Dr. Harvey Purtz had to bury his son, Chris, last June. Then he tried to bury an unpleasant moment of Chris' past. But a free press and the permanence of stories on the internet have overwhelmed the Fresno podiatrist in a sad debate where principal and compassion clash.
"I was trying to bring freedom of speech to other places," Dr. Purtz told me about serving a tour as a medical adviser to an Iraqi medical division, "and now that freedom is being used against me at home."
He's talking about a 2006 story in UC Berkeley'sDaily Californian about Chris, a former U.C. honor student and football star, who was accused of behaving very badly at a San Francisco strip club. No charges were filed, nor police report made, and the younger Purtz denied the accusations.
But the Daily Cal interviewed club employees and a surveillance camera showed some scuffling. The incident got him suspended from the Bears football team.
Chris' mom met with the Daily Cal staff back then to dissuade them from running a piece about the incident. Her son had a brain disorder, she said, and the press would make things much worse, according to documents in a subsequent suit. The story ran anyway.
"That day, Oct. 12, was the moment I lost my son," Dr. Purtz told me tearily, though Chris' dropping out of U.C., his deterioration and ultimate death in 2010 took four more years. I could find no public record of how he died, but I can gather it was not peacefully. "His mother found him in his apartment alone."
Harvey Purtz sued the current Daily Cal editor, Rajesh Srinivasan, for steadfastly refusing to remove the adult club story link and some accompanying cold-hearted comments from the paper's electronic archive after Chris died. He demanded $7,500 for the family's "emotional distress."
Many journalists and others humbugged about the absurdity of a hapless suit that sought damages for a straightforward news piece from an editor who was a high-school sophomore when the original 2006 story ran. (The paper has an arms-length relationship with U.C. that absolves the University of any liability in these things.)
University of Tampa journalism professor Dan Reimhold wrote, "I'd rather cut off my arm before removing something I consider accurate and newsworthy."
It can get bloody, as well as stuffy, here in the journalism priesthood.
"We are the Berkeley newspaper of record," the 20-year-old Srinivasan told me. "Removing the [Purtz] story would be dishonest to the factual record" and against paper policy of intervening only if a story is "entirely untruthful. It's a very slippery slope if I let compassion come into play," Srinivasan said, though he "felt very bad for Mr. Purtz and his family."
So did the Fresno judge, who said in his decision dismissing the Purtz suit that he was "sympathetic to the pain and suffering endured...by the parents." Harvey Purtz' grief was caught between journalism practice and implacable legal standards.
Srinivasan comes from a town 50 miles from the Purtz home, and Harvey Purtz even tried to contact the editor's father at one point without success.
Here at sfgate.com, editor Vlae Kershner said similar strict rules exist at all Hearst papers for removing stories. And compassion? "That's a tough one," Kershner said. "We've pretty much taken the position that there isn't a lot of it. I have a hard time myself with that sometimes."
I should be a hawk on the rules; I've lobbied hard in Washington for press rights, and am no stranger to suits against the press. But I'm also a human being who's learned that compassion is likewise a bulwark against a punishing and repressive society.
"Journalism ethics aren't black and white," says Tom Rosenstiel of Washington's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "We've removed stories because they were hurtful and no longer relevant. In the Purtz case, which Rosenstiel didn't know, "different people could come to different conclusions. At least if you take it down there should be a placeholder explaining why." Ethics in journalism, by nature, are "situational," he says, because every story is different.
"Compassion is the hardest part of an editor's job description."
Other sites took down the strip club story on request, including Gawker's sports blog, Deadspin, which advertises itself as "sports news without access, fact or discretion." Not entirely without discretion, it seems. Editor A.J. Daulerio said he was "comfortable" removing the Purtz piece "based on the circumstances and the fact that it would have no impact on us whatsoever."
Srinivasan had a different view: "I need to separate my compassions and emotions from what's right."
A noble, reasonable notion. But reading the entries of friends and relatives in Chris Purtz' online memory book, and talking with his occasionally weeping and wounded father, it's clear to me that the factual record of his old nighttime beef in San Francisco is hardly the whole story of this young man's life.
Of course it is the one Google finds first.
If we're going to stand on journalistic principle in refusing to take down stories, we need at least to acknowledge the collateral damage of doing what's right. Sometimes we're standing on other people.
"My regret," Harvey Purtz wrote in his son's memory book, "was that I was unable to heal all the wounds."