How much longer is KHON going to let Nestor Garcia play a journalist on TV?
The former TV reporter-turned-politician raised eyebrows when he was hired by the station last year after nearly 20 years as an elected official. Crossing the line from journalism to politics is generally a deal breaker for a return to a news reporting position, where credibility is everything and reporters need to be free of the appearance of conflict.
KHON appeared to have no problem letting Garcia work on stories that created actual conflicts. In the last year he has been covering the Honolulu City Council, where he served alongside many current members, as well as the Legislature, where he also held a seat.
KHON reporter Nestor Garcia in a 2011 photograph toward the end of his decade-long tenure on the Honolulu City Council.
It apparently didn’t matter to the executives at KHON that in 2012 — two years prior to his return to the news business — the Honolulu Ethics Commission fined him a record $6,500 for failing to disclose conflicts of interest in 52 separate matters that he voted on as a City Council member, neglecting to make public his side employment with the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce. These mostly involved the Honolulu rail project — an issue of profound importance to Kapolei, given that the 20-mile rail line will originate there.
Now Garcia has been fined an additional $8,100 for 72 incidents in which he accepted golf games, free meals and others gifts from lobbyists and failed to disclose them before voting on matters related to those lobbyists, again involving the rail project. An Ethics Commission statement called the fact that it levied a second substantial civil penalty against Garcia “one of the most aggravating circumstances of this case.”
While other news media covered the Ethics Commission’s actions in some detail last week, Garcia’s employer aired a brief story noting that the settlement didn’t carry a finding of guilt and that several other former and current council members are being investigated by the commission, as well.
It announced no disciplinary measures of its own and Garcia apparently continues with his on-air reporting responsibilities, as though the fine was little more than an expensive parking ticket.
KHON’s message? Move along folks, nothing to see here.
But the issue of media ethics is an important one that needs to be taken seriously. Garcia’s behavior reflects badly on journalism at a time when the public is particularly skeptical about the people who they need to be able to trust to report the news without bias.
It’s difficult to imagine another individual carrying as much baggage as Garcia taking up residence in another Hawaii newsroom, or surviving after having anted up on two major rounds of fines over ethical lapses.
News organizations uniformly bar their employees from running for or holding elected or appointed office — and once they do there’s usually no going back. We should be sticklers for disclosing even appearances of interest conflicts, and ethical journalists rarely accept free meals, let alone golf games and gifts, from the people they write about.
Civil Beat journalists, like many others around the country, adhere to the ethics code crafted and routinely updated by the Society of Professional Journalists. It says, in part:
– Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
– Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”
While Garcia is not accused of taking gifts or other freebies as a reporter, the egregious and apparently long-running nature of his violations while serving for a decade as a council member — a tenure that ended only two years ago — raises troubling questions.
Worse, Garcia continues not only to report the news, he often covers activities of the very governmental body where his actions caused the ethics investigations in question — the Honolulu City Council.
If KHON has taken any action regarding Garcia, it has not been noted on newscasts or on the station’s website — the same website that proudly calls attention to Garcia’s time as the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye’s press secretary and his service in the state House and City Council.
It is probably unrealistic to think that a journalist who has shown such little regard for his own professional ethics would do the right thing and resign. The responsibility to oversee him lies with KHON, and every day that the station and its parent company, Media General, allow him to continue in his role without any apparent check or sanction expands the damage to their own credibility.
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