Sunday, July 27, 2008

"48 Hours Mystery" and "Dateline NBC"

Mechele and I made the decision from the beginning of the discovery of the pending indictment that the facts of the case, State of Alaska vs. Mechele Linehan, belonged in the courtroom and not in the media. There were numerous fabrications that the prosecution leaked to the press in order to build their case (More on these in future posts). They went unanswered by us. Why wouldn’t we want to defend Mechele’s character and life and answer allegations as they came? For one, what does a media narrative have to do with the facts in the courtroom? Should not a legal case be decided on just the facts presented in the legal arena? Why escalate a legal battle by adding a media battle? To play that game would lead to more hurt and attention and detract from the tragedy of Kent Leppink’s death. Unfortunately we are past that.

As for the media, it is difficult for me to not insert opinion when discussing the facts. The irresponsibility of many who have reported on this case makes it difficult for me to not opine. I will discuss our interactions with CBS and NBC and their subsequent magazine broadcasts in this post. Of note, I have not watched the CBS program “48 Hours Mystery” episode about Kent Leppink’s death. I also don’t plan on watching the upcoming NBC “Dateline” episode.

I did, however, participate in both. It was an incredibly difficult thing to do. For one, I do not like television news in general. What can one learn from sound-bites and selective editing? In many cases the selective editing will lead to a bias that the producer’s have. Rarely is television news ever “Fair and Balanced”. So why participate?

I participated because, in part, these two magazine shows were going to air regardless. We felt it necessary, at this time, to at least attempt to point out many of the irresponsible inaccuracies presented by the prosecution as fact. But, this doesn’t matter legally at all, so why reverse course and open ourselves up to hypocrisy? That is a good question that is difficult to answer. Probably the best way to answer that is to reverse the question. If your beloved family member, be it your daughter, wife, or spouse, was vilified and portrayed as someone she is absolutely not, would you defend her? Would you open your home and life to some crappy television show that is the main outlet available to defend her? Well, we did. To a point. There is no mention of my daughter’s name and no pictures of her face. I had to fight like hell for that, and even then our participation hinged on the availability of the television crews to film part of our life. I limited that as much as possible. I was told by both organizations that this is a “must” for television because it is “visual”.

I have no illusions about what the networks are interested in first and foremost. That is ratings, which equal advertising revenue. The tabloid nature of the state’s narrative is manna for the network executives that they can use to excrete money. There is something, however, that I was unprepared for. Let me explain.

Those of you who watch these magazine shows will notice that Mechele participated with CBS but not NBC. Why was this? First of all, producers from both of these shows contacted us very soon after the indictment. Our family and lawyers actually developed a personal relationship with a reporter and producer from “48 Hours”. By the end of the trial, they had our trust. This is one instance where you can use the word “naive” to describe us and our legal team.

So, Mechele decided to be open to the idea about appearing on the CBS broadcast. Unfortunately for Mechele, she got blindsided. Remember, Mechele does not have unlimited phone usage. In fact, it is very limited. I told Mechele not to do anything with CBS without Kevin present. The producer, who I will not name out of my own twisted sense of honor, pleaded with our attorney to let Mechele appear. Mr. Kevin Fitzgerald, however, could not accompany Mechele in the timeline that CBS insisted was necessary. Kevin then made a very clear verbal agreement with an individual he trusted. The agreement made by the producer of “48 Hours” was that he would not ask Mechele anything pertaining to the case or her relationships with individuals involved in the case. This was clear and explicit.

CBS then showed up with their camera crew and told Mechele that Kevin said it was “OK” for her to talk with them if they didn’t ask about the case. Mechele, in her continuing regret, agreed. Needless to say, the correspondent for CBS peppered Mechele with many questions regarding the case and associated relationships. Mechele was defensive at many times and looked to the producer and cameraman for help. She, I am told, even told the crew to turn off the cameras when they wouldn’t let up.

Needless to say, the network decided to air those instances where Mechele was defensive and upset at the questioning. The questions that were not supposed to be present, on the word and honor of the CBS producer, surprised and upset her. She was alone and felt ambushed.

The reason Mechele considered appearing on “48 Hours” was, on assurances from people working for CBS that we trusted, that it would help counter the negative images of Mechele during and after the trial. We were told that they wanted to capture “the Mechele we know”, the one that was “completely opposite” of the portrayal “so far”. However, they used a tactic that is unsavory to me. You say to a person, we won’t ask you about X and Y, and then proceed to ask compassionate questions. Then, when the “subject’s” guard is down, you ask them about X and Y.

It is a tactic that does a few things. For one, you can get combative emotion from this. You can catch someone off guard and get them to be angry and upset. However, it works best if you trust the journalists that are using this tactic because the emotions will be rawer. It is why I told Mechele not to interview with anyone unless Kevin was present.

The breach of trust was not with me. It was breeched by CBS to a lawyer who had been nothing but open with the producer. Mr. Fitzgerald is a man of high honor, and a verbal agreement with a producer who had earned his trust was good enough for him. Mr. Fitzgerald, needless to say, was genuinely shook up at this. I think “disgusted” is the more appropriate term. In my opinion, it is example of when someone uses the positive traits of an individual against them for another purpose.

My complaint and critique of CBS is not with their questions to Mechele or is it with Mechele’s answers. You must remember that when your lawyer says to you that you should not answer certain questions, a person’s response might be to deny and obfuscate. My complaint comes with the tactics they used to put Mechele in that position. To many of us, we still take the words and vows of a person we trust as having implicit honor. That again is a minor critique because certain media will use whatever they can to get their desired story. Fair enough. But when you decide to air specific responses of an interview that paint an individual in an unfavorable light, it is important that your news organization doesn’t use verbal betrayal to obtain them. In other words, to have someone say they want the cameras turned off because of a question that wasn’t supposed to be asked, it is an ethical move to not air the footage of the person asking your organization to turn off the cameras.

One of the reasons we decided to cooperate with CBS was because of their history of journalistic integrity. Recently, I read about their nightly news program asking a presidential candidate a question and then editing a response to a different question as the answer to the question asked! Is that technique taught at the journalism departments at prestigious universities? I would guess, “No”.

In fairness, again, I have not seen the program. However, I have heard enough about it and their selective editing of Mechele, to make me sad. Also, in fairness, I understand that they did attempt to show that the evidence Mechele was convicted on was sparse and open for much interpretation.

Of note, and to the credit of CBS, their cameraman was also a journalist. He managed to track down an important witness that we were unable to contact prior to the trial. She was nowhere to be found. This cameraman, with a former FBI agent, managed to find the remote location where she was. Her name is Honi Martin and she is an incredible person. She knew Mechele when Mechele was up in Alaska and also knew Kent Leppink. She has incredible insight into the relationship and into who Mechele was at that time. Coincidently, it is the exact same Mechele that all her family and friends know too. It does not include a “spider queen” cartoon presented by the prosecution.

As another caveat, CBS decided to not air any of Ms. Martin’s interview and instead relied on a former co-worker of Mechele’s, who didn’t even hang out with Mechele, for a portrayal of someone who knew Mechele in the past. Her name is Tina, and she is incredibly gracious and caring. However, she had nothing to add of substance, other than to show that exotic dancers are human’s too and not monsters. So, CBS’s angle was to focus on Mechele’s occupation that she had for less than two years in Anchorage and where she wasn’t even working at the time of the death of Kent Leppink.

I don’t know what NBC will do with their interviews but the one thing they won’t do is manipulate Mechele’s image any more than it has already been. I can only hope that they portray substance over tabloid. But, as we all know, tabloid sells. I can also say that the producers and correspondent for NBC have been very gracious. I will, however, rely on friends and family who watch their program to inform me if it had any journalistic integrity or if it was a tabloid story for the ratings.

I never have wanted to be on television. I can think of a million things, off of the top of my head, which I would rather do. I felt compelled, on my honor, to defend my wife from irresponsible speculation based on flimsy circumstance. The only way to interpret the circumstantial evidence the prosecution used to infer guilt was to portray Mechele as “evil” and soulless. Again, if someone tried to do that to your loved one, what would you do?

Colin Linehan

1 comment:

Grace said...

"In my opinion, it is example of when someone uses the positive traits of an individual against them for another purpose."

Which is what they did to Mechele of course. I did see the 48 Hours show and I am glad I didn't just leaveit at that (though I am sorry to say I bought into the narrative to a degree that shames me now. And I thought I knew better!)

The more I found myself liking Mechele and wanting to believe her, the more the words "seductive" and "manipulative" seemed to have some creedence. And nowadays, it is often easier to believe someone is a good actor than a good person.

I will channell more of that skepticism toward the media itself from now on.

'Innocent Until Proven Guilty.' I will remember.