June 5, 2023
Sometimes, I tell my students, it’s important just to let the facts speak.
To illustrate that point, I tell them about a story I once reported.
Years ago, a former Indiana public school superintendent was murdered. He had moved to Florida, where he headed up another school system.
A disenchanted former teacher in that Florida school system came into the superintendent’s office one day. The former teacher shot the superintendent as the superintendent rose from his desk to shake hands.
The former teacher emptied the gun into the superintendent. Then, standing over the already dead superintendent’s body, the teacher reloaded the gun and fired five more shots into the corpse, before killing himself.
The lesson here, I tell my students, is that sometimes the facts speak more powerfully than any storytelling technique can.
If we just recount what happened, we don’t need to tell the audience that the former teacher was really, really angry.
The facts tell the story.
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita hauled Dr. Caitlin Bernard in front of the state medical license board not long ago.
Rokita did so, he said, to hold Bernard accountable for violating patient confidentiality laws and thus endangering a little girl’s life. That little girl was a 10-year-old from Ohio who came to Bernard to have an abortion. The child had been raped and, following the Dobbs decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court removed constitutional protections for abortion, her home state had adopted draconian restrictions regarding the termination of pregnancies.
Even when a child had been raped.
A reporter from The Indianapolis Star asked Bernard about the abortion. The doctor confirmed the basics—that the case involved a 10-year-old girl from Ohio who had been raped and was a little more than six weeks pregnant—and nothing else. Not a single piece of information in that list is considered a violation of patient privacy laws.
Nonetheless, Rokita’s legal team—more on that in a moment—argued that Bernard violated the law by revealing that much information.
The attorney general’s lawyers persuaded the medical license board, which voted, 5-1, that the doctor had violated patient privacy laws. The board determined that Bernard should pay a $3,000 fine and have a letter of reprimand put in her file.
During the medical board hearing, lawyers from the attorney general’s staff were joined by Christopher Bartolomucci from Shaerr Jaffe, a Washington, D.C., law firm Rokita has brought on to help him in his fight with Bernard.
Marilyn Odendahl of The Indiana Citizen did a story on Rokita’s decision to include Shaerr Jaffe as part of the legal team aligned against the doctor. One of the details in Odendahl’s story is that Shaerr Jaffe charges an across-the-board $400 hourly rate for the firm’s services. (Disclosure: The Indiana Citizen and TheStatehouseFile.com have a partnership.)
The medical license board hearing began at 9 a.m. and continued until almost midnight. That’s about 15 hours.
Bartolomucci was there the whole time.
That means Todd Rokita spent about $6,000 on paying the D.C. lawyer just to attend and argue at the hearing. This does not include any preparation Bartolomucci did before he traveled to Indiana or the costs of his airfare, lodging or meals.
Nor does it include the time the two lawyers, including at least one heavyweight, from the attorney general’s office who argued at the hearing and the other Rokita staff attorneys who were in attendance and provided support at the hearing.
That’s one set of facts.
To make their case, Rokita’s legal team revealed the same pieces of information that Bernard had. The attorney general’s lawyers did so repeatedly, even though there were reporters, microphones and cameras from news organizations across the country there.
In other words, the attorney general had his legal team do exactly what he accused Dr. Bernard of doing—only in front of a much larger audience than a single newspaper could provide.
If I were using this as a teaching moment, I would ask the students:
If we show the audience that Indiana’s attorney general spent thousands and thousands of dollars more than the state stands to collect from the $3,000 fine imposed on the doctor and revealed all same information Bernard did, only in front of a much bigger crowd, do we really need to say that Todd Rokita has lost perspective on this whole matter?
Or is it better just to let the facts tell the story?
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College.