Geoffrey Woehlk (copy)

Geoffrey Woehlk

Earlier this month, Nodaway County prosecutor Robert Rice took to Facebook to decry “hate journalism,” a phrase he attached to a story by KCTV's Emily Sinovic about women at Northwest Missouri State University who say they were sexually assaulted by the same man. You can read more context about Northwest's response to one of those complaints in the news section of the paper.

Ostensibly, Mr. Rice wrote the post to add what he felt were relevant details he thought had not been adequately addressed in KCTV's story.

This time, Mr. Rice, who by all accounts — including my own — is a studious, conscientious and committed prosecutor, missed the mark badly in what amounted to an effort to erode trust in community journalists. 

Unfortunately, it turns out a lot of commenters saw the word “hate” in “hate journalism” as redundant, and it’s not at all clear whether Mr. Rice disagrees. Amid calls for prosecuting journalists and enacting censorship laws, others were proud to say they don’t believe much of what they hear, read or see (really just any of the senses are suspect when it comes to journalists) in the news anymore.

Mr. Rice used his post to reiterate what he told Ms. Sinovic: that there wasn't enough evidence to charge the suspect in the cases.

Although the university reportedly was convinced enough by at least one woman's account to bar the accused student from the institution, the “more likely than not” standard used by the school's Title IX panel is a far cry from the “beyond a reasonable doubt” line Mr. Rice would need a jury to cross. It's really not hard for a reasonable person to agree that Mr. Rice had very little to bring to a jury.

But Mr. Rice passed up the chance for an important conversation about those challenges in favor of attacking the credibility of both the reporter and the student at the center of KCTV's story, a Northwest freshman who went by her first name, Faithe. It is truly perplexing why a man of Mr. Rice's usual character would decide hate and mudslinging was the wisest way to go about this.

Especially because after reviewing the public documents of the investigations provided by Mr. Rice's office, it's clear that his criticisms of Faithe are dubious at best.

First, Mr. Rice said that Faithe had changed her story. “There was no evidence to prove which account Faithe provided was accurate,” he said.

It is true that Faithe went to police a few days after the incident to add to her statement. But nothing in her second statement contradicted the first, and Mr. Rice failed to mention that the second statement was nearly identical to what Faithe wrote in a request for a restraining order she filed shortly after speaking with police the first time. Here, you can judge for yourself. Excerpted from the first statement Faithe gave to police on Sept. 23:

He told me to lay down. When (my roommate) and I were both in bed he kept going back and forth between us and kissing us. ... I asked "Why are you kissing me?" he answered "Because I like you." I then told him that I didn't know him that well, so I didn't want to do anything. He tried touching me, but I told him no. He stopped touching me, but he kept kissing me.

Excerpted from the petition for a protection order filed on Sept. 23, obtained through an open records request by KCTV and provided to The Forum:

He came into my room helped me into my bed, forcibly kissed me and bit my lip, put his hand on my waist, slid it down to my jeans, I pushed him away and told him no. He started to forcibly kiss me again, I once again pushed him off and told him no. He then forcibly kisses me again and grabbed my breast forcefully. He also grabbed my throat and squeezed to the point where I couldn't breathe but not hard enough to leave marks/bruises. he also started to give me a hickey, I then asked "Why me?" and he responded with "because I like you." I told him not to touch me again. He then left the room.

Excerpted from the second statement Faithe gave to police a few days later:

(He) was in my dorm room and he started to kiss me in a forceful way. He then grabbed my waist and grabbed my breasts. After that he grabbed my waist again and slid his hand down to the waistline of my jeans. I had nudged/shoved him away and told him no. After I told him no he sat me up on my bed to face him. Then he started kissing me again. So I once again told him no that's when he grabbed me by the throat to the point that I had trouble breathing, but not enough to have marks/bruises.

Second, he said “there was no explanation why she did not tell her friends or call the police when the male student (left Faithe's room with her friend).”

Well, Faithe did call her friend because, as she said, she “got this weird feeling. So I talked to (the friend) on the phone to see if she was OK.” The friend said so too, and so did the suspect.

To be fair, maybe Mr. Rice was critiquing what Faithe said during that conversation. It does beg the question, though: why not ask her these questions?

In fact, why bring it up at all in a Facebook post? Surely his decision not to prosecute that case had nothing to do with what Faithe said in a phone call. Whom is this helping?

Mr. Rice's post is not terribly concerning on its own. He can say what he wants, he can believe what he wants and he can dislike whomever he wants. But as a public official, when he sparks baseless outrage against a journalist and doesn't see fit to explain to the crowd that gathers if there's any distinction between what he took issue with and any other type of journalism he might find acceptable, there is very little ambiguity about where he stands. 

“I specifically referenced Emily Sinovic and KCTV5 in my opinion,” he said in response to my email asking him if he had anything to clarify or add about his stance on journalists. “I stand by my opinion.”

That was the entirety of his response.

Near the end of his post, Mr. Rice said, “irresponsible journalism such as this only goes to dissuades[sic] sexual assault victims from coming forward with what happened to them. It gives them the false belief that what happened to them does not matter just so the journalist can get ratings, attention, or other personal benefit."

In an effort to tell the whole story, I asked Ms. Sinvoic, too, if she had any response to Mr. Rice's post.

Ms. Sinovic said she'd let the facts speak for themselves, and politely declined to comment for fear that it would distract from the victims' stories.

I agree with Mr. Rice that there is a disturbing atmosphere that encourages certain deafening silences.

Luckily, the facts do speak for themselves. And you can find them on your local TV station or in your local newspaper.

Geoffrey Woehlk is a reporter at The Maryville Forum.