Tuesday, December 5, 2023

News site appears to have trampled journalism ethics in reporting Bubba Copeland case, and CEO's criminal past apparently makes him ineligible to possess a gun

Bryan Dawson, as an inmate (left) and as CEO

1819 News, the right-wing news site with a history of ties to the Alabama Policy Institute (API) conservative think tank apparently violated multiple provisions of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) code of ethics in its reporting that led to the suicide of small-town Alabama mayor Fred "Bubba Copeland..

Kenneth Bryan Dawson, the site's CEO and publisher who signed off on stories about Copeland's cross-dressing fetish and interest in publishing works of erotic fiction -- leading a distraught Copeland to take his own life with a gun -- apparently has violated federal and state laws that prohibit a convicted felon of owning or possessing a firearm.

Those are key revelations from a report today by Jeff Martin at The Montgomery Independent. Under the headline "1819 Gave Him A Public Lashing And Then Handed Him A Rope," Martin writes:

I’m of the opinion that reporting by 1819 News, a conservative online news outlet, contributed to the death of Smiths Station Mayor and Baptist preacher Bubba Copeland. Copeland committed suicide one month ago after being outed by the internet site as an occasional cross dresser in the privacy of his own home and an amateur erotic novelist. 1819 News, over several days, published multiple stories and photographs about Mr. Copeland’s private life with complete disregard to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ's) code of ethics.

Copeland, who by most accounts, was beloved by his community and his church, left behind a wife, three children, and many friends. Shortly after his death, it was determined that there was no evidence indicating he had ever committed any criminal violations.

What is 1819 News? A right-wing internet news site that first appeared on the political scene two years ago and was created by the Alabama Policy Institute (API), a conservative think tank. Last year, API turned 1819 News over to a man named Kenneth Bryan Dawson.

“It became clear years ago that our state needed an independent news organization operated by people with Alabama values,” former API President and CEO Caleb Crosby said in a press release at the beginning of this year. “When we met Bryan, API knew he was the person to make this idea a reality. Since then, it has taken a tremendous amount of work to get 1819 News to where it is today, ready to stand on its own feet, independent of API’s ownership. We couldn’t be more excited for 1819 News and the positive impact we know it will continue to have on Alabama.”

Given that 1819 News' methods for reporting the Copeland story have not been made fully public, it's hard to say precisely how the site violated the code of ethics But here are some provisions that might have been violated or ignored: 

(1)  Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources. (Donald Watkins, Alabama attorney and online investigative journalist, has reported that 1819's reporting was based on a tip from an unidentified law-enforcement source.)

(2) Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.(See Donald Watkins link referenced in No. 1 above.)

(3) Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant. (Watkins has reported that Dawson went after Copeland because he found his cross-dressing repugnant and believed Copeland should be subject to severe and public "church discipline" because Dawson found it offensive to his own strident, Old Testament view of religion.)

(4) Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting. (This is self-explanatory because 1819 clearly stereotyped Bubba Copeland, finding that he deserved o be treated as "undesirable.")

Jeff Martin, like many around Alabama, and the country, was caught off guard by revelations about Dawson's history as a hardened criminal, prone to violence, revenge, white supremacy, and drug-trafficking mayhem. Interestingly, the Alabama Policy Institute now is in the position of trying to distance itself from Bryan Dawson and his ugly past. Writes Martin:

1819 News simply would not be here without the Alabama Policy Institute,” 1819 News President and CEO Bryan Dawson said. “I am grateful for their trust and guidance as we worked to get 1819 News off the ground. True independence was always part of the plan, and I am excited that we are at the point where 1819 News can operate unaided. This formal separation demonstrates the commitment of both API and 1819 News to providing Alabama with a genuinely independent news organization. I could not be more proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and I am confident the best is yet to come– for 1819 News, the Alabama Policy Institute, and our great state.”

After Mr. Copeland’s suicide, API quickly distanced itself from 1819 News, issuing a press release that it has had no “legal, editorial or financial affiliation” with the website since the end of last year.

Who is Bryan Dawson? I had never heard of him and was curious. Curious about this person who appeared from nowhere to become a major player on the Alabama political scene. I say ‘political’ and not journalism, because make no mistake about it, 1819 News exists to push specific conservative candidates and political messaging.

It doesn’t appear that Dawson had any journalistic experience prior to him taking the reins of 1819 News. And imagine my surprise when I learned Dawson, age 39, was a violent ex-felon who served a decade in the Colorado prison system.

Originally Dawson said he faced more than 300 years behind bars for crimes including attempted murder, aggravated robbery and extortion before a plea deal reduced that time. He was ultimately incarcerated for witness retaliation, first degree aggravated motor vehicle theft, possession of a class 2 controlled substance, and theft by receiving.

That leads to more revelations about Dawson's conduct. Writes Martin:

To be fair, Dawson owns up to his past and has publicly spoken about it. The only trouble he has encountered since his 2012 release was a ticket issued a few years ago for hunting over a baited field in Elmore County. This caught my attention because, as a convicted felon, I assumed Dawson was not allowed to ever own or possess a firearm.

Yet, according to his social media, Dawson is an avid hunter. I ran across a Facebook post of him posing with a large deer he apparently killed from a shooting blind last hunting season. He has also mentioned his passion for hunting on his podcast.

I also discovered Dawson is registered to vote in Alabama, something else I didn’t think someone convicted of a crime of moral turpitude could have restored. But I’m not a lawyer and for all I know Dawson managed to get those rights back when he moved to Alabama after completing his sentence.

The website of attorney Joseph Ingram (Birmingham, AL) shines light on the gun rights of a convicted felon, such as Dawson, in Alabama. From the Ingram site:

Both federal and Alabama gun laws prohibit certain people from possessing firearms. The federal criminal code applies to people who have been indicted for, or convicted of, any state or federal crime that carries a penalty of more than 1 year in prison. . . . 

Those covered by this law may not possess a firearm or even ammunition that’s crossed state lines to get to them. . . . 

Drug addicts and “habitual drunkards” are also subject to this law prohibiting firearm possession.

Bryan Dawson appears to fit into the category of an individual who cannot lawfully possess a firearm in Alabama. And yet, he appears to make a hobby of hunting -- with guns. Writes Jeff Martin:

I also discovered Dawson is registered to vote in Alabama, something else I didn’t think someone convicted of a crime of moral turpitude could have restored. But I’m not a lawyer and for all I know Dawson managed to get those rights back when he moved to Alabama after completing his sentence.

The conservative ethos of the 1819 News readers, typically characterized by a stringent adherence to the rule of law, might find it hard to believe that someone with such a criminal past could vote or bear arms in Alabama, not to mention be the one who provides them their daily news. As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3. Perhaps it’s time for 1819 News to look at the plank in their own eye.

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