We will continue to ask the tough questions you want answered

By Advocate Editorial Board Opinion
Aug. 6, 2008 at 3:06 a.m.

As journalists, we never want to be part of the story. Rather, we want to report the news from the background, asking your questions about the day’s events and people.

For the first time in my 26-year career, a reporter became part of a news story simply for doing his job. Reporter Gabe Semenza, now our public service editor, had developed good sources last year when covering the rift between the Victoria District Attorney and law enforcement.

That reporting led city officials to share with him — and later me — their concerns about the investigation of Michael Ratcliff, then the district attorney’s chief of staff. They contended the investigation was being handled improperly and encouraged the newspaper to look into the situation.

We didn’t think we had enough solid information to report on the case against Ratcliff, a former sheriff, until he was indicted Oct. 25 on charges of sexual assault on a teenage boy. We considered waiting to be the responsible course of action.

After the indictments were announced, Semenza reported the city’s concerns about the investigation. He quoted David Smith, then the city attorney, as suggesting some sort of cover-up had occurred.

This assertion seemed to set off District Attorney Stephen Tyler, who immediately subpoenaed Semenza to appear before a grand jury. As most newspapers would, we fought having our reporter used as a prosecutorial tool. This legal battle cost the newspaper several thousand dollars. Meanwhile, the taxpayers footed the DA’s legal bill.

Because we were dragged into this story, some readers questioned our ability to fairly report on it. Unquestionably, the situation is more challenging for us. We have kept Semenza, our lead investigative reporter, largely away from this story since he was subpoenaed a second time. We’re not sure when it will be appropriate to have him report on the issue again.

Nonetheless, we continue to investigate all sides of the story. Although the district attorney has plagued us with subpoenas, we wouldn’t hesitate to report any information we could get that shows city officials acted improperly in the Ratcliff investigation. We plan exhaustive coverage of the upcoming court proceedings. We hope to shed light on the truth and chase the secrets out of the darkness.

Through a regular conversation with our readers, we will keep explaining what we’re doing and why. Semenza wasn’t choosing sides when he listened to city officials’ concerns. Instead, he was doing what a good reporter should: staying close to a story of high public interest.

We’ve reported all we know and have been able to verify about the rift and about the indictments of Ratcliff and, subsequently, the mayor, police chief, police lieutenant and former city attorney. We have no reason to favor anyone in the whole mess.

The Advocate’s editorial board has questioned on our Viewpoints page the merits of the case the district attorney has against city officials. We work hard, however, to keep the board’s opinions separate from our impartial news coverage.

On my column shortly after Ratcliff was indicted, the headline read then: “Tough, responsible coverage will get Victoria through Ratcliff case.”

That challenge, which has guided us for the past seven months, still stands before us.

Chris Cobler is the editor of the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached at ccobler@vicad.com or at 361-574-1271.



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