Wichmer the attorney, Pokin the journalist, and the old game Telephone

When I decided to write this particular post, I wanted to make sure enough time had passed from what happened to discussing what happened. I did this in hopes that the reader would be able to see the main point I’m making with my story, not seeing the example that sets up the main point.

What is the example? The example used involved Springfield’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Ordinance and restrooms.

What is the main point I want to make with the example? That point is how the media can lose track of the truth through their trust of previous reports. Further, in doing so it can make them look like they are playing “loosey goosey” with the facts.

But let’s start by going back a long time to get started off on a good note.

When I was a kid, I lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I went to some of my elementary school years there in the southern New Mexico city. When I wasn’t in school, I would be at Little Playmates. It was a daycare that provided my parents with summer care for me and my brother.

While there we would play many games, inside and out, and it was a pretty good time.

There was one game I really liked. It was called “Telephone”. This was a game where all the kids would get in a circle. At one end of the circle a kid would start by whispering in the ear of the child beside him. He would whisper anything. For instance, he could say, “The goat wore a blue coat to the store.” The second child would whisper the same to the third, and this would happen until all the kids whispered what they heard to the next kid.

By the end, “The goat wore a blue coat to the store,” may have become, “I wore a blue coat to school.”

I loved it! How the initial statement made 20 children ago could get distorted little by little, and by the end you had something being said that was little, sometimes nothing, like what was initially stated.

Now, let’s fast forward to 2015. In Springfield, Missouri, we had a vote on April 7th to decide whether or not to keep a law in place that was very controversial – in part – because of the “restroom issue”. This issue was one brought up by opponents. Their concern was that by passing this law, along with other concerns, the city government would now leave the business owner unable to ask a male to leave a female’s restroom, or a female to leave a male’s restroom.

This was such a contentious topic that the city council even had whispers of amending the bill before it was initially passed to prevent this from happening. However, in the end they didn’t amend anything – just passed the law.

So, as it stood, the public was with the impression that when the law passed any male could go in to any female restroom, and vice versa. Because of the law being passed, business owners would be “discriminating” if they asked the person to remove theirself from the “wrong” restroom. In my mind, this is one of the reasons the law was repealed through the petition and voting process by the citizens of Springfield.

With this being the understanding, you can imagine my shock when I read a Springfield News-Leader editorial board article stating the following: “And the use of bathrooms? It’s already legal to enter a men’s or women’s restroom, regardless of gender, according to City Attorney Dan Wichmer in a previous News-Leader story.”

The position the board was taking was no shock. They had, for months, been very vocal and bias in their reporting on the issue. They made no effort to refute the fact that, for this particular issue, they had become commentators and not journalists.

But this particular comment caught my eye. It’s already legal to use the opposite gender’s restroom in Springfield? My first thought was that the comment made no sense. If that was the case, why was it such a big deal and why – in the course of the debate – did not one person say, “Hey, this is already legal.”

So, the first thing I did was look for the article they were referencing. I found it. Steve Pokin, a journalist who does “Pokin Around”, a regular report he does after investigating a particular issue, did a piece on the SOGI Law: Gender Identity and the Bathroom Debate.

In the article, Pokin states the following: “Is it currently against Springfield law to use a public restroom designated for the opposite sex? City Attorney Dan Wichmer says no. It’s already legal in Springfield for men to use women’s public restrooms, and vice versa.”

Now this is where I was completely confused. Again, if this is the case, why was this not brought up for years during the debate about this law. Not until his article comes out right before the vote does this concept even make an appearance.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. So I wrote Dan Wichmer. I asked, “Dan, Is it correct when the News-Leader asserts I can walk in to and use a women’s public restroom in Springfield and it’s not illegal? (Or at least that’s what they said you said.)”

His response reminded me of the Dan Wichmer I knew when on City Council. Very detailed in response, and if you’re not paying attention or even “want” to hear a certain thing, you can misunderstand his closely chosen words. His response: “Well, they are not correct.”

Wow! Hold the phone! What did he just say?? They are not correct?!

He went on to say that Springfield has an ordinance that allows “a business or public place to designate a facility as single sex.” In that same email, he went as far as to say that he interprets the law based on behavior because, if strictly enforced, my wife taking my newborn son in to a ladies restroom violates the letter of the law.

Where did this game of Telephone go so very wrong as to say that something that is illegal be reported as being legal?

Well, first we have to understand the law. From what I can gather, if a business owner owns a place with a restroom, until he marks the restroom as gender specific, either gender can use any of the restrooms. As soon as he marks it for a specific gender, it is only lawful for that gender to use that restroom… so far as to go that Dan Wichmer himself recognizes that Susy can’t take her one-year-old in the ladies room without violating the letter of the law.

That should lead us to recognize that the response from Wichmer said the law “allows”, but doesn’t force a business to create gender specific restrooms.

So, in the course of reporting, what in the world happened?!

Here is what I can come up with.

To begin, I don’t think Pokin or the News-Leader editorial board did anything nefarious. I do, however, believe they wanted to put something to rest that was a valid argument, thought they heard an answer they wanted to hear, and ran with it. Pokin in particular; the editorial board simply followed his lead without checking his facts.

The point to be made is this: even the media can get it wrong.

We are supposed to be able to trust the news sources we read, watch, and hear. However, the media are made up of people and just like the rest of us and they are imperfect.

Suffice to say that when we read, read with an open mind, recalling previous knowledge, and always being willing to trust but verify.

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