Alexandria’s Echo Press publishes spin on Lundsten’s toxicology report

Timothy Kincaid

March 9th, 2011

Yesterday television media in Alexandria, MN, followed up on their coverage of the local anti-gay bullying problem. They confirmed the claims of anti-bullying advocates in reporting that toxicology reports reveal that, indeed, Lance Lundsten’s death was due to suicide. This contradicted the position taken by the local newspaper which had been insisting that Lundsten had died due to a medical condition.

As of late afternoon yesterday, the Echo Press had made no mention of the toxicology results. At some point after Box Turtle Bulletin criticized them for their silence on the issue, the following blub appeared on their website:

18-year-old’s death in Miltona determined to be suicide
Toxicology reports indicate that 18-year-old Lance Lundsten of Miltona was a victim of suicide.

Lundsten, a senior at Jefferson High School, died on January 15 at his home.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office investigated the death and initially described it as a medical call/sudden death.

Family members said they were initially told that a preliminary autopsy indicated that Lundsten had cardiac edema, a medical condition caused by an enlarged heart. The family was told it would be six to eight weeks before complete toxicology results could be determined.

Those results are back now and they show “a mixed drug ingestion” led to the death and that the manner of death was suicide, according to Douglas County Medical Examiner Dr. Mark Spanbauer.

Not much there… but the language included – and excluded – is worth noting as an example of a newspaper deliberately seeking to deceive its readers.

The Echo Press carefully strung together a few sentences, each of which may be factual but when taken together tell a false tale. And all of it is designed to cover the butt of publisher Al Edenloff.

First, yes it was a “medical call/sudden death.” This is a pretty broad description and could cover anything.

But the Echo Press included this terminology for a very specific reason: to imply validation for their campaign to deny the true cause of Lundsten’s death. Lookie there, the sheriff used the word “medical” so we’re justified in insisting that the cause of his death was “cardiac edema, a condition caused by an enlarged heart.”

Then Edenloff defends his scolding editorial and incorrect reporting by shifting blame to fourth-party information. “Family members said they were initially told…”

To those who have not followed the drama, this looks to be some little story of the medical examiner discovering that the cause of death wasn’t what he thought after all. To the shock of everyone, this was a suicide. Whoda thunk it?

But what happened is quite something else. A false story was spread to cover the truth behind Lundsten’s death and the motivation appears to be to cover up the community’s entrenched anti-gay bias. And Echo Press was the main culprit in the propagation of this story.

Mr. Edenloff was angered that “anti-bullying groups” were covering the story in ways that reflecting badly on the city and the school. He didn’t like that Senator Al Franken had used the story to highlight the need for anti-bullying legislation.

And I suspect that he may have truly believed his happy fairly tale that swept everything under the rug, caused no reason to question the attitude that Alexandria and Jefferson High have towards gay kids, and implicated no one in the death of a high school student. Or he chose to believe it.

But he was wrong. And rather than admit this and apologize to those whom he chastised and criticized, he’s trying to act as though the reporting and editorializing of the Echo Press was reasonable. It was not.

Oh, it’s possible that Edenloff will run an editorial “explaining” his actions. And while I can hope that some humility may creep in, I suspect it will ignore the story behind the story: that Alexandria’s gay youth are going though torment while its adults blithely traipse along refusing to see or do anything about it.

I doubt that Edenloff will suddenly join those who are calling for protection for students, like Lance, who are bullied at Jefferson High. He has not yet been willing even to acknowledge that Lance was reportedly bullied, or even that he was gay. Perhaps he thinks that this would smear Lance’s reputation.

In January, the Echo Press titled its editorial “Lessons from the death of an 18-year-old” and set out to lecture on what others could learn. But it’s time for Edenloff to look at the situation and see what lessons are there for him.

He would do well to ask himself what, exactly, is the role of a newspaper in today’s instant media society. While newsprint once could serve as community scold and publisher of opinion, that role has now been taken over by blogs and social media.

The real value of newspaper media is that unlike instant media they – at least in theory – publish hard facts. They do background and talk to source and try and see a bigger picture. Newspaper reporting is presumed to be fact-checked and accurate. This is what differentiates them from much of the blogosphere.

But what value is a newspaper that prints known falsehoods rather than facts? If the Echo Press has no more accuracy than the most agenda-driven and biased of bloggers, then it no longer has any value or purpose.

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