November 03, 2007

Media For Sale

One of the reasons I started this blog was because of a lack of coverage by the major media of the biggest issue effecting St. Charles County; namely the control certain builders and developers have over politics in this county. The amount of money poured into local political races by Paul McKee, McBride & Sons, Tom Hughes and other builders/developers is astounding and, more importantly, effective. It is also ignored by the mainstream media.

Why is it ignored? The money developers poured into the campaign coffers of local politicians provided them with a favorable environment to conduct business, however, it also required them to advertise their product. The Post-Dispatch and Suburban Journals (which are both owned by Lee Enterprises) were among the main benefactors of these advertising dollars. And while this advertising helped sell homes, did it also buy favorable news coverage?

From time to time I will take a look back at some of the favoritism shown to the builders as well as the ongoing cozy relationship between our local governments and certain favored businesses. For those of you who were not aware of these abuses I think you're in for a shock. When you read the stories my guess is you will be wondering why you didn't read about this with your morning coffee. The following story is a minor example of how the Post-Dispatch and Journal cover the news; you can draw your own conclusions.

On April 26, 2006 a prominent local developer, Steve Groeper, was driving home from a restaurant/bar in his $80,000.00 Dodge Viper when he crashed into the Cottleville Firehouse at a high rate of speed. The accident occurred around 11:40 PM and no one was injured but the crash totaled Groeper's Viper and caused over $60,000.00 in damages to the building.

Word of the accident spread quickly and I heard about it the next morning. For some reason the media seems to have a strange fascination with stories about cars crashing into buildings so I was surprised when there was no mention of the accident in the St. Charles Post and only a couple of sentences, without any names or details, in the O'Fallon Journal. Considering this crash involved a prominent citizen in an expensive sports car causing extensive damage to a public building the silence seemed odd.

Out of curiosity I emailed Phil Gaitens at the Post inquiring why this wasn't reported. Gaitens emailed back saying that he stood behind the St. Charles bureau's decision not to do a story. Gaitens explained the crash was not newsworthy because (1) there were no injuries; (2) there were no arrests and (3) the driver indicated he would take care of any damage. Ironically, within days of Gaitens' email there was a story on the front page of the St. Charles Post, complete with pictures and names, about an elderly women who lost control of her vehicle and crashed into a a shed in someones backyard.

When I read the story I noticed that there wasn't anything indicating serious (1) injuries; (2) arrests or that the driver was not going (3) pay for the damages. I emailed Gaitens with my observations and asked him if the there was a chance this accident was a story because (1) the elderly women did not advertise in the Post. I never got a response from Gaitens. In fact, since that email I have never gotten a response to any emails I have sent to the Post unless they contacted me for a story.

I had forgotten about the (non) story of the crash when an interesting column appeared in the O'Fallon Journal in April of this year. The article was written by Steve Polkin and was a feel good story about how Steve Groeper's life had changed since he crashed his Viper into the Firehouse. The story indicates that no tickets were issued to Groeper to which Pokin explains why cops don't always write tickets in these situations. Polkin went on to write that the police report indicated Groeper was not impaired by drugs or alcohol and quotes the Chief of Police as saying Groeper passed a field sobriety test.

The timing and tone of the article were very odd and read like Groeper had hired a PR firm to put a positive spin on the story. The crash had happened over a year before the column appeared and at times I felt as if Pokin was trying to convince himself the story was true. As a result of Pokin's column a local website obtained the police report and report from the fire department regarding the crash.

The police report contained very little information and seems to have been written to justify someones decision not to issue any tickets. However, the report from the fire department is where things got interesting. The fire district's report stated that Groeper was given a field sobriety test and was later handcuffed and taken to the police department.

Pokin had obtained a copy of the fire district report before he wrote his story yet he never mentioned any of this information which directly contradicted the police report and the statements of the Chief. In fact, not only did Pokin fail to address the evidence that Groeper failed the field sobriety test but he went out of his way to justify the decision not to write a ticket.

Some may question how anyone driving home from a bar at 11:40 PM, who then crashes into a public building at a high rate of speed, is handcuffed and taken into custody after taking a field sobriety test could go home without even receiving a ticket. My question is how and why did a columnist and newspaper turn this into a feel good story. I think the answer to both questions is the same.

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