It's not always easy, this newspaper column thing. Aside from facing a deadline and coming up with 1,500 or so words to entertain and enlighten each week, one has to hope that an old piece from weeks or years gone by doesn't come back to bite you in the posterior. A case in point was what happened a couple weeks ago.
The wife called me to say, "Boy, they're really slamming you in the e-mail."
Generally speaking, being chastised by readers is a good thing in the newspaper business. The sentiment is, love me or hate me as long as you read me. The strange thing was that I wrote about Hurricane Katrina, most specifically about one former Western New Yorker's narrow escape from New Orleans just hours before the cataclysmic storm slammed into the Louisiana shoreline. Hardly the type of column to elicit ire in readers. I said something to that effect to my better half.
"No, it isn't that column that they're raking you for, it's the one you wrote about Robert Rhodes and Zhao Yan," she informed me.
Suddenly everything became crystal clear.
In the Aug. 3, 2004 edition of this newspaper, I penned a column entitled, "An open letter and invitation to Zhao Yan." The column came on the heels of charges that Ms. Zhao made in which she alleged that border security officer Rhodes beat her at the Rainbow Bridge when he mistook her for a drug trafficker. In the piece, I offered a public apology to Ms. Zhao and highlighted the stories of a handful of residents of Niagara Falls who had gone out of their way to help their fellow man. In the piece, I also offered to take Ms. Zhao to dinner when she returned to Niagara Falls to meet some of the wonderful people from our fair city.
A federal court jury acquitted Rhodes of all charges. Many readers felt that the jury's verdict was cause enough that I owed Rhodes an apology along with a public retraction of my words from the August 2004 column.
Retired law enforcement officer Edward Magnuson wrote: "One year ago in your article "Open Letter and Invitation to Zhao Yan" you apologized for the actions of Customs Border Protection Agent Robert Rhodes, which you classified as excessive, and offered to take her out to dinner when she returned from China. You made it clear that although you understood that Rhodes was entitled to a trial you believed her version of the facts as published in the many newspapers of China, a country known world wide for its violations of human rights, and gave examples of the fine people in the Niagara area who she could meet. But you were not alone in your feelings; Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge also apologized to the government of China for the incident at the Rainbow Bridge. However both apologies were made only a few days after the incident and before all the facts and evidence were made known. For whatever reasons, political or social, the two of you jumped the gun in condemning agent Rhodes and acted prematurely at best."
Magnuson closed his missive with these words: "I hope you enjoyed your meal with Zhao Yan whose testimony under oath was obviously not deemed credible by the jurors from Niagara."
Even more critical of my column was Steve Reszka of Williamsville. Reszka, who described himself as a former reporter, wrote: "Now that a jury, which heard almost three weeks of testimony on this case, has acquitted Mr. Rhodes, you owe him an apology. The jury's verdict supported Mr. Rhodes' claim that he was doing his job as he was trained to do and if Zhao Yan didn't resist, none of this would have happened. Three doctors testified, two of which were called by the prosecution, that the injuries she sustained weren't as bad as she claimed."
Reszka saved his best shot for last: "Columnists like you, who (play) fast and loose with facts and descriptions should be taught a lesson in real journalism."
I've always lived by the credo that I'd rather be right than be consistent, so I decided to revisit the column and take a close look at what was actually written.
Most of the e-mail writers from the past week seemed to have the biggest problem with the opening paragraph of my column. In it I stated: "First and foremost, let me say to you the words that you need to hear the most: I'm sorry. I'm sorry that a U.S. Customs agent at the Rainbow Bridge beat you so horrifically on the night of July 21. I'm sorry that the beating happened in a city, Niagara Falls, that I love from the deepest depths of my heart. And, most of all, I'm sorry that the travesty that befell you has caused you to lose respect for America as a whole."
They are words that I stand by still. Neither Rhodes nor his attorney ever denied that he scuffled with and subdued Ms. Zhao. Their contention, supported by the jury, was that he stayed within border security protocol because Ms. Zhao resisted and struck out at him when he attempted to detain her. Fair enough, but that still doesn't mean that one shouldn't be sorry that an unarmed 90-odd pound woman was left looking like she went 12 rounds with Baby Joe Mesi. Sympathy and culpability need not be joined at the hip.
I'm most confident in standing by those words because of what I wrote next in the original column: "In America, we believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The agent that you say beat you, Robert Rhodes, has claimed his innocence. While I will not deny Mr. Rhodes his assumption of innocence, nor his right to a fair trial, I will go so far as to believe your contention that you were attacked with much force and aggression."
Again, the trial spotlighted the fact that Rhodes did indeed use much force and aggression in subduing Ms. Zhao. If the jury felt that force and aggression to be justified, then so be it. Most importantly, Rhodes received what I stated that I would not deny him -- a fair trial.
I concluded the column by saying, "You have asked the world to believe your words concerning the character of one person residing and employed in Niagara Falls. I'm asking you to believe mine on all the rest."
When detached from the original context of adequately summarizing the examples of humanitarianism profiled in the column, my words serve as an illustration of just what the Robert Rhodes/Zhao Yan story was all about in August of 2004. It was about an accusation and one person's words against those of another -- nothing more and nothing less.
Despite the charges levied by Magnuson and Reszka, I do not feel that what I wrote necessitates an apology to Robert Rhodes, but I'll offer something else to him instead. I offer congratulations and wishes for reinstatement to his position guarding our nation's borders.
One of the things that I believe most strongly in is America's judicial system. Although sometimes flawed, it is the best such system for dispensing justice in the world and deserves to be respected and honored at all times.
After the O.J. Simpson trial, Ted Koppel did one of his town meetings on "Nightline." One of the guests was an African-American young man who was a former gang leader turned youth counselor. His comments were the most salient spoken during the entire program. I'm paraphrasing here, but what he said in earnest was, "When the Rodney King verdict was handed down and the riots broke out, white people were saying, 'Hey, you have to respect the judicial system.' When the jury came back and said, 'Not guilty,' for O.J., the same people were screaming, 'The judicial system is broke and needs fixing.' Well, which way is it, people?"
He was right; we can't have it both ways. The judicial system must be respected and I respect the fact that Robert Rhodes was found not guilty. I hope that his life, along with that of Ms. Zhao, can go back to normal.
Ms. Zhao never took me up on my offer to a dinner in Niagara Falls. Maybe someday, long after the memory of this trial and that of her upcoming civil trial, fades to a distant memory, she will reconsider and accept my offer. It is an offer that I'd like to amend.
Rather than have the folks I mentioned in last year's column be our dining companions, I'd like to invite Robert Rhodes to join us. Maybe that dinner could be the first step in putting this unfortunate incident behind us.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Sept. 20 2005|