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Media on Trial 

Scoring the media's coverage of the Zehm trial

click to enlarge Otto Zehm
  • Otto Zehm

Since March 18, 2006, Spokanites have become familiar with a number of once-unfamiliar names and terms: Otto Zehm, Karl Thompson, lunge, excited delirium.

But recently, another term has become familiar to some people in town: #Zehm.

That’s the Twitter hashtag that local media outlets have been applying to the volume of tweets they’ve produced around the trial of Karl Thompson, who faces charges of violating Zehm’s civil rights by beating and Tasering him at a Zip Trip. Thompson is also accused of lying to investigators about the incident, which led to Zehm’s death.

On Monday, the hashtag brought up a conversation about Zehm’s birthday between reporters and people paying attention to the trial on Twitter. Would he have turned 41 or 42 that day? A few back-and-forths later, it was decided it was his 42nd birthday.

The 140-character limit on Twitter has seemingly become the only impediment to Zehm coverage lately. Not a day passed without a Thompson story in the paper, or without a piece from each of three network broadcasters, save for the weekend.

“I’m not sure the Pacific Northwest has ever had a story that has generated this much sustained media attention,” Benjamin Shors says in an email. Shors is a journalism professor at Washington State University who once wrote for the Spokesman. “I think part of that is driven by the exceptional nature of the events. The guy wanted a Snickers and a soda pop, and instead he dies in police custody. How does that happen in modern America?”

But, Shors continues, one reason the story stayed on the front burner for so long is because we live in modern America.

“I think the online commentary from the public pushed this story in a way that wasn’t possible 15 or 20 years ago,” he says. “The public — or at least a dedicated group of online commentators — tracked each and every development in this case.”

The daily barrage of stories and TV reports produced mixed results, as reporters struggled to find new angles.

In one package, KXLY’s Jeff Humphrey gingerly held a baton while discussing the testimony of Robert Bragg, the state’s lead trainer in use-of-force techniques and an expert witness for the prosecution.

Humphrey reported that Thompson had to get special permission to carry his own ironwood baton — which Thompson preferred because it wouldn’t break during a use-of-force encounter — but then added that it “doesn’t make him more aggressive, just a better-equipped police officer.”

Humphrey also did a piece entitled, “Could A Pop Bottle Be Construed As A Weapon?” In this “exclusive,” Humphrey shows a video produced by a Spokane police officer demonstrating how a two-liter pop bottle — “a hefty weapon” in Humphrey’s words — can be used to destroy things.

The officer “had no trouble clobbering a watermelon,” Humphrey noted. “And then decided to up the ante by targeting a pair of coconuts.” They, too, fell victim to the Pepsi.

Katie Utehs, who covered the story for KREM, resurrected old footage from 2006 to help give context to her story.

In one piece, Utehs shows old footage of Britni Brashers, who was 13 at the time and an eyewitness to Zehm’s beating. After the police department’s official version of events came out, Brasher contacted KREM to set the record straight, saying on camera, “This cop runs in out of nowhere and pulls out his nightstick and starts hitting the guy. And the guy tries to jump away and the cop tackles him.”

Utehs’ package ran the day Brashers, now 19, took the stand as an eyewitness for the prosecution.

Utehs’ coverage was notable for giving meaningful background to the trial, but other than her two brief trips to Yakima — where the case was moved — she didn’t cover the trial in-person. The only person who did that was the Spokesman’s Tom Clouse.

“Closing arguments today and yet I remain an army of one in Yakima to start the day,” Clouse tweeted on Monday. And he’ll be there until the verdict comes in. (As of press time, the jury was still deliberating.)

Regardless of what the verdict is, says Shors, it won’t make much of a difference to the opinions of people in the Inland Northwest.

“Whatever the outcome of the trial, I think much of the public, as well as members of the press, have already judged this case,” he says. “The jury’s decision will only reaffirm whatever you already believe — that the system is stacked against the little man, or that the press has unfairly tried and judged an officer.”

For more coverage of the Otto Zehm case, visit Inlander.com/ottozehm

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