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Shop talk: Now that the trial is over

As soon as Laurie Mendiola filed her sexual harassment suit against former principal and boss Tony Helms, part of me started hoping for an out-of-court settlement.

Adultery. Affairs. A child born out of wedlock. If this case went to trial, a lot of dirty linen was going to be flapping in the breeze on the public square, and no one would come out of this feeling clean.

But there was no settlement. And as intimate as the details of the ensuing trial seemed, they became the public’s business because the defendants included a public employee — a trusted principal, at one time — and the public school system educating more than 20,000 Rowan County children. People could avoid reading about it, if they wanted to. But we had an obligation to report it.

So as all the sordid details came to light, we heard from people who didn’t think we should cover this trial at all. And we talked to people who wanted to read every word of testimony and asked for more.

I can take criticism as long as I know we’re doing the right thing. But readers’ trust and confidence are priceless, so I have to consider how the Post is perceived by the public even when our intentions are good. Perceptions count, and I didn’t want readers to see signs that we might be exploiting this trial to sell papers.

A settlement would have bypassed that danger altogether. But, to be honest, if the parties had settled without a trial, the Post would be the first to complain that the public deserved to know more.

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Judge Kimberly Taylor initially gave the Post permission to photograph the trial, but that changed. The attorneys apparently protested to the judge in her chambers. So, much to his surprise, photographer Wayne Hinshaw found himself escorted out of the courtroom by a polite Jeff Barger, clerk of court.

North Carolina law allows cameras in the courtroom as long as the presiding judge gives permission, and the judge’s power is absolute — no reasoning or explanation is require. So we couldn’t photograph the court action.

What’s a photographer to do? Wayne waited outside the courtroom to take photos of the key players as they walked out of the courtroom during a break.

If he’d been allowed to stay in the courtroom, Wayne would have come back with photos of witnesses on the stand, the judge on the bench and the plaintiff and defendant sitting at tables with their attorneys — pretty tame stuff.

Instead, Wayne had to stand his ground in the hallway, unwelcome, and get pictures of Mendiola’s attorney waving him away as Mendiola looked tiredly into the camera. Helms was no happier to see the photographer. We’d already published Helms’ picture several times, a mug shot we had from his principal days. But this was our first and perhaps only chance to get a photo of Mendiola, and we felt fairness required that we show readers what she looked like, too.

So we used those photos. After that, artist Mark Brincefield provided courtroom sketches for us during the rest of the trial.

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One day in the midst of all this, Post readers did not find the daily health column by Dr. Peter Gott in the paper. The reason we gave was that it did not seem appropriate for our readership.

Naturally, that made people curious, and one reader put the question to me pointedly: With all the details we’d published about Helms’ and Mendiola’s sex lives from the trial, what on earth could Dr. Gott write about that would be worse?

The column was about erectile dysfunction, which Bob Dole made an acceptable subject with his commercials for Viagra oh so many years ago. Unfortunately, though, this column described the problem in greater detail than usual, much more than seemed appropriate for our newspaper.

Where is that invisible line between informing the public and telling them more than they want to know — more than it seems like anyone should have a right to know?

The line lies in different places for different people. But we tried to use some restraint during the trial and not publish testimony that seemed overly graphic and not especially pertinent to the trial’s outcome.

If what we printed was still too much for some readers, they could turn the page and read something else. But I suspect these trial stories were the best-read articles we’ve published for a while.

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After the jury decided against Mendiola, her attorney told our reporter that he was disappointed in the verdict and in our newspaper. “We think your newspaper is extremely one-sided,” said attorney B. Ervin Brown.

That’s one perception we won’t worry about. The Post didn’t present his client’s case to the jury; he did. And once that effort failed, he lashed out at us. That’s almost standard operating procedures for lawyers who lose high-profile cases.

Even the lawyers who won this case can’t feel totally victorious. It was a lose-lose situation. Very little that the plaintiff’s side presented cast Mendiola in a positive light; the jury developed no empathy for this supposedly wronged woman. But in the process of proving he was not at fault in a legal sense, Helms had to publicly confess to violated policies, poor judgment and infidelity. The jury may have ruled in his favor, but Tony Helms lost a lot in this trial. And he brought it on himself.

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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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