TALK OF THE TOWN: There are still a few bugs in the system
Wednesday, 12 March 2014 12:04

by Steve Matrazzo

Next week is Sunshine Week — a program spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors and supported by other institutions including the Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Opinion Journalists. (I am a member of all three groups.)
    Its stated aim is to highlight “the importance of open government and freedom of information.” (Details online at http://sunshineweek.rcfp.org/)
    More broadly, Sunshine Week — like journalism itself — is premised on the fundamental truth that a free society requires an informed citizenry.
    This, in turn, requires that those who make it their job to inform the public — that is, journalists — gather and disseminate relevant information faithfully and vigorously.
    Doing so can often test a journalist’s stamina, courage or judgment.
    Being human, we do not always pass the test with flying colors.
    But we try our best, applying our skills and the canons of our profession to the service of that fundamental truth — that a free society requires an informed citizenry.
    The other side of the equation is the citizenry itself. In the digital age, “sunshine” includes news outlets opening the floor to online public debate.
    We try to allow maximum latitude, even as we moderate online posts to remove profane — and sometimes libelous — comments. We encourage public participation because it, too, is a central element of a free society.
    Even when vast numbers of commenters seem to have completely missed the point of a story.

••••••••
    When police began to provide details in the wake of the Amber Alert issued for Caitlyn Virts last Thursday, one seemingly-minor passage in a police press release — concerning the Dodge Durango in which police believed Timothy Virts had fled with Caitlyn — caught our attention:
    “The Dodge Durango is registered to Daniel Williams Cortez, 38. Cortez is the victim’s husband [the victim being Bobbie Jo Cortez, Caitlyn’s mother, who was found murdered in her home on Thursday]. He currently is held at the Baltimore County Detention Center on various sex offense charges. Police do not know what, if any, relationship Cortez has with Timothy Virts and this homicide case.”
    It was only a single passage in a long press release, but police had seen fit to include it.
    Being conscientious journalists, we felt compelled to dig a little deeper.
    Court records showed that the current sex offense charges against Daniel Cortez, covering a period dating back to 2012, included sexual abuse of a minor. Furthermore, he had a previous conviction for a forcible act of sexual contact with a 12-year-old child that took place in 2009. He received a one-year sentence and was required to register as a child sex offender on the Maryland Sex Offender Registry.
    Combined with a chronology of the relationship between Bobbie Jo and Daniel Cortez publicly available on social media, the facts raised questions that we considered sufficient to warrant publishing the information.
    When the story broke, The Eagle’s website had been offline due to technical difficulties, so we put the information on The Eagle’s Facebook page late Thursday afternoon.
    That’s when things got ugly.
    The Facebook post generated some of the most shockingly horrid commentary we’ve ever had on our page, with large numbers of people hurling vitriol at a dead woman for letting a sex offender into her home with her children — although it later became clear that she had no idea of his history until the most recent incident erupted — and saying the most awful things about her as well as her jailed husband.
    (Not to mention the justice system for letting him out after only one year.)
    Meanwhile, some who knew and loved her were engaging in flame wars with the haters, and accusing us of “saying it was her fault.” [We hadn’t; we simply reported the facts we had found).
    Our attempts to moderate the discussion — including deleting a fair number of flatly defamatory and/or obscene comments — generated another round of anger.
    Even the comments we allowed to remain — in the interest of maximum latitude — paint an ugly picture of the online commentariat.
    Perhaps the worst part is that, in their self-righteous zeal to cast moral judgments, speculate wildly and point accusatory fingers, the vast bulk of commenters missed the real question that was raised by that facet of the story: what failure of law or procedure allowed a registered child sex offender to move into a home with three minor children?
    Maryland has laws governing released sex offenders, and, like many jurisdictions, Baltimore County has a law-enforcement unit specifically tasked with monitoring registered sex offenders.
    ““We keep an eye on these guys, make unannounced visits [to their registered addresses],” an officer from the unit told me in 2006.
    The precise circumstances remain unclear, but it appears that either the current law or the means of enforcing it was insufficient to assure that Bobbie Jo Cortez was made aware of her new husband’s history — even after they’d been a couple for over a year — and insufficient to prevent him from living in a house with children.
    Somewhere, there are still a few bugs in the system.
    That point was, sadly, all but lost in the maelstrom of smug satisfaction that some seemed to derive from their digital demonstrations of righteous indignation.
    But it was, nonetheless, the reason for the “sunshine” that The Eagle directed at that facet of the story.
    We can inform — and in this space, attempt to give the facts some context — but even the best information is only as good as the wisdom and insight with which it is read.
    And there, too, there are still a few bugs in the system.

•    Opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the opinion of The Dundalk Eagle or Kimbel Publication Inc. You can contact Eagle editor Steve Matrazzo via e-mail at editor@dundalkeagle.net.