Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Nattering nabobs

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Oh, puhleeze.

That's about the only conceivable response to the Eureka Reporter's hyperventilating editorial last Saturday, in which reporter John Driscoll and his employer, the Times-Standard, are made to stand in the dock while charges of unethical conduct are read out against them.

To recap, briefly: Driscoll had been covering the Pacific Lumber bankruptcy case, which is currently being staged at a federal courthouse in Corpus Christi, Texas. Members of the public can listen to the proceedings by telephone, through a paid service that costs around $25 per hour. A group of citizens, including activist Mark Lovelace, a Palco critic, had signed up for the service and had been listening along. When the case reached a critical turn, they invited Driscoll to join them. He did, and he covered the proceedings for his paper.

The Reporter says that the fact that the call was paid for by someone else - anyone else - "calls into question [Driscoll's] entire history of reporting on Palco-related issues." This fact, the Reporteralleges, was a galling breach of professional ethical standards. Well, the Reporter is wrong, and I'll get to that. But first I'd like to take the paper's argument against Driscoll to its logical conclusion.

There's about a million clich├ęd phrases to describe the mess that the Reporter has stepped into, here. You can take your pick between glass houses, pots and kettles, geese and ganders, beams in eyes, protesting too much. The fact is, simply, that the paycheck of everyone under the Reporter's roof comes from the account of a man who has a standing lawsuit against county government; who has vowed to see certain county employees fired; who has contributed generously to innumerable local, state and national political campaigns; whose wife served as a member of City Council, and ran for mayor; whose proposed Marina Center project for the Eureka waterfront is the most controversial development to come along since Wal-Mart was booted out of town in 1999. Et cetera.

If there's one thing that the recently leaked Eureka Reporter circulation audit made clear, it's that the paper is nothing close to a healthy, self-sustaining business. Its editorial-to-advertising content ratio, a key metric in the health of any newspaper, stands at 70:30, which in the real world is absolute death. Even leaving aside the fancy paper and the free delivery, owner Rob Arkley is pouring money into the paper to keep it afloat. Lots of money. So what was that you were saying about avoiding, at all costs, any "conflicts of interest - real or perceived"? If that's the Eureka Reporter's credo, there's nothing for it except for everyone in the building to quit their jobs. Or to stop reporting the news. A tagline affixed to every other story stating the paper's ownership can't cut mustard as thick as this. A tagline isn't a magic wand.

Here's the tragedy: The Reporter has embraced the kind of slipshod argument that its own critics have used against it. The paper's reporters quite often do fine, important work, but just try and tell that to the many for whom Arkley's name is the beginning and end of the discussion. I can testify that Reporter people are well aware of such plugged-ear critiques, and that it can sometimes drive them batty, understandably so. But the paper's own editorial board now apparently endorses this kind of reasoning. And if it's a horrid breach of ethics for John Driscoll to tag along on a phone call, then it's a horrid breach of ethics 10,000 times over to rely on the largesse of one of the region's top movers and shakers just to keep the lights on.

Take it in the other direction. Inviting Driscoll to listen along cost Lovelace's group nothing. The Reporter still considers it a conflict of interest, real or perceived. Well, then, imagine you are at a press conference. Someone gives you a photocopied press release, which you will use in your reporting. You are therefore in receipt of a non-monetary donation, the value of which is in the neighborhood of 10 cents per page. Do you dig in your pocket for change? Do you disclose the value of the donation in the story? A lawyer hands you a copy of her 30-page legal brief. Do you shun it? Or have you been bought off? The Reporter's stance is wide open to reductio ad absurdum.Andthe Driscoll Affair is already solidly on the absurd side.

There's a good reason for journalism to have a code of ethics, and in particular a code of ethics that addresses financial relations between reporters and sources. Some time ago, the profession decided, wisely, that it would be a good idea to stamp out graft - the placement or spin of stories in exchange for cash. That's why most all reporters, myself included, will not allow sources to buy us even a cup of coffee. The coffee is for my gullet; it profits me and me alone. But I will take the press release or the legal brief, which probably costs more than the cup of coffee, because it profits myself and my paper not at all, except in that it may provide our readers with valuable information. It's called reporting. That's what Driscoll has done here - and admirably well, as usual.

If you still think that his work has somehow been compromised, though, here's something else for you to consider. I've been covering the Palco bankruptcy, too. I've tuned in to the conference call three times. The first two times, I did what Driscoll did: I listened in with someone who would have been listening in anyway (not Lovelace's group, in my case). I would have done so the third time as well, but it was deadline day and I had to be in the office, so I busted out the credit card. In other words, I freely admit that if Driscoll is guilty I am guilty, too. And I can't promise that I won't sin again.

Now, in my reporting, I hope I have detailed the various scams and shams and sneaky ploys that the conscienceless Maxxam Corp., Palco's corporate parent, has undertaken in Corpus Christi. Indeed, that has been my main aim. But I also reported how District Attorney Paul Gallegos - golden boy of the local left, sworn enemy of Charles Hurwitz- just about ruined one court session through his inept telephone skills (Feb. 22). And I called out Gallegos' comrade, Dr. Ken Miller, for some particularly boneheaded statements addressed to Palco workers a couple of weeks ago (March 1).

So who corrupted me, do you think - the Maxxam people or the anti-Maxxam people? If it takes you more than a couple of seconds to hazard a guess, you're already out of the game. And as anyone will tell you, John Driscoll is much more fair than I.

Hey, radio fans! Go grab a red pencil and cross out every remaining Thursday evening on your 2007 calendar. Cancel your social engagements. Find a babysitter. Buy new batteries. Because as of this evening (March 15), yours truly is teaming up with the mighty KHUM (104.3 FM most places, 104.7 FM in others) to bring you "The Humboldt Review," an hour-long current affairs chat show that'll air Thursdays at 6 p.m.

Produced by John Matthews, Lost Coast Communications' resident mad genius, "The Humboldt Review" will feature lots of smart people discussing and debating the issues of the day. There'll be a call-in segment. We'll take e-mails. It'll be fast-paced and relentlessly on-topic. It'll be streamed live on the Internet and podcast on iTunes. It's got a beat-heavy theme song with a funky groove. It's going to be a blast.

This week, we'll be talking about the Humboldt State University budget crisis, among other things. Next week: Who knows?

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