Beleaguered Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi has joined the cult of politicians who believe it’s really the media’s fault – for telling the rest of us about it – when they do illegal, unethical and idiotic things.
Kenoi – as a public figure on the public payroll – has become such an embarrassing representative of Hawaii that his general behavior in that role is a legitimate public issue, worthy of news coverage. So, I will comment on two recent incidents that deserve our scrutiny from a media-ethics/law perspective.
Next week, I will address the recent video that surfaced of Kenoi at a party, giving a pidgin- and profanity-peppered toast. So please save your comments on that issue for the next column. This week, though, I want to raise awareness of Kenoi’s legal defense strategy of blaming the media for his troubles.
A quick recap of Kenoi’s case: The mayor decided he wanted a bunch of stuff he apparently couldn’t afford. He happened to have a county purchasing card (similar to a credit card) with no discernible limit and those bills were conveniently covered by taxpayers (you, your family members, your friends, etc.). So, he started spending and spending and spending.
Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that Kenoi is suspected of placing $130,000 in personal expenses on his government purchasing card. In fact the personal expenses appear to have been far less.
He bought booze like a drunken pirate, blowing nearly $900 in one day at a Honolulu hostess bar. You paid for that. He bought a new high-end bike for nearly $2,000. You paid for that, too. He bought a sweet new surfboard for more than $1,000. Who paid for it? You. And so on.
What’s really concerning is that no one in the county government on the Big Island said a word about any of this unauthorized spending. Again – and think really long and deeply about this – not a single person who came across Kenoi’s $900 hostess bar receipt, charged in 2013, raised a question about it. As happens in most of these kinds of cases, a journalist had to discover the information (or get it from a whistleblower) and share it with the public before blatant societal corruption gets addressed.
Kenoi not only was caught with his hands in the hostess bar, he admitted, on camera at a press conference, that he made the personal expenses on the county credit card (but was really, really sorry about that). He said at that same press conference that he offered “no excuses, no justification.” And that he thought as long as he made payments and didn’t “shift that burden” to taxpayers, it would be OK.
But the burden already had been shifted, and since then, he has decided to do nothing but make excuses.
As the Star-Advertiser reported, he and his lawyers recently tried (unsuccessfully) to get his case thrown out of court by saying media coverage had led to him not being able to get a fair shake in front of the grand jury that charged him. Kenoi’s lawyers argued coverage had “routinely focused on scandalous details” and on things he was never charged with.
In other words, “the media” had tainted the grand jury with all of their, um, reporting about his misdeeds.
Blaming the media certainly is not a new strategy for politicians. But it has become a reckless default tactic in recent years by all sorts of people, political or not. When Lance Armstrong was exposed as a cheater in bicycling, who did he blame? When comedian Bill Cosby was accused of drugging and sexually assaulting women, who did he blame? When then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made racist comments about his players and fans, who did he blame? When Uber conducts its business in misogynistic ways, who does it blame? When Catholic priests were molesting children, who did they blame?
Politicians love this sort of billowy smokescreen. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie does it. Late Toronto Mayor Rob Ford did it. Former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin seems to have no other kind of retort. President Barack Obama said media coverage was the reason the public disapproved of his strategies to neutralize the Islamic State group.
Then along comes Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has lowered the ludicrousness of this blame-the-media game to unprecedented depths. Trump despises the media so much that he wallows in it whenever he gets the chance. He is also reportedly considering becoming a part of it by creating his own TV channel.
Even conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, of all people, finally called out Trump and the media-blamers recently, while, of course, blaming the media. Limbaugh did, though, offer this sliver of reflective insight in his rant, noting that blaming the media is a weak strategy, whenever it is used, because it invariably makes the person using it appear small, insecure and shirking responsibility.
Kenoi, for example, had a moment in his credit card tribulations in which he could have faced them directly. In that split-second, he nearly accepted the blame for his actions. People might have actually forgiven him.
Watch his face closely in the press conference video. He seems to be vacillating – in an absurdly comic way – between diversion tactics and accepting the responsibility for what he had done. He truly seems torn, as of two minds, between acknowledging the mistakes in a forthright manner and absorbing the ego blow that represents.
In the end, though, he fell back to the old-saw trope in a familiar blame-the-media refrain. By abstracting “the media” and blaming it, without naming names, he was counting on no one really coming across as at fault, especially him. That position should not stand unchallenged.
So let’s try a different approach to Kenoi’s argument. Let’s insert the name of West Hawaii Today journalist Nancy Cook Lauer, who broke the story on the mayor’s spending, into his critique of the media and try to figure out who exactly is at fault here.
OK, is it really the fault of “the media,” as in Cook Lauer, that Kenoi put personal expenses on the government purchasing card during a six-year period? Did Cook Lauer make any of those questionable charges? Did she influence Kenoi in making those charges? Did she even know those charges were being made until she found out about them years later? So, Kenoi defenders, please explain how in any reasonable way Cook Lauer could be held responsible. She is “the media” in this case.
If she cannot be blamed, then neither can other members of the media who reported the story or “the media” in general. When readers see or hear such claims in the future, I recommend you put a name to “the media” and see if it fits. If not, you know right away the culprit.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at email@example.com.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.