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