Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

May 10, 2013

OPINION: The Front Page Backstory: Because there's always more than what you see

Accusing reporter of racism isn't the whole story

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

JACKSONVILLE —

“Racist.”

A strong accusation to have leveled at you in a 3:14 a.m. Friday email.

I received such a a missive from a "reader" who emailed me from her cell phone with the following, unsigned, message:

“A comment on the headline story in the Jacksonville Daily Progress of the ETMC doctor that was arrested in Jacksonville. There is no doctor at ETMC that is of 'middle eastern descent ' practicing that is a colleague of Dr. Cunningham. The referred colleague is Indian. India is not a middle eastern country. India is the southern most country in Asia, and the largest democracy in the world. The report with 'middle eastern descent' is false and assuming on The Daily Progress's part that since the Dr. was making accusations of someone being a terrorist, they have to be of middle eastern descent. Having the accurate facts and validating them before printing should be essential, also a little bit of 2nd grade geography without being racist wouldn't hurt. Thank you.'

The woman's comments were made in reference to a story published this week. The headline on the story read: “Fired doctor, drunk with shotgun, arrested Wednesday.”

The reader made a lot of incorrect assumptions in her email:

• She assumed we selected the phrase “Middle Eastern” ourselves.

• She also assumed we had been provided with a geographic location of where the doctor in question actually was from — one that we chose to identify as the Middle East.

That is not the case in either regard.

After receiving news about this shotgun incident Thursday, I contacted representatives of ETMC-Jacksonville, the hospital with the parking lot in which this arrest took place. ETMC-Jacksonville personnel declined to provide me with any information about this story. I was ultimately referred to a hospital representative who emphatically declined to comment.

(It is important to note that the hospital is probably the only entity that could have provided us with any clarity as to the nationality of the threatened colleague.)

I discussed the incident with Jacksonville Police Chief Reece Daniel. The chief, as always, was aware the community was abuzz with word of the arrest and worked quickly to give us answers to share with our readers.

The chief responded with the following email:

“His name is (Laurence) Cunningham and I understand he was fired from ETMC yesterday after making threats towards another doctor who is of Middle East descent. The report says he thought the other doctor was happy about 9-11 and the Boston bombings and he didn't like it.”

The chief went on in his email to describe the circumstances of the incident.

“He showed up at the hospital today, intoxicated with a shotgun in his vehicle and was arrested, We are charging him with public intoxication and making terroristic threats. He will be in jail overnight and be arraigned tomorrow morning.”

That was all that was said. The totality of the information that was exchanged. There was no assumption on our part regarding the victim's country of origin. It was provided to us very clearly by a police chief who was using the best, most accurate, information he had to give.

Back to this early email: The first questions I had after reading it were:

• Is what this woman contends even true?

• How does this person know so much about hospital staff?

• Could this be merely shared gossip from a mean-spirited person?

• Was this person, perhaps, an employee of the hospital violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, HIPAA, Privacy and Security Rules? Or a spouse or life partner of the same?

The name of the writer was listed along with her email address at the top of the message, but she did not formally sign it, which is the prerequisite to be considered as a letter to the editor submission.

Hoping to put some context on the situation by figuring out who this person was, I searched the ETMC site for an employee with the name listed at the top of her email. No luck.

I tried googling her name and email address, both together and separately. Nothing.

I looked up driver's licenses in the Jacksonville area. Couldn't locate anything.

So, ultimately, I had no luck establishing what this woman's dog was in this particular hunt.

I have never (yet) traveled to the Middle East but have covered it extensively during my over 25 years as a reporter.

It is important to note I do understand the difference in distinction between, say, areas of Saudi Arabia and India. I made my bones in the mid-1990s covering the Muslim community in Arlington, Texas for the Arlington Morning News, pre-9/11.

During that time, I chronicled such important events celebrated there as Eid al-Adha, the "Festival Of Sacrifice" celebrated worldwide to honor — in praise of Allah — the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his young first-born son Ishmael and Ishmael to being sacrificed.

My life's work also includes over 25 years of civil rights stories. In the late 1990s, I personally met and interviewed civil rights activist Rosa Parks — the African-American woman who refused on Dec. 1, 1955 to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger — during an appearance she made in Denton prior to her 2005 death.

And going back to my college days, in 1990 I was the first Caucasian at Tarleton State University in Stephenville to join the Minority Mentors, a welcoming group for incoming freshmen of color. I was "Big Brother" to two students from that group — one of whom followed me into the field of journalism.

So I don't appreciate labels such as “racist” being tossed in my direction without proof or appropriate context.

I'm not going to name the person who wrote this letter. I would only posit she would have been better served speaking to me and getting clarification regarding her suspicions before assuming there was bias in my writing and reporting.

 

Ben Tinsley, a Jacksonville Daily Progress reporter with over 25 years in the journalism industry, writes The Front Page Backstory, a column designed to help explore and explain topics of news interest in the Jacksonville Daily Progress.