Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Newspapers' efforts have set them free

This morning's News & Observer leads with the news that the state will pay $12 million to two men who were wrongly imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. The article highlights the previously reported stories of Floyd Brown and Greg Taylor, both railroaded by unethical acts by local and state investigators. Between them, the two men served a total of 31 years behind bars.

Today's news also highlights the earlier history of Alan Gell, who was convicted of a murder he didn't commit — couldn't have committed because he was in jail at the time of the murder — who had previously received a $3.9 million settlement from the state for the nine years he spent in prison.

These cases are shocking on several levels: $12 million is a lot of money, enough to raise eyebrows in a state that tosses around billions in budget talks; but no amount of money will regain for these men the years they spent in prison, separated from loved ones, missing family events and being treated as guilty criminals even though they were innocent; the state of North Carolina should be ashamed, not just over the embarrassing publicity about monetary compensation and stolen years but also over the disgrace that public employees effectively framed these men so that the state could claim a higher conviction rate and clear these crimes from its books.

One major takeaway from these shameful events is this: Newspaper investigations led to each of the sentences being overturned. Without a free, vigorous and financially healthy press, it is unlikely these travesties would have been uncovered. At a time when newspapers are losing their value faster than a McMansion in a bursting housing bubble and newsrooms across the country are being decimated by budget-slashing publishers, newspapers are as important as they ever were in comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, watching over the public interest and protecting democratic processes.

Don't expect the bloggers, the nonprofit online experiments, the online media sites compiling other people's work, or the radio and television stations more intent on trailing celebrities and sensationalizing the crime du jour to do the work that dedicated, persistent newspaper reporters have done for generations. America still needs newspapers.

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