Lenore Devore is not a “watchdog.” Our teachers, janitors, and LPD deserve better than her abuse of a sacred power.

Always the watchdog for the people, The Ledger is returning to an old practice of reporting on completed internal investigations at the county’s largest police departments and the Polk County School District.

That’s the opening of the abomination of petty, low-level public employee shaming that Ledger executive editor Lenore Devore published a couple days ago. (Not going to link to it. No traffic from me.)

This “story” went on to name a series of people fired or disciplined for a wildly varying range of sins/issues. Only one, I would say, was worth reporting publicly. And it already had been.

Anyway here are a few points that are important to understand about that story.

1) Ignore the byline. This is Lenore Devore’s story. To blame reporter Eric Pera for following her orders is like blaming teachers for having to teach in the Florida model.

2) The Ledger has not had a full-time education beat reporter to act as a “watchdog” of the Polk School District since the excellent Madison Fantozzi moved on to greener pastures a few months ago. If Lenore cared about being a “watchdog of the people,” she would find a way to cover an organization with a $1.3 billion budget, 102,000 kids, and nearly 15,000 employees with something more than a patchwork of fill-ins for Madison.

3) I am almost certainly somewhat to blame for this story. I do value The Ledger’s watchdog function — more than probably any Florida public official values any media watchdog. That’s why I do whatever I can to keep its reporters and editors in the loop — even the ones like Lenore and Editorial Page Editor Bill Thompson, who continue to do absurd and useless things. Again, that’s because I value the work of reporters. I value their watchdog function. It makes me better as a public official. At its best, it helps keep our organization honest. And reporters are vital to engaging the public in important issues.

A few months back, I started requesting completed Polk School District HR investigation reports. When I received some pushback/runaround from my own organization over this request (not from PR, by the way), I copied Lenore on an email in the hope of subtly getting the runaround to stop. And she declared in response that she wanted the same stuff I was asking for. The Ledger was always entitled to it as a public record; but nobody seems to have had the idea to ask for it until I said I was doing it.

I did not make these requests to publicly shame, by name, powerless janitors and probationary teachers no one has ever heard of. I did so with the intention of tracking patterns and making reforms that will improve our human capital management culture. This was in response to the Tenoroc situation, which the Ledger as an institution has all but ignored since Gary White’s two excellent stories months ago.

Today, I deeply regret including Lenore on that email. I regret not fully anticipating her bad faith. I should have. That’s on me. It’s not a mistake I’ll ever make again. And I want to say I’m sorry to the people who found their worst moments splashed in the paper for Lenore’s amusement.

However, I’m almost 100 percent certain — and will verify — that the dismissed probationary teachers she shame-named for sport weren’t even subject to an HR investigation. They’re just on a list of terminations, something I never asked for. If they were subject to an HR investigation, no one with The Ledger cited it.

Between June 30, 2016 and July 1, 2017, the Polk School District dismissed at least 77 probationary teachers (that means very, very new teachers). Overwhelmingly that occurs for no reason other than they just aren’t fitting in well or doing an acceptable job. Teaching is hard. And you really can’t simulate it until you do it. Lenore Devore has now set a Ledger precedent of naming every single probationary teacher we fire. And she’s done it in a way that suggests they did something wrong beyond simple job performance. How is that going to help with teacher recruitment?

I don’t think that was her intent. I just think she’s ignorant and incurious and didn’t realize the distinction. Maybe if she cared about covering education — not shaming janitors — she might have known.

4) I worked at The Ledger as a reporter and editor from 1999-2006, when we had many more resources. I supervised education reporters from roughly 2003-2006. At no point do I ever remember anything resembling this. It’s pathetic and petty.

5) It is not remotely watchdogging to play vicious stenographer to reports generated by the very power you’re supposedly watchdogging — especially when that power inadvertently gave you the idea. Publishing names with gratuitous cruelty just because you can isn’t journalism — it’s an abuse of a special power. And that special power is already under assault from other people of bad faith who want it destroyed. Lenore is helping them. Of all the sins of bad journalism, punching down at powerless people and calling it watchdog journalism may be the worst. Institutional (newspaper) journalism really can’t afford that kind of sin if it wants the public to think it’s worth saving.

Watchdogging with a purpose

This petty Ledger behavior under Devore’s leadership isn’t limited to the Polk School District. You haven’t read this anywhere yet; but 2017 brought remarkably good news for violent crime in the city of Lakeland, even better news than 2016 did.

The final numbers have to be confirmed and submitted as part of the UCR stats; but preliminary figures shows LPD’s jurisdiction had one confirmed homicide in 2017 and a second suspicious death that might become one. Similarly, there were 11 total shootings in the city. None was gang-related. That is what LPD expects to report to the UCR stats. For comparison, a few years ago Lakeland had a dozen homicides and more than 40 shootings.

In a city of more than 100,000 people, 2017’s tiny level of violence is good news at anytime. But considering the state of the Lakeland Police Department and the gang-related violence of just a few years ago, this is an extraordinary civic accomplishment. Accomplishing that reduction without chronically alienating the communities served is the holy grail of policing. We should be studying what has happened in Lakeland.

At the worst moments of LPD scandal and violence circa 2013-14, Lenore Devore and I were on the same side as “watchdogs” of LPD. So was former Editorial Page editor Glenn Marston; but he got fired later because he wasn’t “conservative” enough.

When I was writing for Lakeland Local in those days, it was with the faint but real hope that we’d have a department to be proud of one day and a great reduction in violence. That was always the purpose of my watchdogging, which, admittedly, was fierce.

Low and behold, that’s precisely what we’ve gotten. It’s a great civic accomplishment. All of Lakeland can claim it. But much of the credit goes to LPD Chief Larry Giddens, who would get most of the blame if it was otherwise. Indeed, as a career LPD officer, Larry was very much on the other side of the watchdogging The Ledger and I were doing a few years ago. I wouldn’t have hired him when he was hired. Time has proven me wrong on that judgment. And I’m happy, thrilled to acknowledge it. That’s because my watchdogging was always about a purpose, not a person.

Ignoring defining stories, emphasizing petty ones

The transformation of LPD and the radical reduction of violence in the last three years is the defining story of our city. The city’s newspaper should celebrate it and study it and explain it. The Ledger should be proud of the watchdogging role that helped lead to this point. As an important institution, it affected another important institution’s behavior positively.

However, The Ledger’s institutional behavior since the LPD began to turn itself around suggests its purpose became about something other than reducing crime and having an agency to be proud of. And because Lenore was in charge of coverage decisions and direction in this time, it’s hard to argue with the widely held perception that she has a strange personal animus toward Larry Giddens, specifically, and toward LPD, generally.

Lenore’s Ledger has largely ignored any real analysis of the crime reduction storyline. And LPD — and Giddens individually — has been subjected periodically to the sort of petty, fake scrutiny you see in the story about the School District’s HR complaints.

I could probably go back and itemize them; but there’s been a number of big headline LPD “scandal” stories that didn’t report scandals at all. In one case, Lenore even got caught doing something she accused Larry Giddens and Phillip Walker of doing. I don’t even remember exactly the substance because the substance was so petty. I think it was that Phillip called Larry directly from an accident scene because he was in a hurry. I wrote a blog post about it that I can’t find now. But I think Lenore called some cop she knew during some issue because she was in a hurry. In both cases, it was nothing. Neither was worth reporting.

The payoff of watchdogging is better community life

Not long after he got the job, right after I had blasted him and LPD publicly for the handling of a murder on my street, Larry Giddens sought me out to talk. He thought it was important for him, as a police chief, to engage critics and watchdogs productively. I have tremendous respect for that.

Larry and I have been talking regularly ever since. We don’t agree on all aspects of policing and prohibition, which I’m sure surprises no one. But we listen to each other. And now that I also represent a public institution, this ability to have frank and open conversations with a law enforcement leader makes me a better School Board member.

This is the civic payoff of watchdogging.

And I fully expect The Ledger — or anyone else — to watchdog me or Larry or anybody at all times. I can’t set the terms of that watchdogging; but I can tell you that it ought to have a purpose. It should seek to make civic/community life better. I see no indication Lenore believes that. Indeed, I happen to know from multiple sources that Giddens has made multiple, good faith efforts to do the same kind of reach out to her that he did with me to find common ground for a productive sphere of engagement. And he’s gotten nowhere.

This isn’t good for The Ledger either

I’m a proud former reporter and editor for The Ledger. I want it to survive and thrive as a vital community institution. I respect its reporters and key on-the-ground staff very much. And I know how difficult it is for serious journalists to operate in the fraught modern newspaper business model.

Reporters and teachers really have much to recognize in each other’s experiences and organizational challenges. So I try to make reporters’ lives and jobs easier. I try to be a transparent and hyper-accessible public figure. I answer questions and return calls and give quotes reliably. And I’m willing to take a hit publicly if I screw up.

Indeed, in many ways, I’m writing this as much for the reporters forced to carry out Lenore’s strange and petty vendettas as I am for probationary teachers who are on the receiving end of it. This type of institutional behavior isn’t good for any institution. And I’m tired of teachers, reporters, and police officers in my community trying to do the right thing — imperfectly — and then suffering for Lenore’s abuses of her own fragile power.

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