As perhaps thousands of people now know, my conflict (for lack of a better word) with the Boone County Courthouse didn’t end a month ago.
If anything, these people know that:
- the judge rejected my written apology and offered a second opportunity to send another apology,
- I declined that second opportunity and did not send another apology; and
- the judge declared a 30-day ban for me to enter the Boone County Courthouse effective Dec. 15 unless I filed a request for a hearing.
What the vast majority of those people do not know is this: I never declined that second opportunity. Additionally, the 30-day ban has — as of yesterday around 10:45 a.m. — been lifted.
In this entry, I will attempt the following:
- explain how it was that I’d never declined that second opportunity,
- divulge all relevant details, including associated court documents and e-mails,
- discuss the importance of reporters’ getting ALL sides of a story and
- express my gratitude to the many who helped me and supported me through this tough time.
This account will be told chronologically. As was the case with my first account pertaining to this incident, it will be long. But so many people have read my account about how I made my mistake and tried to atone for it, and I can only hope that at least half that many will read this follow-up.
How it happened
As was published first in a Columbia Daily Tribune article and then picked up by the Associated Press, I received a statement from the court on Friday, Nov. 20. This statement came almost a full month after the Missourian director of photography, the photo editor who edited with me on that assignment and I sent letters of apology to the judge.
At 8:20 a.m., a Missourian editor called my cell phone to inform me a sheriff’s deputy was looking for me, had papers in her hand to deliver to me and would say they pertained only to “Judge Oxenhandler.” The editor gave me the deputy’s phone number but advised me to talk to Missourian executive editor Tom Warhover before doing anything else.
As such, Tom, Missourian attorney Sandy Davidson and I communicated briefly. We speculated I would receive a subpoena. But who knew what it would contain? At worst, I anticipated a court date, a fine or jail time. At best — I had no clue.
I called the deputy around noon to let her know where she could find me. Shortly thereafter, she delivered to me the following court statement:
As the articles noted, the judge found (emphasis is mine):
that although the writing of the Respondent contains the word “apology” that the writing is merely a series of rationalizations based on the focus of the camera, the angle of shot and that someone else made the decision to run the photo [...] therefore, the Court refuses to accept Respondent’s apology as meaningful; that it is clear to this Court that Respondent perceives her actions, which were in clear and unequivocal violation of the Rule, to be de minimus, of no consequence; that, and further, prior to the entering of this Order, the Court gave Respondent an additional opportunity to write a meaningful apology but Respondent chose not to take advantage of that opportunity [...]
Because of the above (and some more), the judge barred me from entering the courthouse for 30 days. As I noted earlier, I had expected a harsher sentence. So really, it’s a very reasonable, fair order, as you can read for yourself.
But here’s the catch: Until I received that court statement, I didn’t know that my first apology was found unsatisfactory and that there had been an opportunity to write a second letter.
So how could I have declined a second opportunity if I didn’t know it existed?
In questioning this, I am not questioning the court’s judgment in the matter. Rather, I am attributing this to a misunderstanding between the court, Tom and myself. A misunderstanding that would have to be cleared up, either through a second round of apologies, a scheduled court hearing or some other means.
But I would like to note the following:
- The Columbia Daily Tribune — Columbia’s afternoon daily paper — ran the first article about the statement. It was printed on A2 on Nov. 20 (the same day I received the order).
- The article has no byline (i.e., no author attributed).
- The reporter did not interview or contact anyone at The Missourian for the article and, as it appears, based everything solely on the court order from the judge.
- I found out about the article through a tweet.
- And — because of the one-sidedness of the article, the subsequent publication of the (false) fact that I’d declined the opportunity to write a second letter and the way I’d learned about the article — I cried for three hours. (No, I’m not ashamed of that.)
I immediately contacted Tom, Sandy and some of my photojournalism instructors, to alert them of this article. At that point, because I didn’t know what we could feasibly do about the article and about the judge’s statement and because I was so disheartened by the article’s one-sidedness, I wrote in the e-mail,
I don’t think this is something I want to or will address in another blog post for more clarification. I just don’t have the heart to throw myself out into the lions’ den again, and I also feel like that’s the last thing we want (e.g., my appearing defensive) — even though I feel almost as if this article is vaguely libelous and am really very upset.
Then, on Sunday, a friend told me via Facebook that the story landed in The Kansas City Star.
But it wasn’t just a KC Star story. It was an Associated Press story. Which meant that the story was running everywhere — from St. Louis broadcast news outlets to Editor & Publisher to who knows where else.
This compelled me to want to take action. I had been letting the Tribune article simmer in my mind. But now that I knew that the story spreading beyond mid-Missouri was based on an article that misrepresented me, I got the fire in the belly to request that we take action sooner to clarify the situation and clear my name.
I again immediately e-mailed Tom and Sandy. Please note that at this point, I still didn’t know how we were proceeding with the judge’s court order — whether I would write a second apology, whether Tom would write something, whether I would file a request for a hearing. Bearing that in mind, here’s the meat of that e-mail:
I wouldn’t want to do anything that would further ruffle [the judge's] feathers, but if feasible, I would like the record to be set straight about my allegedly declining a second opportunity to write the letter. I feel wholly misrepresented in the CDT and AP stories, and I believe my fear that I’m being written off as a flippant, disrespectful student journalist is a legitimate one. This is not how I want anyone to view a Missourian photographer or to judge how The Missourian trains its students. On a more personal level, as a graduating senior, I would rather not enter the internship/job market with potential employers believing me to be irresponsible and/or disrespectful of the court system.
Additionally, I am completely willing to write a second letter and/or filing a request for a hearing (within eight days now) if either is the best course of action, regardless of how/if we can set the record straight.
In contrast to my Friday night message, I am willing to throw myself out into the lions’ den again, but not without consulting you first. Please let me know what you think can/should be done next.
A few hours later, Sandy called me to relay the following:
- Tom immediately commented on the Tribune and KC Star stories to clear the record.
- Tom would write a letter to the judge to clarify what happened and apologize for the misunderstanding.
- I would write a second letter of apology to the judge.
- Tom would write a second Missourian column about the incident. (You can check out his first column, published a week after the incident on Oct. 30.)
The next day (Monday the 23rd), Tom and I mailed a second round of letters to the judge. I won’t include Tom’s draft — that’s not up to me to publish — but here is mine:
Now, fast-forward to Tuesday morning (yesterday).
I was tired that morning. On Monday, I’d taken Jeff to the St. Louis airport at 5:30 a.m., immediately returned to Columbia and, at noon, gone out to a dairy farm for one of my final photo story projects. The dairy expedition involved almost six hours of roundtrip traveling and some cow excrement on my camera gear. I’d returned to Columbia just before midnight on Monday and stayed up until 4 a.m. to finish cleaning and packing, as I had a 3 p.m. flight out of St. Louis for the Thanksgiving holiday break.
So, I was pretty exhausted on Tuesday morning.
Just as I zipped up my bags and was about to head out the door to drive to the airport, a Missourian editor called to say a court coordinator wanted to talk to me.
Perfect timing. I didn’t know what to expect. Had the judge rejected my second apology? Would I have to file for a court date? I didn’t know. All I knew was that if I didn’t leave Columbia in the next half-hour, I would have to reschedule my flight home.
I immediately called Tom and soon thereafter met him in the newsroom, where he played a voicemail from the judge. Wherein the judge said he found my apology meaningful and would lift my 30-day ban from the courthouse.
And that is that.
To say I’ve learned a lot from this experience is a severe understatement. Most notably,
- I’ve learned the importance of following rules to the “T,” of taking complete responsibility for my actions and of making clear, substantive apologies,
- I’ve learned to be conscious of my photos as I’m taking them, at all times, and
- I’ve learned what it’s like to be misrepresented by the media.
At the risk of sounding as if I’m accepting an award but in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d like to thank everyone who helped me and supported me through this. It was an incredibly tough, tearful ordeal made worse by the one-sided/false media coverage.
Tom, thank you for standing with me and behind me, for communicating with the court, for helping clarify everything and for helping me clear my name.
Sandy, thank you for supplying your legal know-how and advising us on every bend and turn.
Jackie, Josh and all my friends — thank you for your support and words of encouragement.
Thank you especially to Kelsey, who reminded me that although I made a mistake that people will know about for a while, the most important part is how I react to and recover from my mistakes.
Thank you, reader, for making it this far into this entry. I so appreciate your taking the time and being willing to try to understand exactly what happened, at least through my eyes.
I would like to conclude this account with these:
- I’m no longer angry with or bitter about the Tribune‘s article. Certainly I was furious and upset when I first read it. But Tom and I have done what we can to clarify the account and set the record straight, and I can only hope that The Tribune will do the same for its part.
- I hope every journalist appreciates good editors — good editors who stick it out with their reporters and photographers through tough times and who do everything they can to help. Through this experience, I’ve come to value and appreciate my editors more than I’d ever anticipated.
- I am ready to move on. The judge has accepted my apology and lifted the 30-day bar, I’ve written this entry for transparency’s sake and it is time to move on.
Thank you, again, for reading this entry.
And happy Thanksgiving.