Harris County Sheriff's Office makes the right call on media access

We were amused yesterday when Harris County Republican Party chairman Jared Woodfill issued his latest* over-the-top** email blast.

According to Woodfill, Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia had irresponsibly signed off on a plan for a quasi-terrorist organization to infiltrate the Harris County Jail! Here's an excerpt:

I was shocked and highly troubled to learn that our Democrat Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia had agreed to open the doors to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) to the Arab media network, Al-Jazeera. As you probably know, Al-Jazeera has been linked to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, Hamas and numerous other terrorist organizations committed to the destruction of America and our allies.

Harris County Republican Chairman Jared Woodfill
These links are well established and not the stuff of closeted rumors. Examples include the Al-Jazeera reporter, Tayssir Alouni, who was jailed and charged in Spain for collaborating with al-Qaeda.

Even more disturbing is an account that parallels the Harris County visit, which was reported by Accuracy in Media, that reported, “Al-Jazeera International made a visit in May to Crosby, North Dakota, prompting inquiries from the local Sheriff, Lauren Throntvei, and U.S. Border Patrol. The local paper, the Crosby Journal, quoted a Border Patrol official as asking, ‘What is the interest of an Arab news organization in Crosby, North Dakota?’ The paper said that a U.S. Border Patrol agent asked for the names of the Al-Jazeera journalists, whether they had been near the border, and their stated motivations. The agent "said there were potential international implications to the journalists' visit, on which he could not elaborate." Read the full story by clicking here.

Apparently, Sheriff Garcia does not share Sheriff Throntvei’s suspicions of terrorist-linked media groups.

Woodfill went on to exhort recipients to call the sheriff's office and voice their displeasure. His initial email apparently included the dispatch number, which reportedly clogged up dispatch lines for a time.

Now, before we turn to the local angle, please indulge me for a moment while I lay out some thoughts on Al Jazeera. I suspect many Americans have not actually watched Al Jazeera's English television news broadcasts, or followed the news on their website. I use both, because my day job requires that I collect news from all over the world. Now, it's certainly true that the news organization's "perspective"*** on Israel, not to mention some Arab/Muslim nations and their relations with the United States, can come through strongly in its reporting, and sometimes that perspective is jolting to many of us (to say the least). However, it's also true that the organization covers some neglected parts of the world as well as any news organization, and that much of its English news reporting is pretty good (when traveling internationally, I'd rather watch it than CNN International if given the choice).

Turning back to the portion of Woodfill's email that I've bolded -- here is the news report by Al Jazeera English that resulted from that suspicious trip to Crosby, North Dakota:

That seems like much more of a respectful, almost Tocquevillian, look at the depopulation of rural middle America than it does quasi-terrorist propaganda! And Part 2 is well worth watching, for anyone who's so inclined. By the way, the reporting was done by Josh Rushing, the same individual who is here in town to visit our jail facilities (and to speak with HPD Chief Harold Hurtt). Today's Chronicle story describes Rushing as "a former public affairs officer for the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq." To be fair, he has also done more controversial reporting, as highlighted by David Benzion on Lone Star Times. But the question of what in the world he was doing in North Dakota seems to be answered sufficiently by the video I've embedded.

And now for the local angle.... According to Bradley Olson's reporting for the Chronicle, Rushing and Al Jazeera are working on "a long-form news story about treatment of the mentally ill by U.S. law enforcement." Olson's story notes that Chief Hurtt agreed to be interviewed. Sheriff Garcia was not interviewed, but did provide access to the Harris County jail (with a chaperone).

This afternoon, I spoke with Alan Bernstein, the director of public affairs for the Harris County Sheriff's Office, about the process of approving the request from Al Jazeera. Bernstein told me that when any such request comes in, the office basically asks two questions: 1) Is the request coming from a legitimate media organization? and 2) Is the level of access appropriate for the story being proposed?

Because Al Jazeera is not a familiar local media organization, Bernstein told me that the office did pause to do research before deciding that Al Jazeera is, obviously, a legitimate media organization. The office also found Al Jazeera's request for jail access (for the story described above) to be appropriate.

Bernstein told me that Sheriff Garcia has stressed transparency, and that the public affairs office isn't going to deny access because of any legitimate media organization's perspective. "It's not up to us to decide whose bias is more important," Bernstein said, "or if we think there is bias at all."

In my view, Chief Hurtt and Sheriff Garcia both made the right call in granting the requested access to Al Jazeera. It would not surprise me if some of our readers disapprove of Al Jazeera as a news organization or question its professionalism because of its perspective on certain issues. Nonetheless, I would be pretty uncomfortable with a public agency that started turning down press organizations selectively, on the grounds that some people find some aspects of their reporting abhorrent. What is to stop public agencies from denying access similarly to, say Fox News (too conservative)? Or Texas Tribune (largely funded by a Democratic activist)? Or Texas Watchdog (largely funded by libertarian-leaners)? I don't think we want to head down that road.

What do you think?

BLOGVERSATION: Hair Balls, Lone Star Times, Falkenblog, Off the Kuff, Big Jolly Politics.

Photo of Jared Woodfill via the Harris County Republican Party website.

* Although we never posted about Woodfill's over-the-top blast about the obvious parody of @PatLykos on twitter, we did link to blog posts on the subject. I found the original @PatLykos, and now @FakePatLykos, parody tweets hilarious, which surely puts me right in the camp of Woodfill's evil liberal elite.

** At least that's how I thought it would be perceived. I was obviously wrong about that.

*** Possibly a more polite term than is deserved, but we'll leave that for readers to decide.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 09/04/09 06:39 PM | |

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