A scrap over DWI coverage spurs accountability questions

Highway in San Juan County, New Mexico. Image via Granger Meador/Flickr.

In New Mexico, where cautionary billboards dot the landscape and headlines about drunk driving-related traffic deaths are ubiquitous, it’s always newsworthy when someone powerful gets popped for driving while intoxicated. It’s arguably more newsworthy when they get out of it.

But depending on their news sources, New Mexico residents may have come away from a recent DWI story with significantly different ideas of its importance—and wildly different understandings of the reporting that yielded it.

The alternative newsweekly Santa Fe Reporter and the online investigative outlet New Mexico In Depth recently co-published “DWI on the Rocks,” a story that detailed the arrest and subsequent plea deal of New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Ryan Flynn. Reporters Jeff Proctor and Justin Horwath found that Flynn had been arrested in May 2017 after an Albuquerque police officer saw Flynn’s car swerve out of a lane and nearly hit the orange traffic barrels in a blocked-off section of the road. The officer pulled Flynn over and—as he would later note in his report of the incident, according to Proctor and Horwath’s story—observed bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and the smell of alcohol.

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Flynn was booked on suspicion of an aggravated DWI after he refused a breathalyzer during his field sobriety test. But within months of his arrest, Flynn’s DWI charge was dropped. Instead, his attorneys and the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office agreed that Flynn would plead no contest to a count of careless driving. This spared Flynn, described in the story as “one of the state’s most most influential powerbrokers and political insiders,” from a DWI conviction and the troubles that come with it in a state that recently led the nation in alcohol-related deaths.

Proctor and Horwath laid out the arc of their investigation and their argument for its significance early in their 2,000-word report:

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A review by SFR and New Mexico In Depth of dozens of pages of police, court and jail records, courtroom recordings, police body camera video and a handful of interviews illustrates the broad powers prosecutors have in deciding how and whether to proceed on DWI cases. That runs contrary to the narrative pushed by [Bernalillo District Attorney Raul Torrez], a young and newly minted top prosecutor who mounted a successful public campaign for a multi-million dollar increase in taxpayer money to assist his office in prosecuting criminal cases, including DWI prosecutions.

In an interview with CJR, Proctor sums up his story’s implications. “If you’re well-connected and you’re somebody and you got some power,” argues Proctor, “the criminal justice system works differently for you than it does for average people.”

 

ONE DAY AFTER the Reporter and New Mexico In Depth published “DWI on the Rocks,” the Albuquerque Journal—by far New Mexico’s largest newspaper, with editions that span the state—published its own story about Flynn’s arrest. Given its considerable clout, the Journal would seem to be in a prime position to follow Proctor and Horwath’s story with aggressive accountability reporting of its own.

Instead, the Journal story ran at fewer than 500 words. Within that modest space, the Journal arguably downplayed the significance of Flynn’s plea deal and diminished Proctor and Horwath’s work in the process.

The Journal gave a sizable portion of its short story to a prepared Flynn statement arguing that he never should have been arrested in the first place, and paraphrased unnamed prosecutors saying they didn’t have enough evidence to prove Flynn was drinking on the night of his arrest.

Rather than being credited to a staff reporter, the Journal story ran under an anonymous byline: ‘Journal Staff Report.’

A plea process such as Flynn’s, according to the Journal, “is common in the state, especially with first-time DWI charges.” However, the Journal doesn’t provide any evidence to back up that statement (though it does note that about 45 percent of DWI cases in Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, are dismissed).

In fact, according to available public information, such plea processes are not common in New Mexico. The state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for example, monitored 1,700 DWI court cases across New Mexico from July 2016 to July 2017 and found 33 of them were dismissed through plea deals. That total represents just 8 percent of all dismissals MADD tracked for the year. Statewide, fewer than 35 percent of all DWI cases were dismissed during 2016, according to statistics compiled by the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts. A spokesman from that office tells CJR those dismissals include plea deals in which DWI charges were dropped but led to a conviction on another charge, as happened with Flynn.

 

THE JOURNAL MADE two more surprising decisions regarding its coverage. The story cited the work by Proctor and Horwath, but claimed in a sentence that Albuquerque police were “not included” in their report. And, rather than being credited to a staff reporter, the Journal story ran under an anonymous byline: “Journal Staff Report.”

Proctor had previously worked for a decade at the Journal, where he covered criminal justice and crime and earned awards for his coverage of the Albuquerque Police Department’s use of force, which the Department of Justice eventually found unconstitutional.

Proctor tells CJR he felt “flabbergasted” and “stunned” by the Journal’s story, and by the line that inaccurately suggested a shortcoming in his work. Horwath says no one has challenged any of the facts or conclusions of their report.

“To the average Journal reader, that sentence about Jeff and I [sic] comes off as conveying a message that we didn’t do our jobs,” Horwath says, “when we in fact had extensive information from the Albuquerque police, including the body camera video and the police report.”

Neither Proctor nor Horwath were contacted by the Journal for comment before criticism of their work appeared in print. [Disclosure: I previously worked alongside Horwath at the Santa Fe Reporter, and Proctor edited one of my feature stories there last year. While I know both reporters well, I did not participate in their story about Flynn.]

The Journal ultimately published a correction atop its Flynn story, which clarified that the pair’s story “did not include police interviews on the incident” instead of police in general. Trip Jennings, the editor of New Mexico in Depth, tells CJR he is satisfied with the paper’s correction. Karen Moses, the Journal’s top editor, tells CJR in an email that neither the Santa Fe Reporter nor New Mexico In Depth contacted her with additional concerns after the correction ran.

But the correction does not please Proctor and Horwath, who say it still implies they did their job improperly by not including interviews with police. The Journal quoted a police spokesman who said he would “let the officer’s police report speak for itself.” Both Proctor and Horwath say they got the same quote from the Albuquerque police spokesman, but left it out of their story and let information from Flynn’s arrest record do what the spokesman suggested.  

 

THE STORY TOUCHED A NERVE with John Fleck, a former longtime Journal science reporter who covered issues like climate change and often reported on Flynn when he headed the state Environment Department. On Twitter, the oft-amiable Fleck lashed out against the story by calling it “a cheap hit piece on Horwath and Proctor, a defense of Flynn that left out crucial information, and an ethical embarrassment for the newsroom where I spent the most important 25 years of my life.”

The Journal’s several flattering editorials of Flynn, whose politics and background make him a Scott Pruitt-like figure for the state, don’t help to combat the perception that the newspaper was, in Fleck’s words, defending Flynn on its news pages. (Fleck declined to comment to CJR.) Fleck’s tweets got several likes from the Twitter accounts of reporters at rival newspapers like the Santa Fe New Mexican—the state’s second-largest daily newspaper—as well as from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, a watchdog nonprofit co-founded by former longtime Journal editor Kent Walz.

What went wrong on the Journal’s end? Moses tells CJR, again via email, that Journal editors pursued the Flynn story after seeing Proctor and Horwath’s report, and promptly assigned it to a Journal reporter. That reporter, who Moses did not name, then “obtained the records needed to cover the salient facts about the May 2017 DWI arrest of Mr. Flynn and the outcome of the case, neither of which we had ever reported.”

The Journal does not have a formal policy on using the “Staff Report” byline, Moses adds. But reporters can use it “on stories that don’t involve a lot of reporting.” The reporter who wrote the Flynn story used the “staff report” byline for the story “because we considered it a short, routine story that didn’t warrant one,” Moses writes.

[CJR confirmed the identity of the reporter, who declined to comment for this story.]

When a large newspaper inaccurately questions the work of its competitors, such a move could fuel media distrust among journalists as well as the general public.

The Journal mentioned Proctor and Horwath by name in its piece so as to give them credit for breaking the Flynn story, according to Moses. “Unfortunately,” she writes, the Journal “did not properly report that [Proctor and Horwath’s] original online story included information from police reports.” Hence the correction, which Moses says her newspaper made after hearing concerns from the editors of both the Santa Fe Reporter and New Mexico in Depth.

The entire episode feeds into a wider perception amongst local critics, many of them journalists themselves, that the Journal tends to defend rather than challenge elements of New Mexico’s power structure. During his tenure at the Journal, Proctor says he felt “like the newspaper’s top editors and management were selectively protective of and close to the power structure.”

Moses, who took the helm of the newspaper last year after Walz stepped down, disputes such characterizations of the Journal. She writes that the Journal “stands on its record” and cited the newspaper’s recent awards in investigative reporting and public service from the New Mexico Press Association.

A recent Knight Foundation/Gallup survey found that more than 80 percent of respondents believed that journalism is important for holding powerful figures and institutions accountable. When a large newspaper inaccurately questions the work of its competitors—and under an anonymous byline—such a move could fuel media distrust among journalists as well as the general public, making accountability reporting even harder.

Two weeks after the Albuquerque Journal published the Flynn story, it ran a pointed editorial against DWIs, linking the act of getting behind the wheel after drinking to “firing a loaded shotgun toward a busy street.” The editorial, titled “New Mexico needs tougher DWI penalties,” did not mention Flynn’s plea deal.

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Joey Peters is a freelance reporter based in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in Public Radio International, NYTimes.com, City Pages, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, MinnPost, Stateline, American City Business Journals and more.