paper have written on this incident since.

The letter writer adds, “Dunning must surely realize that this sort of biased commentary needlessly sours Picnic Day attendees who already may have ambivalent feelings toward his beloved Picnic Day.”

This has been a big concern from day one.  As one observer to Davis pointed out to me, the Davis police have long despised Picnic Day as an inconvenience.  The community overwhelmingly supports the tradition and many consider it a high point in what makes Davis, Davis.

Overall, the witnesses and participants we have talked to have said that this year’s Picnic Day was mostly peaceful and quiet.  This incident, both by implication in the police report and by the column from Dunning questioning Picnic Day, seems to purposefully attempt to undercut community support for the event.

Unlike the Buzayan case, there is an actual video of the police encounter at the scene, and we will see how the community reacts this time around when, 11 years ago, the community was heatedly polarized on their response.

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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48 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Biased Coverage of Police Incidents by Local Paper Now and Then”

  1. Tia Will

    Keith

    I think that this Picnic Day event is one story on which David’s reporting cannot be described as biased at all. He has told both sides of the story as they became available. This is an example of the more even handed reporting that many posters had said that they wanted to see. I would be inclined to acknowledge good reporting rather than taking cheap shots at it.

    1. Keith O

      I agree that the Vanguard’s reporting on the Picnic Day event has been fair.  I also agree that the Vanguard’s overall reporting has been, as you say, more even handed recently.  But as an example  just a couple of weeks ago the Vanguard reported on the beating of Nandi Cain confronted for jaywalking by a Sacramento police officer the Vanguard left out a key part of the story when it failed to write about the fact that Cain aggressively picked a fight with the officer which is all on tape to which I responded:

      Keith O April 25, 2017 at 7:02 am
      Conveniently left out of the story is the fact that Cain picked the fight with the officer.

      Tia Will, don’t you think that should’ve been mentioned in the article?  Was that an “inconvenient fact”?

      1. Tia Will

        Keith

        I do think that it would have presented a broader perspective to have included that in the article. However, I also believe that what Mr.Cain said to the officer is irrelevant both to the officer’s actions ( no officer should ever be provoked by words alone into physically attacking a civilian) and to the story. If the officer is that thin skinned, he should not be on the street “protecting” the population. So to the question of “more fair ?”, I don’t think that “fairness” is the issue. The issue was the mis behavior of the police officer, not the verbal provocation of Mr. Cain.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            It was not repeated in the second story, but I reported this in the initial story: “A verbal exchange occurred in the street between the two and the pedestrian began removing his jacket, challenging the officer to fight. The officer charged at the pedestrian to take him into custody.”

      2. David Greenwald Post author

        But you’re missing a point – the story you are citing was my coverage of a press conference. In the original story on the video, I did report that he challenged the officer to a fight.

        This was in the original account: “A verbal exchange occurred in the street between the two and the pedestrian began removing his jacket, challenging the officer to fight. The officer charged at the pedestrian to take him into custody.”

  2. John Hobbs

    “The problem with Mr. Dunning’s commentary is that it was blatantly and overtly one-sided, as he willfully ignored inconvenient facts and failed to offer true insight that the readers would be able to glean.”

    Those two problems are Dunning’s style. He sees the world in two very flat dimensions, failing to allow for any nuance or gray area. The Enterprise, on the whole is very much a chamber of commerce public service announcement. That is the nature of most such publications. That said, and I know you folks don’t like to talk about race, but most white folks feel better believing that the cops stand between them and “those people.” The chamber of commerce tacitly appreciates that, too.

    I agree, Tia, David’s coverage of events is usually unbiased and frequently accurate.  The Vanguard is often the only news source to cover local controversies in Yolo county.

    1. Tia Will

      John

      I agree that the Vanguard is often the only source covering issues that I consider of importance, particularly in the topics covered by Court Watch. One problem is the Vanguard lacks funding and is an extremely lean operation largely fueled by volunteer efforts.

    2. Liz Miller

      Right!   Debbie Davis herself told me, a few years ago, that she only prints “what keeps the powers that be happy, that’s what keeps the paper in business.”

      Before long, the paper had to cut back to 3 days a week.   Overall, biased reporting appears to have backfired.

      1. Jim Frame

        Before long, the paper had to cut back to 3 days a week.   Overall, biased reporting appears to have backfired.

        I don’t think there’s much of a nexus between the editorial practices of the Enterprise and its money problems.  The entire newspaper industry is facing similar challenges to its business model.

        The Enterprise is powered by advertisements, and when advertisers (not least of which are classified advertisers) find more cost-effective outlets, revenues plummet and cutbacks have to be made in order to keep the operation running.  I don’t know if we’re witnessing a descent to business stability or a slow-motion death spiral, but I don’t think we’ve seen the end of it yet.

        1. Howard P

          And, the three days chosen coincide with the day after a CC meeting date, the day after a school board meeting date, and those of us who need the tactile sensation of a real newspaper, also want our “Sunday ‘funnies'” [which we can also enjoy right after a CC or school board meeting!]

          That’s why the Emptyprize publishes on Wed, Fri, Sun.

  3. Roberta Millstein

    Dunning’s column is what it is.  Anyone who reads the paper for any length of time has surely formed an opinion of what and how Dunning writes on things.  (My view: a very mixed bag).  But the “editor’s note” that followed the critique of Dunning’s column has to be one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in the paper.  Are we supposed to think that because Dunning writes an opinion column, that he can’t make a mistake?  Or that he can’t respond to critism himself – he needs a defense from the editor?  He (and other columnists) have been subjec to many critiques over the years – why does this one, in particular, prompt a defense from the editor?

    More generally, the idea that because something is someone’s opinion, it can therefore not be subject to critique, is highly troubling.  Opinions can be based on facts, or they can be based on misinformation, or they can be based on partial facts.  And they should be judged accordingly, on that basis.  Then again, the editor did say that it was Dunning’s “well informed” opinion, which suggests that the editor accepts Dunning’s view of the facts.  I find this highly troubling, if for no other reason than not all the facts are in (and some of the facts that are in seem to contradict Dunning’s account).

    1. Keith O

      I’ve seen the “editor’s note” several times in the Enterprise and other publications.  Sometimes for their columnist’s articles and sometimes for letters to the editor.  It comes off to me as a legal disclaimer.

      1. David Greenwald

        Keith – I’ve seen the editor’s note, usually to correct a factual error in the letter.  This was different.  And it was odd.  In fact, I received four emails about it – that’s how odd it was.

        1. Keith O

          I’ve seen the editor’s note in the Enterprise stating, in my words, that the opinions of the letter writer in no way represent the opinions of the paper.

        2. Matt Williams

          Keith, here is the text of the Editor’s Note:

          * Editor’s note: Yes, Ms. Jones, commentary is biased. Commentary is the writer’s opinion. Bob Dunning’s job is to share his well-informed opinion on local issues, as he did in this case.

          I think it would be more accurate if you said “I’ve seen the editor’s note in the Enterprise stating, in my words, that the opinions of the column author (Mr. Dunning) in no way represent the opinions of the paper.”

        3. Keith O

          Yes the Vanguard had backed off of Dunning I think partly because Dunning hasn’t had many controversial columns lately.  Like I recently wrote, his articles seem to have gotten more PC and boring.   I liked it more when Dunning took on controversial issues and he wasn’t afraid to buck the Davis liberal status quo.  I really don’t see it as a Greenwald-Dunning feud.  In order to have a feud both sides would have to be fighting, it’s my opinion that possibly it’s more of a case that the Vanguard is back on the attack.

        4. Howard P

          However, this article is bound to be a salvo in the resurrection of the Greenwald-Dunning feud.

          I liked it more when Dunning took on controversial issues and he wasn’t afraid to buck the Davis liberal status quo.
          it’s my opinion that possibly it’s more of a case that the Vanguard is back on the attack.

          Different commenters… same point… both (Dunning and Greenwald) are probably ‘students’ of William Randolph Hearst… controversy sells papers and/or generates hits on blogs (in both cases circulation has often been … just look at ‘content’ vs. ‘headlines’.  None of the content should be assumed to be fact or ‘truth’ (and, as a famous quote has it, “what is truth?”)
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Randolph_Hearst
          Judge for yourselves… not a direct comparison (neither VG nor Emptypize tend to be “lurid”) but there are ‘threads’…
          Controversy “sells”, particularly in the last few decades, but I think it goes back much, much farther than that, as a ‘reality’… circulation generates revenue… another reality…

      2. Howard P

        Typically in the fashion of… “… these views do not necessarily reflect the views of…” disclaimer.

        Didn’t see Keith’s most recent post, only nuance is he said “no way” and I wrote “not necessarily”…

        Both may be accurate, depending on the column. It is implied, in any case… a “free speech” thing… both for columnist and the media…

        1. Matt Williams

          Howard raises the issue of timing.  A disclaimer in the form of  “… these views do not necessarily reflect the views of…” typically goes with the original column/article rather than with the Letter to the Editor in response to that column/article.

        2. Howard P

          Another nuance…

          Matt is completely correct (as to timing of the standard disclaimer), but a column, like a letter to the editor, is presumed to be opinion, not objective fact, until others judge, based on demonstrable “proof”/factual cites.

          Based on that, and the “fact” I have not see the LTTE nor “note” yet, will refrain until I have…

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            I have a few problems here and this isn’t direct at you, but rather in response to what you have said.

            First, opinion is given a secondary status when most things are opinions. A fact is an objectively true statement (there are three cans on my desk for instance), an opinion is really a conclusion based on a set of facts.

            Second, not all opinions are created equally and this is where this discussion starts. Debbie Davis seems to be making the contention that he is simply entitled to an opinion and that someone can’t dispute it. Some opinions are based on solid evidence, the argument here is that Dunning’s opinion is not.

            Third, a a good column is based on a solid foundation of if not objective facts which are rare but at least a solid evidentiary basis that includes a consideration of both sides or multiple points of view.

            And Dunning’s column fails on the second and third part.

  4. Roberta Millstein

    This is not about David vs. Bob.  This is about reporting that reflects all of the witness accounts vs. reporting that reflects just some of them.  It’s about opinions that are based on all of the witness reports vs. opinions that are based on just some of them.  And it’s about strange behavior from a newspaper in defending a columnist from criticism, when criticism of a columnist’s opinions in the letters to the editor is a complete standard feature of any newspaper (including the Enterprise).

    1. Jim Hoch

      I didn’t raise the issue and was not aware of it though I am glad someone cares enough to tell me what everything is about. I might get misdirected without your guidance.

        1. Roberta Millstein

          Still struggling to understand.  Is this your reasoning?

          My wife directs negative comments at me.

          A woman made a negative comment.

          Other women are like my wife.

          Therefore, the woman directed a negative comment at me.

      1. Howard P

        Keith…

        Had to look that word up… thanks! [meant truly]

        Don’t know if they still have the feature, but when I was a kid, always looked at the Readers Digest section entitled, ‘It Pays To Increase Your WordPower’.

  5. Howard P

    OK… am looking for sources but cannot find in article or comments… date of letter to editor/editorial response?   Trust, but verify…

  6. Tia Will

    For anyone who did not find Debbie Davis commentary about Dunnings column unusual, I would ask you specifically…. you did not see anything unusual about the choice of the  word “well informed” to modify “opinion” in a case in which we have no way of being fully, or even “well” informed……Really ?

    1. Keith O

      One could say that in general Bob Dunning is “well informed” when it comes to most local Davis issues.

      I would say the same thing about the Vanguard too.

      1. Tia Will

        Keith

        One could say that in general. But it does not appear to me that Ms. Davis comments were made in general, but rather with regard to this particular column. I am again confused about how one could describe the opinion as “well informed” when so little actual information is available.

    2. Jim Hoch

      Do you believe that she is consistent enough to read into a change in text? People used to take Alan Greenspan’s announcements and compare them word for word to the previous ones. Any change in verbiage was noted and generally was important. Not sure the Enterprise rises to  that level of consistency.

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