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Watchdog Institute responds

December 17, 2009 - 1:49 am

If you’ve been following our reporting about the Nov. 29 Watchdog Institute/Union-Tribune story, we finally got a response from Watchdog Institute editor Lorie Hearn. If you’re coming to this late, give this a read. After the statement, I’ll address the points Hearn brings up.

In our story examining Jessica’s Law, we took a literal interpretation of the law and stated that only the California Department of Corrections was enforcing it. We understand CityBeat writer Kelly Davis disagrees with that premise and we respect her right to voice that opinion.  However, we will not be issuing a correction because we do not believe one is warranted.

We responded to her first blog on Nov. 30, essentially agreeing to disagree with her about how the law is interpreted until the state Supreme Court rules.

Now that CityBeat has editorialized about the caliber and accuracy of The Watchdog Institute’s work, we feel we need to set the record straight regarding errors Kelly Davis has used to bolster her argument.

Davis wrote a story, published Dec. 9, saying our Nov. 29 report on issues surrounding Jessica’s Law was not true. She quoted Gordon Hinkle, a spokesman at the Department of Corrections, saying he planned to request a correction. She later stated he did, in fact, ask for the correction.

However, when we contacted Mr. Hinkle after we saw the story on Dec. 9, he said Davis misused his quote. His statement was not in response to a question about the premise of the story but rather a statistic in the story, which he described as a “minor” discrepancy. We used a state Sex Offender Management Board report to say about 15 percent of registered sex offenders are on parole. Hinkle said it’s closer to 11 percent or 12 percent.

Davis also has claimed in her reports that we never spoke with anyone from the state Corrections Department for our story. In fact, we spoke with three people from that department, including Hinkle, as part of our research.

We ask that CityBeat correct the errors on its Web site and in its printed publication.

Lorie Hearn
Executive Director
The Watchdog Institute

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way:

1.) I never said that Watchdog reporters didn’t speak with anyone at the Corrections Department. What I wrote was: “There’s no indication in the story that Watchdog reporters contacted CDCR.” That’s accurate: no one from CDCR was quoted in the story and there’s no mention that reporters talked to anyone from the department. Typically, in big investigative stories, you want to let readers know that you covered all your bases and talked to all the key players.

2.) That I misused Gordon Hinkle’s quote is news to me. I have e-mails from Hinkle confirming that the Watchdog story made two inaccurate claims: that 70 percent of San Diego County sex offenders are violating Jessica’s Law and that CDCR attorneys are arguing that Jessica’s Law should apply to all registered sex offenders. We never discussed the statistic Hearn mentions; it simply did not come up. He contacted me on Saturday to let me know that he’d contacted the Watchdog Institute “on the differences the Department had with their November article.” Hinkle read my Dec. 9 story—and we’ve communicated since then—and he’s never said a word about being misquoted. But, just to make sure, I’ve contacted him with Hearn’s comments.

Now the big one: “we took a literal interpretation of the law”

Wow. Since when are journalists allowed to interpret the law? Shouldn’t that be left up to lawmakers, law enforcement and the courts? Let’s take a look at everyone whose interpretation of Jessica’s Law contradicts Hearn’s:

* Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
* Attorney General Jerry Brown
* Legislators George and Sharon Runner (authors of Jessica’s Law)
* California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
* Four federal judges who’ve ruled on Jessica’s Law’s residency restrictions
* Local law enforcement

There’s a very important provision of California Penal Code that states that no law is retroactive unless expressly stated. Nothing in Jessica’s Law expressly says that it’s retroactive. In an earlier post, I provided an example, taken from a Jessica’s Law court ruling, of what a clear statement of retroactivity looks like (“shall have retroactive application”). Jessica’s Law doesn’t contain that kind of language.

My editor, David Rolland, responded to Hearn’s e-mail:


We’ll certainly correct any factual errors, if indeed we made them. But Kelly said “there’s no indication in the story” that reporters contacted CDCR.

More importantly, though, I think you still misunderstand what your story got wrong. You say you interpreted the law literally. I’m not sure what gives a journalism organization the right to interpret laws in such a way that is inconsistent with the California Penal Code. First of all, no one is enforcing the law the way you interpret it. And, no one is arguing before the court that the law should be enforced the way you interpreted it. This is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact. The governor, the attorney general, CDCR and the legislators who authored the law all say it should be enforced prospectively. CDCR’s argument is that it applies to parolees who were released after the law was passed. Please, tell me what you base your interpretation on. Is it just the language of the law? If so, that’s irresponsible, but not quite as irresponsible as your sensational lede, which wasn’t even supported by the rest of the story.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2009 - 6:10 am 6:10 am

    I think what we’re seeing is that the Watchdog, it’s editor and reporters simply don’t understand what they got wrong in the story — which I’ve been saying is the problem from the beginning. They tried to cover material in a sensational “investigative” story that that they’ve not taken the time to really comprehend.

    To dig in their heels, in light of mounting authorities that say the entire premise of the story is wrong, says a lot.

    I’d also like to see the report Hearn says they used. Who wrote it? Why were it’s numbers wrong? Is that report out and out cited in the story? What’s the date on the report?

  2. December 17, 2009 - 8:17 am 8:17 am

    They weren’t clear in their story so they pick apart Davis’ looking for anything that will let them say, “A-ha! We’re not the only ones!”

    That, or a case of psychological projection on Watchdog’s part, denying their own trait while denouncing it in others.

  3. December 17, 2009 - 8:27 am 8:27 am

    “We finally got a response” is needlessly peevish. Lorie’s was the first comment on your first item on this issue.

    • December 17, 2009 - 8:41 am 8:41 am

      Way to contribute to the dialogue, Ricky. I would not have expected anything less from an editor of your caliber and expertise. Your insight is enlightening.

    • December 17, 2009 - 9:21 am 9:21 am


      What Lorie responded to was my initial criticism of the story, before I’d had a chance to run it past CDCR, the AG’s office, parole, etc. If you look at my Dec. 15 blog post, I sent Lorie an e-mail detailing everything that was wrong with the article. She never directly responded.

      It bums me out that someone in your position is defending such shoddy reporting. Seriously.

  4. December 17, 2009 - 8:30 am 8:30 am

    he spirit of the Copley Press era lives on at the Watch dog institute: never let a few facts get in the way of your mission to scare the public.

  5. Steven J permalink
    December 17, 2009 - 10:47 am 10:47 am

    Kudos to Citybeat on this issue. I have followed via Twitter and it has kept me engaged and curious how the UT/ WDI would respond. Those of us who are often the focus of the media, including the UT, can appreciate that they are also put under the lens for critique too! Keep it up!

  6. Ursula permalink
    December 17, 2009 - 12:37 pm 12:37 pm

    Keep up the good work Dave & Kelly!

  7. roberto permalink
    December 18, 2009 - 10:14 am 10:14 am

    Some “Watchdog.” I mean, they got their VERY FIRST STORY totally wrong! OUCH, that’s not a good omen…. Why not just ‘fess up and say “we misinterpreted the law?”

  8. Hmmmm permalink
    December 18, 2009 - 1:24 pm 1:24 pm

    Well I might suggest that readers go read this ( in which the author of the Jessica’s law doesn’t make any distinction between offenders pre and post passage. (From the article posted on 12/15 – “Everyone knows that Jessica’s Law requires paroled sex offenders to wear GPS and live at least 2,000 feet from schools. “). Now while I understand the fun of beating up the U.T – and the story could have been clearer – I think the point that they were making that many registered sex offenders live close than 2000 feet from schools is an important addition to the dialogue. WHY that is the case is also an important addition, one in which City Beat has been far better in unpacking than the watchdog. What NEITHER participant in the food fight has focused on is whether it is sustainable. Assuming the same rate of sex offenses in the future and thus a greater percentage of parolees over time subject to the restriction, where will these people live? What communities neighborhoods are “open” to them? Is that good for them, society, recidivism, etc? Aren’t those the important questions to spend time on rather than complaining about jouralistic accuracy and parsing sentances for their implied meaning?

  9. December 18, 2009 - 1:40 pm 1:40 pm

    Hmmmm: The key word is “paroled.” If you’re a sex offender on parole, you’re under CDCR jurisdiction. Currently, all sex offenders under CDCR jurisdiction are in compliance, according to CDCR. See this statement from Runner after the February 2007 court ruling: Or, here’s an excerpt:

    “We are pleased with Judge Karlton’s decision today. The decision allows us to continue to move forward on implementing Prop 83 and apply the new residency restrictions to sex offenders as they are being released from prison,” said Senator Runner.

    As for your other points, I did a pretty extensive story on the impact of residency restrictions and the truth about recidivism rates last year:

    Not sure what’s so wrong about fighting for journalistic accuracy.

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