The Bay Citizen reported this week on the personal bankruptcy of Lt. John A. Pike III, the campus policeman who gainedworldwide notoriety recently for pepper-spraying a line of protesters at the University of California, Davis.
I was one of the editors at The Bay Citizen who approved and edited the story. It didn’t take long for critics to question the journalistic propriety of reporting details about Lt. Pike’s personal life. One critic, Shawn King, the host of “Your Mac Life,” a radio show broadcast on the Internet, wrote on Twitter: “So this is what we’re doing – reporting on cop’s private life? Isn’t that as despicable as what he did?”
“Uh, no,” I responded via Twitter.
Mr. King replied, “You have 140 characters – you’re allowed to use them all …”
What followed was a demonstration of how inadequate Twitter is for conducting a thoughtful debate.
In a volley of 140-character-or-less tweets, I said that no, reporting on the cop’s private life was not as despicable as methodical assault on nonviolent protesters by shooting them in the face at point-blank range with pepper spray.
Mr. King answered that the cop’s personal life was not relevant to the incident.
If words came out in a concentrated spray of oleoresin capsicum liquid, he got me right in the face. Was it really in the public’s right to know details of Lt. Pike’s personal finances? After all, he has not been charged with any wrongdoing, except in the court of public opinion. He was following orders from the chancellor of the university, Dr. Linda Katehi, to use force if necessary to remove protesters who were blocking a public walkway. He warned them several times to move, and warned them that if they did not move, he and the other police would remove them by force. They did not, and he did.
Mr. King and other critics felt that we did not uphold the standards of responsible journalism. Some said we violated Lt. Pike’s right to privacy. Others said we were no better than the tabloid journals that feed on the private details of people’s lives.
This is one of those times when a blog is more useful than Twitter for hashing out ideas. Here goes my argument:
Lt. Pike’s personal bankruptcy — in which creditors seized his house, pickup truck, collection of handguns, barbecue grill, wedding ring, and even some clothes — is relevant to the context of the protest.
The students were peacefully protesting tuition and fee increases at UC Davis that many students can no longer afford. The Davis protesters expressed sympathy with Occupy Wall Street protesters and allied protests at Berkeley and Oakland, where a main grievance is the growing income gap between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the “other 99 percent.” A prominent focal point of the OWS protests is the collapse of the housing market in which banks and other financial companies got rich by peddling toxic mortgages while millions of Americans lost their homes or were forced into bankruptcy. It turns out that Lt. Pike was one of those who foolishly borrowed heavily against the artificially inflated value of his house, and lost it all when housing prices collapsed.
From a journalism standpoint, it is a case of weighing the policeman’s right to privacy (even though all documents were in the public record) against the “public interest” in knowing more about the central character in a news event that had captured widespread local, national and global attention. The “pepper spray cop,” as Lt. Pike now and probably forevermore will be known, has more in common with the 99 percent than with the 1 percent, despite his $117,000 annual government salary. (By the way, these days it takes an annual income of about $350,000 to qualify for the 1 percent. UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi, who ordered the forceful removal of protesters, is a 1-percenter.)
“Self-evident, obvious,” Mr. King tweeted in response. “Reporting personal details” of the policeman’s off-campus life was “move vengeful than ‘public interest.’ ”
In other words, he’s not buying it. Neither is “Mission Rosalind,” a Bay Citizen reader who posted the following on the Comments section:
How does this story add to our understanding of what happened at UC Davis?
How does revealing financial information about Pike shed light on his motivations and reasoning behind pepper spraying the protesters?
How does publishing information about Pike’s family affect readers’ ability to judge whether UC Davis handled the protest appropriately?
The Bay Citizen has now officially moved to TABLOID status. Articles like this one make the Bay Citizen no better than the National Enquirer. Perhaps Rebekah Brooks should be asked to join the Bay Citizen’s Board of Directors.
I disagree. What do you think? I look forward to your comments, which don’t have to be limited to 140 characters.
In the meantime, I think Lt. Pike might be able to augment his income by signing an endorsement deal for “Defense Technology’s 56895 MK-9 Stream, 1.3% Red Band/1.3% Blue Band Pepper Spray.” He’s certainly done more than any traditional marketing campaign to raise the profile of professional-grade pepper spray.
Imagine how successful your Black Friday shopping at Wal-Mart would be if you packed a canister of Mike-9.
It’s available on Amazon.com, of course. Here’s the product description:
“The world’s most widely used pepper spray in law enforcement and corrections, First Defense® has just gotten better. With our complete line of aerosols, we are able to offer an OC level of intensity ranging from .2% Major Capsaicinoids to 1.3% MC. The variations in the MC % means that you can now select the level of intensity of OC for the environment required. We use independent laboratory testing to ensure consistent quality of each product. Formulation Weight: 12 oz.; Delivery System: Stream.”