Obfuscation 101

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Most of my regular readers likely read the Daily Press as well, and, therefore, most of you know about the elevator shooting story I wrote for Friday’s edition. This post, however, is some background behind the story. In light of the recent controversy surrounding WNMU and the Chamber of Commerce, I thought it might be educational for you to know what I go through when writing about WNMU.

I first heard about the incident on Wednesday, when I was in Rejuvenation with three friends, one of whom is a student at WNMU. I received a phone call from somebody who told me that a campus police officer had become trapped in an elevator and had reportedly fired his weapon in response. The student quickly confirmed that he had heard of the incident as well.

I spoke with my editor, and was green-lighted to begin looking into it. I traveled to WNMU to speak with university public information officer Julie Morales. Before I had finished asking my question, she handed me the following written statement:

“The incident is under investigation. Because of legal considerations and privacy concerns, the university has no further comment.”

Until this point, I had no official confirmation that anything had happened. Now, however, Morales has confirmed the incident had occurred, but wouldn’t discuss the details.

On Thursday, I attempted to contact Morales by phone, to try and glean more information from her about the shooting. She offered to transfer me to the president’s office, where I spoke with Carmen Maynes, executive assistant to President John Counts. I asked if she could give me more information, and she said she could not because of the investigation. I also asked when the investigation might be completed — she replied that she did not know. Being an investigation, this was reasonable.

I also placed a call to campus police chief Debbie Martinez, to inquire about obtaining a copy of the incident report. She said I would be required to file an information request with the president’s office, but said there wasn’t any paperwork yet. Martinez then said Maynes was handling the investigation.

This line of answers generated new questions. Why was Maynes conducting the investigation? Where students present at the time of the incident? What, exactly, was so concerning about the situation that the university was clamping down so hard?

On Friday, I attempted to contact Morales again. I spoke with her and informed her that I knew she would likely be unable to respond to my questions. I just wanted to ask the questions and give the university a chance to respond, because it has been suggested in the past that we did not afford them that opportunity.

Morales said that she could not answer any additional questions, and that the only thing she was authorized to provide was the written statement. So, printed the questions I had planned to ask, and faxed them to the public information office, requesting a reply by 11:00 a.m. At 9:46 I received the written statement. Prior to the deadline (which is our deadline for publication on Fridays), Morales called and said she had sent a revised statement, which I received at 10:52:

“We have received your questions regarding the discharge of a firearm on campus. No one was injured. The investigation concerns a personnel matter. Due to privacy concerns, we do not discuss personnel matters.”

The story was then published.

First Floor ElevatorSecond Floor Elevator
(click to enlarge)
So, now that you know what happened during the latter half of last week, I hope you’ll stick around for some observations. First and foremost: I never asked for the name of the officer involved, because it simply was not necessary at the time.

Second: while speaking with my mother this morning (I’m a good boy) I remarked to her that I did not believe, after working as a journalist in Silver City for almost three years, that I could be surprised by WNMU, until this incident. That the school would not even say on what day the shooting reportedly occurred speaks volumes of the lengths to which the administration will go to keep a lid on things.

Two bullet holes were in plain sight in the newest building on campus, and even students knew what was happening. But when an institution begins to prevent information from becoming public, the public questions what the institution has to hide. The incident itself is no longer the focus of the story — the cover-up becomes the central theme.

So, that’s what happened. I included the above pictures because I think, visually, they’re very exemplary of what’s happening at WNMU. The first shows the door leading to the elevator on the ground floor, while the next one shows the door leading to the elevator on the second floor. There are inconsistent messages coming from within the school, and some of them are outright false (painting? — the elevator door has two holes in it). All the while, the door is unlocked, and anybody can go inside and see what’s happening.

Salt of the Earth screening in ABQ in two weeks

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This seemed like a good time to post this, considering all the work being done to establish a union at Western New Mexico University:

The seldom seen and controversial independent film, Salt of the Earth, will be screened at Albuquerque’s Guild Cinema on May 1-4, accompanied by panel discussions and more. If you’ve never seen this movie, you’ve missed an important, powerful film. If you have, this is a good chance to see it again in the company of other good people.

Filmed in New Mexico in 1953-54, during the height of Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt, Salt of the Earth is an earthy and factual look at union action in the face of a mining company’s brutal treatment of its Hispanic workers. Rare for its time, the movie takes a pro-feminist tack in highlighting the courage of women on the picket lines. It’s based on actual events at a 1951 miners’ strike against Empire Zinc that took place in Bayard, near Silver City, NM. Many strike participants acted in various roles in the film.

From Democracy for New Mexico.