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Politics as Usual: Caleb Chafee learned a valuable lesson about life (OPINION)

July 10, 2012

I never wanted to write about Caleb Chafee and his now celebrated graduation party on Memorial Day.
Fortuitously, I had a couple of days off right at the time the “news” broke, so I didn’t have to cover it. Were I on the job, I still may have decided to write about something else because I didn’t – and still don’t – consider it news.
The young Chafee was one of hundreds (more likely thousands) of Rhode Island students who celebrated their graduation from high school last month with a party where alcohol was being consumed. That is not right, that is not legal, but that’s what it is. It might have qualified as news if the kid WASN’T partying.
The only reason his party made front-page headlines is that his father is the governor. That’s not fair to an 18-year-old who never asked to be in the media spotlight but who is now all of a sudden fair game to newspaper columnists, TV reporters, website commenters and talk radio nation.
Am I and my colleagues in the media going to track down every high school graduation party where there was booze and write stories about them? There isn’t enough ink or newsprint to do that.
Yes, a girl at the Chafee party reportedly overindulged to the point where she required medical attention; that’s why we don’t allow 18-year-olds to drink, because they do stuff like that. That is not peculiar to the party at the Chafee property, or to Caleb or his father.
So why am I writing about this now?
I had what I call my Popeye moment – that’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more – when I saw a story in a competing newspaper about Barrington Police Chief John LaCross, who apparently was on the Chafee property for another party that day, but who says he personally saw no drinking.
In an interview with The Providence Journal, LaCross teed off on the Chafee family for contacting a lawyer and telling their son to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights.
“What’s disappointing about the whole thing is, what message is being sent to teens in Rhode Island?” LaCross reportedly said. “What responsibility are they learning, to plead the Fifth?”
This was a “teaching moment,” the newspaper quoted LaCross saying that taught this lesson: “Lawyer up and take the Fifth.”
Absolutely! Exactly! And a darned good lesson it is.
Although chiefs of police might not agree for professional reasons, it is never wrong to assert your rights. That’s what they are there for.
“What message are we sending our youths for taking responsibility?” LaCross continued in the newspaper story. “When you do something wrong, admit it and move on.” That would certainly make life easier for the police. But move on to what? Arrest? Prosecution? A criminal record that, depending on the circumstances, could follow you for the rest of you life?
Caleb Chafee got sound advice from his Dad and Mom. As for a “teaching moment,” yes, chief, that was indeed a teaching moment, and it is a lesson that should, in fact, be taught in our high school social studies courses (do they still call it social studies?) across the state and nation.
If you are accused or suspected of wrongdoing and are questioned by police, ask to call a lawyer and then shut your mouth.
I am not an attorney, but I am willing to bet my next paycheck that there isn’t a defense lawyer in the state or perhaps the whole country who would contradict that last sentence. You are not shirking responsibility, you are not weaseling, you are not preventing a proper police investigation. You are merely exercising your constitutional rights when you invoke the Fifth Amendment.
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was put into the Bill of Rights for a reason. Were our Founding Fathers a bunch of irresponsible slackers trying to give bad guys a way to get out of answering for their misdeeds? Of course not, they were trying to give citizens protections from what can sometimes be coercive or threatening actions by agents of law enforcement.
Taking “the Fifth” as LaCross put it somewhat contemptuously, is not denying anything. In fact, the person invoking that right is doing so expressly because answering might tend to incriminate him or her. It simply suspends the interrogation process temporarily while the person being questioned — who is presumed innocent until proven guilty — obtains legal representation to level the playing field in that process.
Here’s hoping young Caleb learned his lessons – all of them – from this whole situation.
n Loyal readers will remember that, a few months ago, I inveighed against the detrimental influence that the whole Twitter-blog mentality — where every second counts and speed is paramount above ALL other considerations — was having on the news business.
I said at the time: “Everyone is breaking their necks to squirt a three-paragraph News McNugget out into cyberspace 15 seconds before the other guy. That is what passes for a journalistic achievement these days.”
Well, Fox News and CNN now understand what I was talking about.
As you may have heard, or seen, as soon as Chief Justice John Roberts began reading the long and complex decision in the health care case, reporters from both Fox and CNN who were inside the court chamber instantly rushed to their Blackberries or their SmartassPhones, or whatever electronic gadgets they were using, scrambling to be first, even if it was by a matter of a couple of seconds, to blurt out the news that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled the Obamacare health care reform law unconstitutional.
That would have been all fine and dandy, and indeed a feather in their scoop cap if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that, well, the court had ruled the exact opposite – that Obamacare is constitutionally acceptable. Other news organizations got it right, but hey, Fox and CNN were first.
Roberts had begun by saying the individual mandate in the health care law was not permissible under the constitution’s commerce clause. That’s all the CNN and Fox reporters needed to hear. They dropped everything, jumped to a conclusion, and ran right out to misinform their viewers – gotta be fast, gotta be first, there’s plenty of time to be right later. They didn’t hang around to hear the part where the chief justice said the law in fact is permissible under Congress’ power to tax. As Texas Gov. Rick Perry would say, “Oops.”
Do these people not watch “Law & Order”? Every time a judge starts making a big highfalutin’ speech about some principle or another, it is always followed by a “but,” and a ruling that completely contradicts everything they just said.
Here’s hoping that CNN’s and Fox’s misfortune prompts memos in every news organization in America and becomes a “teaching moment” in every journalism school in the country.
The profession of journalism has a serious responsibility – to arm citizens in a democracy with the information they need to make self-government work. Reckless haste to claim a 10-second “scoop” or “exclusive,” or to allow a news anchor to make an unseemly boast about a story “you will only see on Channel whatever,” is nothing but self-serving and doesn’t help readers or viewers one whit. What we reporters do is important and we should treat it with more respect than we are doing right now.
To expect a news organization to slow down long enough to get its facts right – forget about long enough to gather some context or perspective – almost seems like too much to ask these days. We are all the poorer for it.

Jim Baron covers the State House for the Rhode Island Media Group. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of The Pendulum or SRI Newspapers. He can be reached at

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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