Some facts be damned.
Depending on the source of a journalist’s code of ethics, the core dictums of principled journalism are often said to consist of truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity, and accountability. For a journalist, the truth, it can be argued, is the basis of moral authority, the high summit of a career, and the secret of written eloquence. Unfortunately for one reporter, the Chicago Tribune’s Dan Hinkel, a journalist’s established set of values is interpreted as mere suggestions and the truth is more of an annoyance than a weighty responsibility. A serially irresponsible reporter, no example illustrates Mr. Hinkel’s failure to aim for fairness or the truth than his obsessive coverage of Officer Robert Rialmo. Once we sweep away Hinkel’s slanted reporting of the Rialmo case, we shall see how it is not a washout to theorize Hinkel views the Rialmo shooting and the accompanying events in the ensuing months as a parable about an unholy system undergirding the Chicago Police Department (CPD).
While the facts of the Rialmo matter are widely known, it bears repeating Officers Rialmo and Anthony LaPalermo responded to the Austin neighborhood home of Antonio LeGrier in the early morning of December 26, 2015, following a string of phone calls placed to 911. Arriving at 4710 West Erie shortly after 4:30 a.m., Rialmo and LaPalermo were met by Bettie Jones, a resident of the same home, and immediately confronted with Quintonio LeGrier, who threatened both police officers with a baseball bat. Moments later, Rialmo fired six times, killing the armed 19-year-old LeGrier and accidentally taking the life of Ms. Jones.
Diving head first into the Rialmo story, Hinkel wove a narrative exceeding 15 stories between December 2015 and May 2019. Coverage notable for its clarity, Hinkel frequently offered a mesmerizingly readable account of Rialmo’s journey from the shooting incident itself, to scrutiny from the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), Rialmo’s civil trial, Superintendent Eddie Johnson objecting to COPA’s conclusion on Rialmo, all the way to confusion among jurors at the end of the police officer’s civil trial.
However, after investing 41 months covering every detail of Robert Rialmo’s tortuous passage through official inquiries following the police officer’s confrontation with the armed LeGrier, Hinkel declined to offer even sparse attention to a crucial development directly involved with Rialmo’s case. In an episode which occurred after the December 2017 COPA ruling which determined Rialmo’s actions were unjustified when confronting the bat-wielding college student, a Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request revealed in early 2018 COPA had concealed the opinion of a paid consultant hired by Virginia-based law firm, McGuireWoods LLP, retained by the watchdog agency to evaluate the Rialmo matter. According to McGuireWoods’ expert witness, Boston Police Lieutenant Robert Harrington, Rialmo’s actions were justified. If, for a moment, we set aside COPA’s scandalous conduct for smothering the expert opinion of a veteran law-enforcement official sustaining Rialmo’s actions, the behavior of Hinkel ignoring this startling discovery prompts the loaded question: Where was the Tribune’s ace reporter to cover this monumental disclosure by the FOP?
Bias is Hinkel’s most cherished journalistic virtue.
Dan Hinkel can ignore the truth, but he cannot wish it out of existence. Given COPA’s machinations and the weight of Harrington’s expert opinion, points which should bear mentioning in any accurate and honest account of the investigation into Officer Rialmo’s actions, one could reasonably suspect Hinkel would have at the very least referred to both, perhaps even gainsaying them with a potent rebuttal. That Hinkel chose not mention Harrington’s interpretation of the Rialmo incident with LeGrier should not come as a surprise: Hinkel’s 41-month coverage of Rialmo illustrated he took an equal if not greater interest in publishing Rialmo’s alleged faults and failings alongside relevant facts of the case. If Hinkel was curious enough in his coverage of Rialmo to eternally conjure up the ghost of Laquan McDonald, nosy enough to inform readers Rialmo had been involved in two physical altercations while off duty, or inquisitive enough to write an entire piece on a benefit held on Rialmo’s behalf at the FOP hall in which weapons were among prizes awarded, then he almost certainly could have mentioned COPA’s underhandedness or afforded one solitary sentence in his reporting over the opinion rendered by an expert hired by COPA.
Nevertheless, when Hinkel gained a perspective of COPA’s deviousness and an expert opinion establishing Rialmo’s actions were warranted, what he saw was too awful for him to behold. Two pivotal facts Hinkel chose to ignore, for Hinkel to report on COPA’s cunning and Harrington’s decision on the Rialmo matter would have entailed tremendous ruin on his previous coverage and blunted future reporting. Despite COPA’s machinations becoming public knowledge in January 2018, Hinkel, the Tribune’s adept ink slinger, opted against crafting a full and unbiased portrait of events. Cleverly pushing forward with the aim of entombing both COPA’s deceitfulness and Harrington’s expert opinion under an avalanche of ten further stories throughout the remainder of 2018, Hinkel’s superfluous reporting reduced the story so thoroughly it lost any semblance of the larger truth of an armed man threatening two Chicago police officers.
So why did Hinkel, this assumed model of objective reporting, exclude COPA’s duplicity and Harrington’s position on Rialmo’s actions in his feverish coverage? The answer is far from complex and is found in a reporter submitting to his worst demon, bias. In his rush to do business, the infliction of harm upon the reputation of the Chicago Police Department and specifically on Officer Robert Rialmo, Hinkel revealed himself as more absorbed in building the myth Robert Rialmo is a reckless or troubled police officer serving in a police department steeped in turmoil as opposed to performing objective reporting.
A jigsaw puzzle always has a few missing pieces, but a conclusive picture has emerged Hinkel’s reporting on Officer Rialmo was deeply jaundiced. Bias is fine should one have the grace to admit to it, but omitting inconvenient fact to suit a reporter’s objective is not. In fact, this brand of bias is both a disservice to readers and abusing a perch with a major newspaper. For all the outrage generated by the shooting deaths of LeGrier and Jones, had Chicago residents learned the investigatory body trusted to conduct an impartial investigation of the incident had orchestrated a ploy to conceal potentially exculpatory evidence, the more residents would have recognized the armed LeGrier was a grave danger to Officers Rialmo and LaPalermo.
Although Hinkel’s reporting on Rialmo did not include all relevant facts, he made certain it contained his bias. While Hinkel plainly understands a myth ceaselessly promoted tends to overpower fact, he fails to realize reporters with facts on their side do not to bury the truth.
[Chicago Sun Times] [Chicago Tribune] [Photo courtesy Chicago Tribune]