TV reporter: "I don't know how to make it up to Coach Hoffner and his family."
Minnesota State head football coach Todd Hoffner was cleared of child pornography charges relating to videos he made of his children. Hoffner, along with wife Melodee and lawyers held a press conference in Mankato to discuss the dropping of all charges. Todd Hoffner spoke to the media as his wife Melodee Hoffner, right, looked on. In background is lawyer Gerald Maschka.
Within a week of first reporting the accusations leveled against Todd Hoffner, Minnesota State University-Mankato's head football coach, doubt spread throughout our newsroom about whether the video clips found on Hoffner's cellphone of his three kids were typical goofy family moments or child pornography. Based on the descriptions in the criminal complaint, we were leaning toward the former. Those doubts grew stronger and stronger as the weeks went along, to the point where the case was expected to be thrown out.
But whenever someone bashed the decision by the Blue Earth County Attorney's Office to prosecute the case, the same thought kept popping into my head: What if a college football coach was found to have videos of naked children fondling themselves on his cellphone, and no one was doing anything about it? What if that fact was leaked to the press? What would be the reaction toward the university, toward law enforcement, toward the courts?
With Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky then awaiting sentencing on 45 counts of sexual abuse toward minors, I know exactly what the media would have done -- destroyed them. I can hear it now. How can they be so careless? Have they learned nothing? Another sex abuse coach cover-up? Who's to blame in the latest college football child sex scandal?
Despite the Star Tribune's recent editorial ("Mankato porn case lacked common sense," Dec. 5) lambasting County Attorney Ross Arneson (Assistant County Attorney Mike Hanson handled the case), I know the paper would have joined them. I know this, oddly enough, from yet another Star Tribune editorial. On Nov 7, 2011, rightfully condemning the authorities who didn't end Sandusky's terrible deeds once they became aware, the paper wrote, "To look the other way, to pretend that all of this might not have happened ... this is fantasy of the worst sort."
Tell me those words wouldn't force you to pass along naked children exposing themselves on an adult's cellphone.
The multitude of individuals and institutions who thought there was at least a chance that something about those video clips wasn't right appears to have been lost: from the MSU worker who first discovered them, to the IT supervisor, to university officials, to Mankato police, who passed it along to the sheriff's office, who took it to the county attorney. Every step of the way there was somebody who at a bare minimum was unsure whether those cellphone videos were child pornography. People I've worked with, who I know to be competent, all thinking something wasn't right, or at least doubting that what they saw was innocent fun.
Perhaps a grand jury should have been called, and perhaps that would have been the end. Or maybe that grand jury would have done what everyone before them had done and bring back an indictment. Todd Hoffner would have to go through all of this anyway.
I don't know how to avoid similar media frenzies in the future, or even if avoiding them is possible. I don't know how to make it up to Coach Hoffner and his family. But with all this doubt, I think it's a good idea to revisit Justice Potter Stewart's famous line on pornography. To paraphrase: I shall not attempt to define pornography, but I know it when I see it.
I can easily define the phrase "20/20 hindsight." And I definitely know it when I see it.
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Ryan Gustafson is a reporter with KEYC-TV in Mankato.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.