What is news worth printing?
“The high-minded man must care more for the truth than for what people think.” — Aristotle, philosopher (384-322 BCE)
The honeymoon period is over at Courier Publications and VillageSoup.
As we get ready to enter our third year back in business, the love fest is definitely subsided and the marriage between newspaper and reader is being tested.
In the last several months we have written some stories that involved local business people, personal acquaintances and advertisers. There have been complaints that these stories are not “news” and that we are hurting reputations and impeding, if not ruining, lives.
In each situation, I have reread the story and determined the reporting was fair and accurate. In all cases, the facts were stated, the other side was asked to comment when appropriate, and no bias was evident to me.
They were “news” stories because they involved people of our community who were prominent and well-known, or were public figures. All came about from police reports or court-filed suits. If we did not report on these stories, our news pages would be filled with just fires and car wrecks. So, unless the mission changes (do our readers think it should?), the news will continue to be defined by these parameters.
The common denominator in all this is that the detractors have all wanted to protect their family, friends or business brothers and sisters.
In the end, I trust readers can make their own decisions if we present the facts of the lawsuit or police complaint, and ask the accused for their side at some point in the process. If there is bias in the story, or something missing, I think those are legitimate complaints to lodge, and we will investigate.
There should never be bias, but often there is information missing. Often the accused don’t want to tell their stories; they want it to “go away,” so the other side isn’t always represented because they don’t get back to us, or they say a simple “no comment,” or “I deny the allegations."
It’s not only about truth, it can be about embarrassment, partial truth or just privacy, which annoys and disturbs those who don’t think these stories are balanced.
This takes us back to the philosophical question: what is the purpose of sharing news with the public? As I see it, the purpose is to give an unbiased and researched accounting of the facts and opinions that surround the situation. In social media, and in “around the town” gossip, these principles are often non-existent. Instead, half-truths and secondhand accounts rule the day. Not so with the newspaper of record; they are counted on to present the news and let you, the reader, decide.
Before I was custodian of this paper, I was a competitor. During that time a news story was written about me in The Courier-Gazette, so I can understand the sentiment that says, “This is personal. Let the courts decide. Why does everyone need to know my business?”
In my case, I owned a commercial building and my ex-tenant was suing me for $361,000. His claim is that he was illegally evicted and that I ruined his business. I was asked to comment, and I did, telling my side of the story.
My side was pretty simple: the tenant was 9 months in arrears when the eviction took place, owing me $27,000, so I legally evicted him. With the assistance of the sheriff’s office, at the appropriate time, we locked down all the property in the building and the sheriff escorted the tenant and all his workers off the property. We immediately changed the locks to protect the property.
The tenant had 10 days earlier received legal notice to move his company. He didn’t do it.
My research during the process of eviction included calls to his last two landlords. The calls confirmed that this person was a chronic deadbeat who had a history of not paying landlords or vendors. Normally the landlord would pass them along to the next sucker because the eviction process is not for the faint-hearted, as you are still responsible to store all of their stuff, and the process itself is a nightmare and expensive.
Three days before this man was to be evicted, he came to me and tried to give me $300 cash with the promise of another $500 cash at the end of the week, and the further promise that he had a new place to go and he would move during the next weekend.
My attorney told me that if I accepted any money, it would in effect negate the eviction process (which of course the tenant knew), so I said, “No, you need to be out Wednesday at 5 p.m. as your eviction notice states." I knew that not accepting the money was the morally right thing to do, even though it was not at all pragmatic.
In the end, after his eviction, it took about three months to resolve this. During that time, his stuff stayed in my building, and I could not rent it. After he was allowed to remove his belongings, he followed with a lawsuit against me for the $361,000, stating that I purposefully put him out of business.
Of course the newspaper didn’t follow the case after the initial reporting, nor did they ever report on the verdict. I like to tell people he did get a six-figure judgment (it was $000,000), and of course my $27,000 countersuit win meant nothing as you can’t collect blood from a stone. Nor could I recoup the lost rent while storing his belongings or the $10,000 in legal fees it took to evict him and defend myself before my insurance company entered the picture.
I suppose when I gave my side to the newspaper article, there were some who believed the tenant was the victim because, after all, why would they sue if there wasn’t some smoke here? (I’ll tell you why: they had an attorney, who was on contingency, who thought they could settle it quickly because I wouldn’t want my name in the paper and the legal fees were going to be higher than the settlement).
I will say I didn’t take it personally when the newspaper decided this was “news," even though I thought it was a civil suit and between me and my opponent. I am probably a little more sympathetic with the newspapers’ job now than I was then, but I still see where it is a judgment call that falls on the very loose definition of who is a public figure.
None of these stories being questioned were easy “black-and-white” scenarios, so I do understand the conflict between privacy and the public’s right to know. I also understand why friends and family get upset.
I will say with confidence, these stories were consistent with our policies and non-biased. At the end of the day, we need to hang our hats on that and move forward.
Turn the Page. Peace out, Reade
Reade Brower can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.