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Regardless of what the court decides about Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi, local media practices also have been under cross examination during the past two weeks of his criminal trial, and journalists have been degraded in this process.
Kenoi’s shenanigans led a grand jury to indict him on several charges in March, making Kenoi only the second Hawaii mayor to face criminal charges while in office, after Frank Fasi beat bribery allegations in the late 1970s. The ensuing criminal trial, expected to conclude in the next few days, has included testimony from two local journalists, Nancy Cook Lauer, a county and government reporter for West Hawaii Today, and Kevin Dayton, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Capitol bureau chief.
Lauer is the dogged reporter who uncovered Kenoi’s questionable use of a county credit card, including charging taxpayers for the $900 he spent in one day at a Honolulu “hostess” bar (although, inexplicably, that charge is not a part of the current trial).
Dayton is a local journalist who took a job working for Kenoi at Hawaii County. He had the title of executive director for the mayor, a high-level position that included special projects, media relations and legislative affairs. He’s now back in journalism as the Star-Advertiser’s State Capitol bureau chief.
His emergence as a participant in this story (his going-away lunch was one of Kenoi’s controversial charges) raises many new issues about accepted (and acceptable) journalistic practices in Hawaii.
Dayton is another example of a local journalist who left the profession to pursue work in government, politics or public relations and then returned (twice), his credibility tainted by the special interest he went to work for. Earlier this year, Nestor Garcia exemplified concerns about this kind of back-and-forth between journalism and politics when – after breaking records for his ethical violations as a politician – he was hired by KHON as an assignment editor and asked to help mentor young journalists.
Dayton, as a journalist, is entrusted to be aggressively skeptical and questioning of government officials and spokespeople. As a government spokesperson, he was employed to cajole, appease and sway journalists. Kind of like in one of those old westerns, this actor switched from the white cowboy hat to a black one and then back again.
In his trial testimony, and in discussions afterward, Dayton revealed his perspectives about his government roles that seem contradictory to his professed journalistic convictions. He acknowledged, for example, actively lobbying Hawaii journalists and editors to be less aggressive with Kenoi, even before the credit card issue arose.
He also criticized journalists – from the witness stand – about having what seemed like ill will toward Kenoi while acknowledging his general fondness for the mayor. Dayton said he “always liked the mayor,” including when he was a working journalist covering Kenoi, and he considers Kenoi “a good friend.”
Former county finance director Nancy Crawford testified that Dayton was involved in the redaction process that obscured some of Kenoi’s credit-card charges from being viewed through public records’ requests. That dualism raises significant questions about his current role as the Star-Advertiser’s Capitol bureau chief, in charge of covering the governor and the Legislature for Hawaii’s largest media organization.
Dayton said in a phone interview that he fully has switched hats and become devoted to journalism again. He said he has an agreement with the newspaper that he would never cover a story directly about Kenoi. But he rejected the idea that he now has inherent conflicts of interest with Kenoi’s cronies (or their associates) or people he originally developed working relationships with as part of Kenoi’s staff.
Or how about critics of Kenoi, such as state Attorney General Doug Chin, who brought these criminal charges against Dayton’s former boss and “good friend”? Dayton said his government experience has made him a “more perceptive” government reporter, not a conflicted one.
You can watch clips of Dayton’s and Crawford’s testimony here (especially poignant are the segments on Oct. 19, around the 16-minute and 36-minute marks). In short, Dayton stated that during the early years of Kenoi’s administration, daily newspaper reporters in Hawaii were “very aggressive,” “extremely aggressive” and “harsh,” and he had the “impression,” without stating any evidence, that the journalists and editors “disliked the mayor.”
On the witness stand, Dayton also talked about the journalistic Code of Ethics, which has as a primary tenet that journalists act independently. He acknowledged having not looked at the code “in a while” but testified about it anyway, including saying that the code had adapted away from the concept of objectivity and migrated toward the idea of fairness.
Nancy Cook Lauer, who broke the Kenoi story, found she could no longer cover the story after testifying about her coverage.
Dayton said by phone he should be judged on the content of his work, not his background. But when asked about all of the decisions a journalist makes that don’t appear in the end product – like what stories to pursue or not pursue, who to interview and not to interview, what questions to ask or not ask, etc. – he deferred to his testimony and published work.
“I believe I’m a good journalist. I work hard at my craft,” he said. “I try to operate with integrity, and I always have. I hope that comes through in the work that I do.”
Lauer said she originally agreed to testify in this case – and not to fight the subpoena – only because she thought all of the questions would be about the process she undertook to get access to public records. Once she agreed to testify, though, she learned from her attorney that she could no longer cover the Kenoi story, which strategically for the Kenoi defense, took the primary journalist off the case.
In the criminal trial, defense attorney Todd Eddins also tried to discredit Lauer and questioned her motivations for pursuing the Kenoi story in the first place, linking her with the “extremely aggressive” assertions made by Dayton in his testimony. Lauer said by phone that she took personal offense to that line of inquiry and what it represented about the watchdog role of journalists in terms of public affairs.
Maybe subscribers to the Star-Advertiser now should be asking their own series of probing questions, to try to get to the root of this perceived conflict.
Is Dayton’s loyalty to the ideology of journalism or to Kenoi? If the former, then why wasn’t this key witness interviewed in depth about this story by his current employer, a bastion of journalism in the community?
Is the Star-Advertiser’s coverage of the Kenoi story, or Kenoi in general, or Kenoi’s associates, shaped by Dayton’s presence in the newsroom? If no, how can we be sure of that?
And, finally, what other significant public issues about Kenoi and his associates does Dayton know but isn’t sharing with us?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.