Kansas reporter who exposed racism in Dodge City has new battle to fight

LatinaLista — It’s been a little over a month since Sam Bonilla, a Mexican immigrant opted not to go to trial in Dodge City, Kansas for killing a local man during a situation he claims was self-defense.

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Bonilla’s reason for not facing a jury was reported that he didn’t feel he could get a fair trial in Dodge City because he was Latino. While there are people who disputed his claim on Latina Lista — they were mainly the family members of the deceased — it was a serious enough statement that got the attention of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and federal peacemakers from the Dept. of Justice.

Regardless of what Dodge City officials and their supporters contend about there not being discrimination in Dodge City against the local Latino population, enough members from the Dodge City Latino community itself have emerged since Bonilla was put in jail to tell their stories to the contrary of city officials. Their personal experiences underscore how systemic racism has entrenched itself in the town to the point that people, who aren’t victimized by it, don’t even notice it.

From all reports, city officials are supposed to be now working with the local Latino community in addressing concerns and allegations that the police actively racially profile Latinos targeting their neighborhoods and businesses.

Time will tell if Dodge City officials were as clueless to the racial tensions that exist in their town, as they claim, or they just didn’t like anyone pulling off the blanket and exposing how they always did things.

No matter which way it’s looked at, the situation in Dodge City needed to be exposed. If it had not been for Claire O’Brien, the reporter for the Dodge City Daily Globe at the time, no one would have found out about Bonilla or Dodge City.

O’Brien’s diligence to Bonilla’s case, and her commitment to her journalistic ethics in not revealing a source during the course of reporting on Bonilla’s case, garnered her first place in the news category of the Spring 2010 Kansas Press Association awards (Not to mention, she won three additional awards) and was instrumental in finally getting the Kansas legislature to pass a Shield Law which was signed by Kansas Governor Mark Parkinson in April.

But not everybody was happy that O’Brien exposed Dodge’s racial undercurrents. In a bizarre show of unprofessionalism, the presiding judge in Sam Bonilla’s sentencing hearing, Judge Daniel Love, took over 10 minutes to publicly berate O’Brien, who was present in the courtroom, for stirring things up in town. He blamed her choice of words in her reporting to describe Bonilla’s situation. By the time the judge was done, it was clear he viewed O’Brien as a troublemaker — yet, everyone else should have seen her as doing her job, and doing it well.

However, in the hours after Bonilla’s sentencing, O’Brien found herself in a situation that no reporter should be in for doing their job. Within a span of hours, O’Brien lost her job at the Daily Globe, was uninvited to speak at a journalism conference, was ignored by the Kansas Press Association in her role for finally getting the Shield Law passed in Kansas and began a quest to redeem her journalistic reputation.

For someone who recognized that there existed two sets of standards in Dodge City and had the guts to report it, I think it’s only fair that Latina Lista readers know the second half to this story.

O’Brien’s problems began when she refused to reveal her source who had told her that one of the men who had confronted Sam Bonilla had “a base of support that is well-known for its anti-Hispanic beliefs” and the same support base had a “supply of semi-automatic weapons.”

The local County Attorney, Terry Malone, decided he needed to know O’Brien’s source and pressured her to reveal it or be found in contempt and go to jail. Though O’Brien was petrified of going to jail — which I can attest to since we were in phone contact during this time — she wasn’t about to reveal her source.

Right after the County Attorney began his bullying of O’Brien, her employers, GateHouse Media, secured a lawyer to represent her. It was at this time O’Brien told me that they were pressuring her to reveal her source or they would withhold legal counsel. She felt like she was under such pressure to reveal her source that she decided not to show up to the “Inquisition,” like a Grand Jury hearing and didn’t tell her lawyer since she wasn’t even sure she still had a lawyer. She was fined by the judge and threatened with contempt but eventually appeared. Luckily for O’Brien, her source decided to reveal himself.

Yet, the damage had been done. It wasn’t long before O’Brien found herself locked out of the Daily Globe and then terminated. Since then, O’Brien has been in a heated exchange with Lucy Daglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who made statements to the press casting doubt on O’Brien’s explanations as to why she didn’t show up at the courthouse.

It’s odd enough that an organization meant to champion reporters would side so quickly with management but because it did happen that way, and from this particular organization, it wasn’t long before O’Brien found invitations to appear at journalism conferences rescinded, invitations to apply for jobs at other newspapers disappear and what’s worse, completely ignored by the Kansas Press Association for what can only be described as her historic role in getting the Shield Law passed in Kansas.

Other sources have chronicled this strange lack of support from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press better than I. Yet, the bottom line remains that O’Brien’s reputation has been sullied and it will take a public affirmation from RCFP, according to O’Brien, that she was telling the truth all along to regain her previous reputation.

Well, Dalgish did post something. But not on the homepage of the RCFP website, which is the logical location. No, for some crazy reason, or maybe not so crazy, the executive director of an organization that is supposed to support journalists posted her so-called “letter of support,” written April 22, 2010, as a comment to a story that was posted on Feb. 16, 2010.

Dalgish’s letter starts out:

To Whom it May Concern:

This memo is to clarify misperceptions regarding the circumstances surrounding Claire O’Brien’s refusal to appear before a Kansas inquisition on February 10, 2010…

For the record, I did call Lucy Dalgish, executive director of the RCFP, who told me she was “very proud” of how her organization handled O’Brien’s case. Yet, throughout our conversation she did repeat “I’m going to get flamed by the Internet.”

Dalgish’s failure to post the letter of support in a visible location is a sad commentary on the RCFP and how this organization treated this reporter who put herself on the line for exposing a story that needed to be told.

It is also a disgrace that the Kansas Press Association turned their backs on O’Brien and the role she had in getting the Shield Law passed.

Doug Anstaett, director of the Kansas Press Association, told a reporter at the time of the signing of the Kansas Shield Law that:

“With the situation that developed in Dodge City, there was a much higher interest and awareness of this issue among the legislators this year. That made it somewhat easier to bring it forward and get it moving.”

That quote obviously tells me that he attributes the Shields Law passing into law this summer as a direct result of O’Brien’s situation. Yet, when in an e-mail sent to Anstaett asking who was present at the signing of the Shield Law he wrote,

“Four representatives of the Kansas Press Association were on hand April 28 at the office of Gov. Mark Parkinson for a bill signing ceremony for the recently approved shield law for reporters.

Mike Kautsch, KPA’s media law adviser, Ken Knepper, KPA legislative director, Rich Gannon, KPA director of governmental affairs and Doug Anstaett, KPA executive director, joined representatives of the Kansas Association of Broadcasters for the event.

Also on hand were three senators critical to the bill’s success: Sen. Derek Schmidt, who authored the original bill, Sen. Anthony Hensley, who co-sponsored the bill, and Sen. Terry Bruce, whose hard work this session helped moved the bill through the Kansas Legislature.

Gov. Mark Parkinson actually signed the bill into law on April 15. The bill was approved by the Kansas House and Senate March 30.”

When I asked why there had not been an invitation extended by the KPA to O’Brien, Mr. Anstaett replied:

I respectfully decline comment on your other questions.

Since her dismissal from the Daily Globe, O’Brien has been living a hand-to-mouth existence, since every newspaper door in Kansas seems to shut in her face for some inexplicable reason. Borrowing money from her family, she was able to move to a new town recently and start a new job. Yet, O’Brien suffered a car accident on the second day. After a series of unbelievable events, O’Brien now finds herself without a job again, no money and in a strange town.

So, as she gets her life back in order, and contemplates whether or not she can economically continue in journalism, I can only hope that she doesn’t give up.

She is the kind of reporter that is needed today more than ever. Someone who isn’t afraid of reporting the truth and exposing the kinds of discrimination and racism that does indeed exist from small towns to big cities. Someone who’s not afraid to hold accountable the institutions and organizations that began their existence in support of journalists doing their jobs.

Someone for whom journalism is more than a career — it’s her life.

 

 

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7 Comments

  1. Bryan J. said:

    This is, unfortunately, yet another example(of many probably that are unknown) of what happens to an individual who confronts injustice in the face of greater powers.
    Although this is published here, on latina lista, and the peoria pundit, it will likely go unnoticed nationwide. Sorry for this treatment, Claire. I wish you the best in going forward.

  2. Indiana Bob said:

    Great article, Marisa.
    Regardless of one’s stance on the Immigration debate, this story is about a serious threat to a free press, which is in our very first amendment.
    I had an issue recently involving one of my relative’s friends that exposed the dynamic OBrian was writing about, so this problem is real.

  3. Anon said:

    I think it is wrong for Lucy to reduce the legitimate criticism of her mishandling of the O’Brien case to internet “flaming.”
    It’s clear from that that RCFP is not going to change. And this is not unique, it is just the only RCFP bullying that played out in public.

  4. Rebecca Aguilar said:

    Excellent report Marissa. Thanks for bringing this reporters story to us.
    Shame on the organizations that are suppose to defend reporters. I hope members of the Kansas Press Association cancel their membership; because if they treated Ms. OBrien in this manner–who is next?
    I applaud Ms. OBrien for doing her job under such stressful conditions and after being bullied by those in the court system.
    She is a hero in my eyes.
    I will share your story with other anyone who will listen.
    Rebecca Aguilar
    Freelance reporter
    Dallas,TX

  5. E.S.O. said:

    It’s true. Dodge City is a racist town even though probably more than half the town is Mexican/Latino or what ever the government wants us to say now a days

  6. greg wood said:

    That this aspect of the outrage perpetrated against Sam Bonilla should have eclipsed the event itself is ample evidence of the second class status afforded Hispanic people in the entire matter. Someone at that heartwarming conclave at the governors office should have had him sign a PARDON for Sam Bonilla while there! The fact that this man is in prison for exercising his basic human right of protecting himself and his family members against rampaging thugs, takes second place to the actions of the rampaging legal thug in the county attorney’s office and his judicial accomplices. Hispanic CITIZENS of Ford County: get a BUNCH of voter registration cards, make sure EVERY eligable voter you know fills one out BEFORE whatever phony deadline these hacks have set, then TAKE them if necessary to the polling place and vote the Terry Malones and their ilk back to oblivion where they belong!

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