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Injudicious Journalism

The great Samuel Johnson once told his famous biographer, James Boswell, that “A lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause which he undertakes... The justice or injustice of the cause is to be decided by the judge.” Something of the sort applies even more to journalists, especially with regard to criminal proceedings, and at least in the period between an indictment and any trial or plea before a court. But a piece in The Buffalo News this week strayed uncomfortably close to that ethical boundary between responsible journalism and inflammatory pamphleteering, maybe even nudging it a bit.

Colin Dabkowski’s Sunday column was on the federal criminal case against former CEPA director and filmmaker Lawrence Brose. More specifically, it addressed efforts by him and some of his supporters to defend himself and raise funds for his legal fight.

Brose was indicted in November in federal court in Buffalo on charges based on his alleged accessing of child pornography internet sites and claims he stored images from them on a computer. He has denied the charges and pled innocent.

Dabkowski is sort of the News’ utility outfielder arts reporter, reviewer and columnist, a role that probably owes its existence at least in part to the paper’s decades-long efforts at staff reduction, function combining and dollar stretching. It’s possible that Dabkowski has been stretched along with the dollars, maybe overstretched.

What appears to have incited the column was material on the web site of Brose’s legal defense fund, claims about his innocence and the nature of the federal prosecution. First, Dabkowski wrote that “the local arts community was stunned to silence” when the charges were brought, which isn’t quite accurate. Some responded publicly, including a Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center curator who told Dabkowski’s own paper she respected and admired Brose.

What Dabkowski, with arch skepticism, called “the sudden arrival of the artistic cavalry” seemed, he wrote, “somewhat premature and poorly considered.” Why so? Because “the lone piece of evidence that has come out in Brose’s favor has to do with a supposed computer virus” on his machine that “may have allowed someone else to access it.” This “revelation,” Dabkowski wrote dismissively, “which bears the creative stamp of Brose’s attorney, Paul Cambria...does not in itself inspire a great deal of faith in his (Brose’s) prospects.” And really, how can you place any credence in any legal argument from a mere lawyer, right? Actually, Dabkowski is only speculating about Cambria, and he omitted the supporters’ discussion about others’ possible access to the computer at CEPA’s offices, according to Dorothea Braemer, director of Squeaky Wheel Media Arts Center.

But there’s also a nastier, more disturbing note infiltrating the next several sentences, as Dabkowski seems to be struggling with the task of suggesting there may be something a little gamey about Brose’s art career, without making a concrete assertion. Speaking of the filmmaker’s art film, De Profundis, named after Oscar Wilde’s famous (unsent) letter from Reading Jail to Lord Alfred Douglas, Dabkowski told us that “’s clear that Brose, like Wilde before him, is asking us to think critically about homosexuality and age” (emphasis added). What is that supposed to mean? Brose’s film doesn’t ask us to think about sex with children and in one of the testimonial letters on the defense fund’s site, from Scott MacDonald, professor of film history at Hamilton College, this writer says, “If the assumption of those investigating Brose is that child pornography is in any way a subject of De Profundis...then clearly this investigation is little more than mindless harassment.” For that matter, Wilde didn’t even discuss homosexuality in his letter to Douglas, let alone sex with minors. Then, to nail the point he’s been circling, Dabkowski provided “An important reminder: Brose stands accused of possessing child pornography, which is illegal....”

The language and ideas in the column are muddled, but the impression they leave is scarcely obscure: Think very carefully before you give any support to Brose’s defense. This isn’t an appropriate use of editorial privilege. Dabkowski seems to believe that Brose, his counsel and his supporters owe him a detailed public defense case long prior to any trial or plea, before it’s safe for the columnist to give his approval. And, of course, maybe not even then. As Braemer asked in a telephone interview, “What happened to the American presumption of innocence?” Evidently, the prosecution isn’t to be held to such a standard because it doesn’t have to fundraise.

In a telephone conversation, Dabkowski said “It isn’t fair to say I’m being unfair to one side or the other.” But it was Brose and his supporters who were skeptically critiqued. It may well be that Dabkowski wrote impulsively and heedlessly, and didn’t comprehend the effect his words could have.

In any event, the primary undischarged responsibility in this matter is that of Dabkowski’s editors at the arts and features desks. It should have been relatively easy to flag this column. Is this failure a result of the most recent austerity regime at the News? Or did the provocative, dark nature of the subject figure in this affair?

What’s clear is that it could have been avoided. As Edmund Cardoni, director of Hallwalls, who stresses that he’s not been involved in efforts supporting Brose, said in an interview, “I wish Colin hadn’t thought it was necessary to write this column.”

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