Ethical questions are being raised both inside The Virginian-Pilot and in the Norfolk, Va. area after two of the paper’s reporters were attacked and beaten by a mob of at least 30 blacks, but was downplayed by police and withheld from the public for more than two weeks by the newspaper’s editors.
Reporters Dave Forster and Marjon Rostami were leaving a concert on the night of April 14 when a crowd of around 100 young people gathered on the sidewalk near their car. Rostami reached over to lock the door.
According to a police report obtained by Fox News, a black male hurled a rock at the car. Forster got out and tried to confront the individual who damaged his car. Instead, a gang of attackers began punching and pound the reporter. Police would not confirm the exact number — but at least one account put the number at 30.
Rostami tried to pull him back inside the car, but others in the crowd began attack her, the police report stated. She was beaten a half dozen times by an unidentified black man.
Rostami was eventually able to call 9-1-1. Police officers responded, they wrote an incident report and labeled it “simple assault.”
The reporters had to take a week off to recover from their injuries. To date no one has been arrested for the crime.
There was no mention of the attack in the pages of The Virginian-Pilot until Tuesday – more than two weeks later – when columnist Michelle Washington wrote a detailed story on the police department’s handling of the attack and she raised questions about her own newspaper’s lack of coverage.
And she also mentioned another previously undisclosed component to the story.
The day after the attack Forster searched Twitter and found a chilling tweet Washington wrote.
“Were Forster and Rostami beaten in some kind of warped, vigilante retribution for a killing 750 miles away, a person none of them knew?” Washington wrote. “Was it just bombast? Is a beating funny, ever?”
A police spokesman tells Fox News that the incident is still under investigation and they are also looking at whoever wrote the tweet. But as of now – the case is still a simple assault – and does not rise to the level of a hate crime.
But James Duane, a law professor at Regent University, said he is troubled by the police department’s categorization of the crime.
“This is cause for serious concern,” he told Fox News. “It sounds like it’s much more than a simple assault. Any sort of criminal activity that is engaged spontaneously by a large crowd of individuals especially individuals who are merely strangers to them is a cause for serious concern and ought to be on the part of any police officer or police department.”
Washington wrote that police seemed dismissive when they arrived at the crime scene, telling the injured Rostami to “shut up and get in the car.”
“Both said the officer did not record any names of witnesses who stopped to help,” Washington wrote. Rostami said the officer told them the attackers were ‘probably juveniles anyway. What are we going to do? Find their parents and tell them?”
Duane said it was a “surprising characterization” and said the attack would warrant more charges “and at a minimum a more serious attempt at investigation than what we are led to believe happened here.”
“Even simple assault is still a criminal offense,” Duane said.
The Virginian-Pilot’s readers have been sounding off online – accusing the newspaper and the police department of a cover-up and demanding answers.
“I sincerely believe that the Pilot has acted irresponsibly, and has, by omission, out right lied to its readers,” wrote Thomas McElvy. “This crime, had the roles been reversed and it was two blacks attacked by thirty or more whites, would have made the wire services. All you have done is show your lack of journalistic integrity.”
“This rag did not have the decency to print this story two weeks ago?” wrote Patrick Kenneally. “The police should be ashamed of themselves and a major investigation into what that cop was thinking should be conducted.”
Another writer called it “downright shameful” and said the information needed to “get out so that somebody can clean up the streets.”
The Virginian-Pilot’s editor told Fox News there was debate in the newsroom over whether to cover the story – but in the end they decided not to – because they don’t cover simple assaults.
“We bend over backwards not to treat ourselves any differently than the rest of the community,” Denis Finley told Fox News. “We don’t cover simple attacks. The fact that we know these folks doesn’t make any difference. We don’t want to be perceived as doing something different for ourselves than we would do for the rest of the community.”
Finley strongly denied accusations the newspaper was covering up the story because of the racial component.
“We have no indication that this is racial, no indication that this was anything other than – so far – a simple attack,” he said. “There have been all kinds of innuendo, assumptions, prejudices, you name it revolving around the story but the fact is it was a simple attack and we didn’t put it in the paper.”
He also defended their decision not to cover the tweets that suggested the attack may have had something to do with the Trayvon Martin case.
“That’s another complication,” he said. ‘I don’t know where those tweets came from. I don’t know who said them. Anybody can say anything they want on social media after the fact. I have no idea what those tweets mean – if anything. They’re no different than the attacks that have been leveled on me and the newspaper from some of my readers who have assumed some things that just aren’t true.”
Finley said the incident is a “sticky situation” for the newspaper.
“What would I have to gain by protecting someone who attacked my reporters?” he said. “That’s a preposterous statement to make.”
Michael Finch, a journalism professor at Lee University, believes The Virginian-Pilot did a disservice to their readers.
“It would seem to me this would definitely be a story,” he told Fox News. “In journalism there are seven news values and it seems like this story really meets all seven of them – which is rare.”
“It’s a timely story, it has impact, it relates to a prominent event, it’s in close proximity to their news outlet, it’s a little bit bizarre, it includes conflict and it deals with public concern,” he said. “It’s as good as a news story as you can get.”
Finch said he certainly understands the newspaper’s dilemma “because it was one of their own.”
However, he said, the sheer size of the attack mob elevated the story’s newsworthiness.
And Finley promised that if the police department elevates the crime – they will certainly give the story “due diligence.”