As Norfolk, Va., home of the world’s largest naval base, continues to be embroiled in racial controversy, the editor of the city’s newspaper is firing back at critics who claim his agency buried or covered up an attack by a mob of black teenagers against two of his white reporters two weeks ago.
“They think we buried the story. We didn’t. We didn’t bury anything,” Denis Finley, editor of the Virginian-Pilot, told WND. “People are just not stopping to think. What would be my motivation for protecting people who beat up two of my reporters? It’s completely ludicrous that I would do that.”
“I think we did the right thing. I think we’re on solid ground. I don’t think we can win here. If we had published a story, it would look like we’re playing favorites. Because I didn’t publish it, now I’m accused of a cover-up.”
As WND reported yesterday, the couple was pummeled at a stoplight the night of April 14 by dozens of black teens, and the newspaper had no mention of the incident for two weeks, despite the fact the victims, Dave Forster and Marjon Rostami, are both news reporters for the paper.
Police classified the case as a “simple assault,” as neither of the victims were seriously hurt. Both were off work for a week. Forster’s torso ached from blows to his ribs, and he retained a thumb-sized bump on his head.
Chris Amos, spokesman for Norfolk Police stressed this afternoon the case “is not being investigated as a hate crime.”
“Could it have been [a hate crime]? Yeah, it could have, I guess,” Amos said. “We certainly haven’t ruled that out, but we haven’t seen anything that jumps out at us other than someone throwing a rock at someone’s car.”
“A whole lot of racial implications have been made. We don’t know the motive of this. Race didn’t become a factor until Twitter comments later. No one at the scene said it was racially motivated. They didn’t tell us then and they didn’t hear any [comments such as] ‘Remember Trayvon Martin.’”
Trayvon Martin is the unarmed black teen who died after being shot by a community-watch captain with white and Hispanic parents, George Zimmerman, in Sanford, Fla., sparking a wave of outrage long after the incident.
When asked about Rostami’s race, Finley said, “She is white. She is Iranian, which is a Caucasian. I believe that is how you would describe a Persian.”
Finley, who has been with the Pilot for 25 years, says they go to “great pains” to make sure they treat themselves the same way as anyone else in the community.
“If this had happened to John or Jane Doe and we saw it on the police report, we would not have put it in the paper,” he said. “If we reported every simple assault, we wouldn’t have room for anything else in the paper.”
He also noted, “Dave and Marjon didn’t want to be in the paper. That wouldn’t have mattered if it became a story.”
Forster told WND there were approximately 100 onlookers during the attack, with 30 people surrounding the car. When someone reportedly threw a rock at the vehicle, he got out to confront the rock-thrower. That’s when the beating commenced.
“It seemed like four or five guys at a time were hitting me,” he said.
Forster says he didn’t hear any racial slurs during the onslaught, and he couldn’t make out any distinctive sounds of laughing, yelling or talking.
Safari Tripp, a black man who lives near where the assault took place, told the local ABC-TV affiliate, “If you’re by yourself or you’re not from around here or you don’t know anybody around here, you’re a target. Automatically.”
According to Pilot columnist Michelle Washington who wrote an opinion piece about the attack yesterday, Attackers then came after Rostami, “pulling her hair, punching her head and causing a bloody scratch to the surface of her eye. She called 911. A recording told her all lines were busy. She called again. Busy. On her third try, she got through and, hysterical, could scream only their location. Church and Brambleton. Church and Brambleton. Church and Brambleton.”
Amos is critical of some mischaracterizations in Washington’s commentary, telling WND, “That’s what happens when [an opinion columnist] reports the news, not bound by the facts of the case.”
He also said officers were simultaneously called to a report of shots fired in a nearby neighborhood, so their resources were limited.
The newspaper, police and city officials are all facing the wrath of citizens both locally and across America as the case has received national attention.
“This is wrong on so many levels,” adds Robert Fogle of Portsmouth, Va. “The Pilot in not reporting the story has proven itself not to be a media outlet, but a tabloid. Gone are the days that there was a journalistic code of ethics to report the news, not be the news, and let the reader decide. The police in their reaction proved that they have forgotten that their’s is a duty to protect and serve, not cop an attitude while intimidating the victim. And, as is par for the course, the leadership, or lack of leadership, at the police department closed ranks and provided an excuse for the incompetent actions of the officers. Lastly, city leadership, that will surely fail their citizens in not demanding an investigation, and holding the police accountable for failure and dereliction of duty.”
Finley has already posted a brief memo to staff about the case, and has written a column for the forthcoming edition of the Virginian-Pilot.
“A lot of people are not going to believe what I tell them. It comes with the territory,” he said, adding, “It has not been a good day – not a good day for us, not a good day for reason, not a good day for journalism in general.”
The Virginian-Pilot has a tie to President Obama, as its publisher since 2008, Maurice Jones, was nominated by Obama and recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be deputy secretary of HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
He was expected to start his new job in Washington on April 16, meaning he was still officially the Pilot’s publisher through the weekend of the Norfolk mob attack.
Finley told WND Jones was not involved in any decision on whether or not to publish information about the mob attack.
“We have an independent newsroom,” he said. “I don’t ask the publisher for permission to publish or not publish.”
Additional reporting by Chuck Rudd.
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