EDITORIAL: Article Did Not Cause Lower Eagle Pay-Outs

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(APN) ATLANTA — In previous editorials I have written about the interrelationship between media and society.  While the theory of objective media purports that reporters are to sit on the sidelines observing society, in fact news outlets are a part of the society they cover.  One sign of a healthy media is when news articles impact a situation by raising a question or revealing information that inspires someone to take action, thus changing the situation.

Atlanta Progressive News has never subscribed to the notion of objective media; and I could count dozens, perhaps hundreds of occasions where something occurred because of an APN article.  And this is certainly true of the Atlanta Eagle raid story, which APN covered over a period of a year and a half.

APN actually broke the story of the raid in November 2009 and led the coverage of the raid in various ways.

In addition, as the News Editor of APN, I personally became one of the strongest advocates of policy and practice change within the Atlanta Police Department after the raid.  As I often do, I used our coverage as a way to insist down at City Council meetings that such policy changes needed to occur.  I also used my relationship with Council Members to suggest and then lobby for a city apology, which eventually passed the Council early this year.

APN kept the pressure on the City long after most advocates had given up, and this pressure is part of the reason that the City was willing to settle so quickly [yes, a year is quick for the City of Atlanta].

As the months of 2010 progressed, APN became aware of the settlement talks between the Eagle plaintiffs and the City.  In November 2010, APN became aware that a settlement appeared to be quite close.

In November 2010, APN published an article that the City had already made a settlement offer, based on anonymous sources; now, it is clear, that the offer had not come from the City.

The so-called offer that APN reported on in November 2010 was in fact something that the Eagle raid plaintiffs’ attorneys had internally come up with and were proposing to their clients as a minimum they would be willing to accept in negotiations.  Apparently, not all of their clients understood this.

Shortly thereafter, Georgia Voice magazine reported that their own anonymous sources said the letters were not from the City and APN published an update.

A bit of a media frenzy ensued, with all parties including the City and the plaintiffs refusing to speak to the press, citing a gag order [which APN was not party to and had not been aware of at the time].

Then, about two weeks later, the settlement was announced: one million, twenty-five thousand dollars.  The funds have since been disbursed, but to this day many of the plaintiffs have maintained secrecy about how much they individually received out of the total settlement.

Today, an individual very familiar with the matter [who was not granted anonymity, but his identity need not be revealed here] told me that he believed that the Eagle plaintiffs would have received more money in a settlement, if it had not been for the November 2010 APN article.

The individual stated that the article let the City know what was the minimum the plaintiffs were willing to accept, thus tipping the plaintiffs’ bargaining hand to the City.  I have no reason to doubt this is the case.

The lead Eagle attorneys have apprently been telling their clients this as a way to scapegoat the Atlanta Progressive News for the entire outcome of the settlement, not only unfairly, but unfoundedly.

I am writing this editorial for several reasons.  First, to set the record straight.  Second, to enlighten our readers about the way in which our coverage may have affected the overall situation in which the settlement was reached.  And third, to again highlight the ways in which media and society are interconnected and intertwined: how they shape and constrain each other, instead of one being a passive, objective observer of the other.

(1) First of all, it is important to note that any dollar figures that the attorneys came up with and presented to their clients were the responsibility of the attorneys.  If the dollar figures were too low, so low that they were problematic or offensive or what have you, then the attorneys should accept some ownership for coming up with the figures in the first place.

(2) Second of all, the Plaintiffs did not have to settle.  If they had chosen not to settle but to take it to a jury, they probably would have ultimately won a lot more money from the City.

(3) Third, the City could have offered more money, too, do not forget, instead of engaging in a race to the bottom.

More than one individual familiar with the matter has confirmed to me that even though the judge may have been upset by the media stories about the settlement talks, it would not, and could not, have affected any judicial rulings on the validity of the claims at the heart of the lawsuit.

In other words, the judge could not somehow hold media reports against the plaintiffs, if it had actually gone to trial, and such reports would have had no bearing on the outcome.

If I had to make an educated guess, people probably chose to settle for several reasons: wanting the whole thing to be over with for one thing; some of the plaintiffs needing the money sooner to pay bills in a very difficult economy, for another.

Some may also say that it wasn’t about the money, that it was never about the money, that it was about policy change.  And if that’s true, then no one should be upset about the dollar amounts so this whole discussion is moot.

But at the end of the day, the choice was made to settle.  The publication of an article in November 2010 by APN may have impacted the circumstances in which that settlement was reached.  However, the Atlanta Progressive News is not responsible for suggesting such a low settlement amount in the first place, nor for making the plaintiffs settle.

There is another reason I wanted to write this editorial, and that is to underscore some of the different, sometimes conflicting priorities that we as a publication have to balance and grapple with.

One priority that we have is to put our readers first, to serve the interests of our readers.  Typically, this means giving the readers as much information as possible.  When the readers have an interest in knowing as much as possible about an important issue like the Eagle raid–whether there are tax dollars, policy changes, or the City’s reputation at stake–then the way we serve their interest is to report what we know as soon as possible.  And we did that.

The other priority is superordinate to that: that is the priority to create a better world, to solve social problems, particularly by empowering people with the information they need to make a meaningful difference in the democratic process.  As I have said before, I founded APN not to document society as it goes to hell in a handbasket, but to make society better.  I have always thought the most important missing piece in the fabric of our democracy was a healthy, vibrant news media.  [But this is a priority that makes APN unique; certainly the Atlanta Journal-Constitution does not exist to create a better world.]

In light of the fact that I as an individual advocated for the Eagle plaintiffs in addition to leading the coverage in which APN initially cast the Atlanta Eagle raid not just as a GLBT issue but a progressive, human rights issue, it is obvious that I wanted to see policy change, and wanted to see the best outcome for the victims of the raid.  That was part of the better world at the heart of APN’s very mission.

And so, if I could turn back time, would I write the article completely different?  Of course, but that’s for multiple reasons.

I would have reported solely that a settlement was close, not that any dollar amounts were being floated.

If I wanted the best possible outcome for the plaintiffs, which I did, would I have intentionally done anything to alter their bargaining position?  Of course, not.

But is it fair or valid to blame the Atlanta Progressive News for any plaintiffs receiving a lower settlement amount?  No, it really isn’t.

I am very happy that the Eagle raid lawsuit was settled in favor of the plaintiffs.  And I am extremely happy that the lawsuit has resulted in policy and practice changes that will benefit Atlanta citizens for years to come.  I am delighted as well that APN, and my personal advocacy, was able to help in so many ways to bring the City–which never wants to admit wrongdoing–to the settlement table.

As a journalist who seeks to root out injustice in all of its forms, sometimes I have to make difficult choices.  In this editorial, I have attempted to make a particular decision-making process as transparent possible to readers.  Our readers are always at the forefront of our concern, but sometimes that means revealing newsworthy observations that ultimately change the very nature of the phenomenon being observed.

(END / 2011)

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