The op-ed feature in the Times-Standard called “My Word” perhaps should be renamed. Something like “I’m-signing-my-name-to-this-but-I-didn’t-exactly-write-it.”
I’m referring to a July 22 “My Word” signed by seven former Eureka City Council members and one former mayor. The eight expressed support for City Manager Dave Tyson. He has the right and the duty to hire and fire people like the chief of police, they wrote. It’s his job. Furthermore, current council member Linda Atkins, now in a distinct minority of one on the City Council since the last election, has been saying some provocative things in the press lately, such as, “I waste time Tuesday nights at City Council meetings with the way members of our council don’t listen to their citizenry” (Time-Standard).
The eight My Word signers warned that if Atkins keeps up this line of rhetoric, she’s going to have a tough time getting anything done these next two years. It’s their opinion. You may agree with them.
They then went further to illustrate their frustration with Atkins, using a recent Journal article to make their point. That part of their piece contained a significant omission and an apparent error that should have been corrected.
The omission? They basically said that the North Coast Journal’s reporting came up short on journalistic standards. We printed a statement by Atkins critical of City Manager David Tyson and, the “My Word” suggests, went no further. Our journalistic integrity is in question. Except, it’s not true. It was not a one-source story. We gave Atkins her say, and then we called Tyson and gave him the opportunity to counter her, point by point. We printed his response in that same article. We may have been remiss on occasion in the past, but this time we got it right. Two sources, on deadline; perfectly adequate deadline journalism.
The apparent error? Well, it was funny actually. “Benjamin Bradlee, former managing editor (sic) of the Washington Post, insisted his reporters always fact check with at least two independent sources before printing any hearsay or personal opinions.” (My italics.) I’ve never heard that, and can’t find any documentation that Bradlee ever said it. What he did say, frequently, was to take extra caution when using anonymous sources and be sure to have at least two. I think the writers may have been referring to that. Trouble is, there was no anonymous source in the Journal story. Atkins spoke, Tyson countered.
And here’s the even funnier thing. The column went on to imply that really good journalism means calling each person Atkins talked about and asking them why they left city jobs and how they felt about Tyson. But of course, that would be much too shallow. An off-deadline piece about Tyson would involve talking to many more people about his management style, his personality, what works in his office and what doesn’t work. It wouldn’t have stopped at four people, some of whom continue to use Tyson as a job reference and so might be reluctant to talk publicly about any of his weaknesses as well as his strengths.
I’ve been reporting locally for 30 years. I know some of the signers of the My Word Piece and I know them generally to be independent thinkers. So I got on the phone and tried to call every one of them to ask who wrote or drafted the My Word piece, and did they know it contained an omission and an error?
Former Mayor Nancy Flemming declined to answer directly: “We were all in general agreement on the emotions expressed. Each and every person had input. It was a collaboration.”
Former Council member Jeff Leonard: “I didn’t write it. There were several revisions. … Maybe [the Journal reference] was in a later draft I didn’t see. Mike [Jones] brought it to me to support Dave Tyson. I said, you bet I’ll sign it. … I wish I had paid more attention.”
Former Council member Cherie Arkley: “Welcome to my world of being misquoted! No, I did not write that. I wanted to support it. The thrust was to say that this woman [Atkins] does not do her homework. We’re not saying Dave Tyson is perfect. We’re saying she is so imperfect. … This is not about the Journal.”
I tried unsuccessfully to reach Mary Beth Wolford, Polly Endert and Connie Miller, all former council members, over several days. I did reach Mike Jones who told me, “We’re tired of Mr. Tyson getting thrown under the bus. We’re tired of the media printing things with no basis.” (We asked, did you write the piece?) “No comment.” (Did you circulate the draft?) “No comment.” (Where did the Bradlee reference come from?) “No comment.”
Finally, on Tuesday, I got my answer via email from Virginia Bass.
“I take responsibility for the discussion and the inclusion of this portion of the article [both Journal and Bradlee references]. … Matthew (referring to her husband, Matthew Owen) suggested the inclusion of the comment by Benjamin Bradlee and Mike [Jones] and I thought it was appropriate.”
So the source was none of the eight signers. And one more funny thing? I had spoken with Matthew Owen well before the “My Word” piece appeared. I reminded him the Atkins' quote was followed by Tyson's rebuttal. I told him I was not familiar with his quote by Ben Bradlee. A week later, both pieces of misinformation appeared in print after I had told him that they were neither fair nor accurate.