Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Emily Litella Foundation for Public Discourse*

One of the great things about blogging - the ability for anyone with a computer to publish their uncensored ideas, opinions, and interests for the entire world to see - is also one of its inherent dangers.

While all bloggers benefit from unfettered freedom of speech, there are always instances when we would have done well by having an editor to offer sage advice. Typos, poor grammar, and blatant misrepresentation of the facts show-up in the postings of even the most conscientious of bloggers.

But even more embarrassing, for those of us who provide commentary on issues and events, is when emotion or haste (perhaps even ignorance) clouds our thinking and we totally misread the subject we are commenting on or provide a counter-position that rests entirely on disjointed logic.** Fortunately, this has never happened to me, but it does seem to be the case with the author of a letter in today’s SJ-R.

A local attorney, perhaps already pushed to the brink by one too many lawyer jokes, opened fire on a column written by Dave Bakke, and to a large extent, on Bakke himself.

Some background:

In Sunday’s column, Bakke commented on the makeover that a defendant in an upcoming trail had received. The defendant, one Maurice LaGrone, Jr., ditched the hooded, pierced, and tattooed look that he had previously favored, for a more dapper presentation. Bakke opined that this was probably done at the request of his attorney to create a favorable impression upon the jury. Bakke found this cynical and thought that it underestimated the ability of jurors to look past a defendant’s appearance and judge the case based on the facts.

In response, Adam Giganti, a local defense attorney, wrote a letter in which he accused Bakke of being prejudiced. He presumes that the columnist would have one look at ghetto-attired African American and immediately cast a guilty vote, while waiting to acquit Kenneth Lay only long enough to admire his well-tailored suit. The tone of the letter could best be described as caustic.

My view:

Immediately upon reading Giganti’s letter, I felt that this was a man who had let emotion get the better part of reason. After digging the Sunday paper out of the recycling bin and rereading Bakke’s column, it confirmed that Giganti had come unglued over a criticism that Bakke had made of lawyers, without comprehending that they both share the same view on the important issue: it’s not right to judge people on their appearance.

Giganti believes, and I tend to agree, that there is a real possibility someone on a jury will be prejudiced by a person’s physical appearance (“Looks guilty to me!”), so defense lawyers have to safeguard against it. Bakke finds it calculating to gussy up a defendant for their big day in court, which it would be if jurors could be trusted to ignore the superficialities and stick to the facts, which they can’t.

It’s beyond me how Giganti could conclude from anything written in Bakke's column that he is “a person who would judge another because of their appearance” or that he has “already convicted them based upon their appearance.” He might as well accuse Bakke of kicking puppies and conning old ladies out of their inheritances too, there is just as much evidence of that in the column as there is of what he alleges.

It’s good that the SJ-R printed the letter, as irrational of a response as it may have been. This brings me to one advantage that bloggers have over newspaper columnists.

If someone posts a comment to one of my entries that takes me to task in a way that I feel is unjustified or faulty in reason, I can respond immediately and my response will appear directly below theirs. Anybody reading the comments section will get both sides of the issue at the same time and can form their opinion accordingly.

A newspaper’s format doesn’t allow for this type of debate. A person who read Giganti’s letter, but didn’t read the column in question, could be left to wonder what sort of disparaging remarks Bakke was making about the black man whose pictures appeared above the letter in today's paper. Sure Bakke can respond to the attack in his column, but there is no guarantee that everyone who read the letter will read his column. In fact, a person left with a negative opinion about Bakke might go out of their way to avoid reading his column.

Several years ago, while in grad school, I was researching a paper on how newspapers handle corrections and the role of public editors (or ombudsmen) in keeping journalists fair and balanced. Sarah Antonacci, an SJ-R reporter, related to me an interesting anecdote that demonstrated that sometimes it is the readers who need corrected.

Antonacci had reported on a county jail inmate who took advantage of the special release privileges he had been granted to commit a crime (it may have been a murder, the details escape me.) In her story, she referred to the inmate as a jail “trusty.” Antonacci said that she received numerous phone calls and emails alerting her to the mistake, telling her that what she meant to write was “trustee.”

Except it wasn’t a mistake. A trusty is a “convict regarded as worthy of trust and therefore granted special privileges.” Trustee is a legal term that deals with fiduciary matters.

Antonacci was able to defend her correct usage to those who contacted her, whether they believed her or not is another story. What troubled her, however, were all of the other people who she didn’t correspond with who also thought she was in error. The newspaper can’t print a correction when there is nothing to correct, so there was no way to clarify a matter that had obviously left many readers with a mistaken notion.

I guess it all just goes to show, if it isn’t one thing, it’s another. Either you’re a bi-weekly columnist who wants to deny the poorly attired due process, or you're an investigative reporter with unrefined orthographical skills. No wonder so many bloggers choose the comfort of anonymity.


*What's all this fuss I hear about making Puerto Rico a steak?

**Maybe it has happened a couple of times. Looking back, it may have been irresponsible of me to malign the Red Hat Society to the extent that I did based on my limited knowledge of the group, but my gut still tells me there is something sinister going on there.

7 comments:

Monkey Boy said...

Excellent blog. I am glad you pointed this out because I too missed Bakke's column.

Giganti is as slimy as a defense attorney gets. Trust me when I tell you that he will try every dirty trick in the book to get a client off even when he knows that his methods are unreasonable and not fair.

Instead of trying a case on the facts, or on the hard investigative work he has done to disprove the State's case, he instead will try to discredit the witnesses in a shameful manner. He and his partner, Scott Hankin, are as crooked as the day is long.

I understand the need and importance of having good aggressive defense attorneys but neither Hankin or Giganti fit the bill. The best way to describe them is "scummy."

Anonymous said...

This is just silly. Your post, like the Bakke article that spawned it, is completely meaningless! Of course a defendant is going to be cleaned up before trial – it only makes sense. And I suspect that, contrary to what Mr. Bakke proposed, this is not a reflection of the “visual age” but has been the norm for quite some time. I’ll wager that you get a haircut and put on a suit to go to a job interview? If so, are you and Mr. Bakke in some odd way accusing the interviewer of being so impressionable (or dumb) that the appearance of the candidate is going to have any bearing on their decision? I’ll bet you look good when you go to church on Sunday – do you think God is impressionable and/or dumb?

Impressions matter – especially first impressions – and I find it laughable that the SJR even printed the Bakke column. It added nothing to the public discourse on the subject and seemed more of a vehicle for the author to trot out his witty repartee, then to make a general comment on the subject.

-Your Friend

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

Anon,

As I friend, I’d ask you to go back and read my post and Bakke’s column again. A more careful reading will reveal that we both agree with you, and Giganti, that you shouldn’t judge a person by her appearance. I even wrote that “it’s not right to judge people on their appearance.” It can’t get any plainer than that.

Where I disagree with Bakke, and agree with Giganti, was expressed in this paragraph:

"Giganti believes, and I tend to agree, that there is a real possibility someone on a jury will be prejudiced by a person’s physical appearance (“Looks guilty to me!”), so defense lawyers have to safeguard against it. Bakke finds it calculating to gussy up a defendant for their big day in court, which it would be if jurors could be trusted to ignore the superficialities and stick to the facts, which they can’t."

What did I write that made you believe that I held a contrary position?

The reason I defended Bakke in my post is that there is absolutely nothing in his column to suggest that he is prejudiced against people based on their appearance, or for any other reason. Cite me a passage from his column that serves as any type of evidence that Bakke has “already convicted them (LaGrone and Hamm) based on appearance” or that he would have give a pass to corporate criminals because they are well-groomed, both of which Giganti alleges in his letter. If Giganti wanted to argue with Bakke’s point that it is cynical for lawyers to play to the jury by putting them in their Sunday best, he should have done so. Instead he chose to attack him with accusations that are completely groundless.

Thanks for commenting,
Dan

The Abstract Prosaic said...

MB-

Giganti is partners with Scott Hankin, eh? I believe Hankin is the guy who advised a woman to claim whatever contraband (gun, bag of reefer, etc.) was hers so his client, who also was her boyfriend, wouldn't be in violation of parole.

The story is in the Jan. 31 edition of the SJ-R, but you have to pay to view the article online.

Dan, thanks for the link.

UMRBlog said...

Interesting topic and funny presentation.

I practice law in another City and know Mr. H. well and Mr. G. a little. Frequently, members of the public, not understanding a defense lawyer's obligations will call methods of discrediting a witness or weakening the State's case "Not fair" or "unreasonable". Often what the lay person is observing is not only permissible but part of a defense lawyer's obligation. Sometimes it's not pretty but, for the lawyer, it's also not optional.

In any event, the basic point of your initial post is more interesting anyhow. Read the piece you're criticizing before you whale on it.

I enjoy that this blog doesn't do a lot of cutting and pasting. Your original thoughts are a lot more stimulating that the rewarmed barf I see in a lot of self-proclaimed thoughtful blogs.

I'm linking you at Upper Mississippi River Basin Blog (UMRBlog)

Continued success.

Anonymous said...

Dan-
I re-read your post and the article & letter in question. You are right – and I was wrong. I apologize.

-Your Friend

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

Anon 11:12

Da nada, mi amigo.

Dan