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Cri de coeur from a former editor

A former ink-stained wretch who went on to become a judge still has a soft spot for old-school newspapers.

It’s widely known that J. Harvie Wilkinson III, of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, once served as editorial-page editor of The Virginian-Pilot.

In the 4th Circuit’s April 2 opinion in Andrews v. Clark, Wilkinson writes a concurrence in the court’s decision that a former commander in the Baltimore Police Department can sue the BPD for its retaliation against him for leaking an internal memo to the press.

The appellate court said a Baltimore federal district court erred in dismissing the suit by a former BPD major who was disciplined when he gave a Baltimore Sun reporter the memo calling for an internal investigation of a police shooting of a suspect barricaded in his home.

“To throw out this citizen who took his concerns to the press on a motion to dismiss would have profound adverse effects on accountability in government … at a particularly parlous time,” Wilkinson wrote.

Staffs and bureaus of newsgathering organizations “have been shuttered or shrunk.” Municipal and statehouse coverage in particular “has too often been reduced to low-hanging fruit…[I]n these most difficult of times, not only investigative coverage, but substantive reports on matters of critical public policy are increasingly shortchanged.”

“The verdict is still out on whether the Internet and the online ventures of traditional journalistic enterprises can help fill the void left by less comprehensive print and network coverage of public business.” Much Internet content “remains derivative and dependent on mainstream media reportage,” Wilkinson said.

In this “changing media landscape … it may be more important than ever that [inside] sources carry the story to the reporter, because there are, sad to say, fewer shoe leather journalists to ferret the story out…

“It is vital to the health of our polity that the functioning of the ever more complex and powerful machinery of government not become democracy’s dark lagoon.”
By Deborah Elkins

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