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Editors have a complex and thankless job. They determine what gets shared with the public, and what doesn’t, including what aligns with professional practices and when ethical or legal standards are crossed. Good journalists continually are pushing editors to those boundaries, because that’s where the most interesting stories exist.
As with sports referees, though, most people really only notice editors when something contentious happens, and they are looking for someone to blame. The Billy Kenoi story has been one of those pushing the journalistic edge, and Civil Beat recently tested the bounds for some readers by publishing a video of the Hawaii mayor at a conference party, giving a salty toast.
Here is a quick recap: Kenoi, the mayor of the Big Island, is facing criminal charges – including allegations of theft, tampering with government records and making a false statement under oath – related to his alleged misuse of a county credit card. Some of those misuses were described as involving “exorbitant amounts of alcohol.”
So the spotlight already was on Kenoi when Civil Beat’s Chad Blair reported that the mayor traveled to a neighboring island recently to attend the annual Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials Conference at the swanky Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa on the Poipu side. After the breakout sessions ended on the first day, many of those public officials gathered in a hotel hospitality suite for a reception. At this party, Kenoi used a mashing of profanities and pidgin to toast the mayor of Kauai.
The Hawaii Tribune-Herald’s John Burnett reported that Hawaii Land Use Commission member Jonathan Likeke Scheuer posted the video on Facebook, with the hashtag #imuabillykenoi. (Scheuer declined to return a call about this.) At about the same time, Civil Beat obtained the same video and published the story about it. All of this is fine from a legal perspective.
Some readers, though, have said that this publishing act wasn’t fair to Kenoi, since he had his guard down and might have assumed privacy at the setting. Editors have to make these kinds of tough calls regularly, but the Kenoi video has some aspects that make it a fascinating case. So here are the key issues, as I see them.
Since no one seems to be debating whether Kenoi performed this toast, the central concern is whether he was acting in a public or private capacity. The event appears to be one of those troubling hybrid situations in which public officials are drawn into semi-private soirees, given gifts and luxuries by companies hoping to woo their support on various causes.
In these cases, because of the potential for corruption, even a sliver of public investment in an event dictates that it should be fully open to public scrutiny. (You are paying some of the bills and for these people to be there, so you should have some oversight.) I’m surprised that more of the outrage about this story isn’t focused on public planning officials attending an event and being lavished with gifts by corporate sponsors such as D.R. Horton Hawaii, Alexander & Baldwin and R.M. Towill Corp., which clearly have something to gain from pandering to this particular crowd. But back to the toast.
This video was not shot in Kenoi’s home, at his friend’s backyard picnic or even in a corner of the conference hotel.
Even in public settings, we still have some privacy protections. But if this is a public event, which I will argue it is, then what is the expectation of privacy? My assumption is that these public officials were traveling on public dollars, meaning taxpayers are covering the costs. Even if that is not the case, though, they are traveling in official capacities, representing particular positions in the government and speaking on behalf of those constituents that they represent. The Grand Hyatt owns the property, but it leased its space for the public gathering of public officials. So, in other words, no matter who paid each particular bill or who owned the land where it happened, this should be considered a public event.
The reception was a part of the conference package, paid for by organizers of the event, according to Kauai County spokesperson Sarah Blane. She added that the reception was not a private party, as it was open to all conference attendees, and conference sponsors also provided some of the food and drink, including alcoholic beverages.
Kenoi clearly identified himself in the video as the mayor of Hawaii, meaning he was signaling to the group that he no longer was speaking only as Billy, the citizen, but as Billy Kenoi, Hawaii’s mayor. With all of those factors combined, Kenoi should have had zero expectation of privacy.
I also do not see any legal or ethical issue with the video being recorded, because of the public nature and public spectacle of the event. This video was not shot in Kenoi’s home, at his friend’s backyard picnic or even in a corner of the conference hotel. It was recorded in the middle of a social gathering of public employees, acting in official capacities, representing their stakeholders, connected to the conference package and, again, Kenoi made his toast by first identifying himself as the mayor. Even if it was recorded surreptitiously, this activity should be considered part of the public dialogue (and any potentially related legal restrictions would not extend to the publisher anyway).
Maybe a bigger question, then, is was this particular video worthy of publication? It basically just showed Kenoi acting like a fool, not a criminal. Some people have been moralizing about this case, but I recommend really thinking carefully about what he did here. He said a few profanities. He acted like an idiot. His friends shushed him, and then he shut up. He didn’t hurt anybody. He tried to give praise to others. He didn’t do a particularly good job of expressing himself.
Depending on what you think about his behavior, you might not let that affect your opinion of him. In short, this video shows him acting like a buffoon, but it doesn’t show him doing something significantly harmful to people other than himself.
Journalism, as a professional practice, has specific and well-established factors to consider, which help to determine whether a story is newsworthy or not.
I teach those to my students through a TOPICAL acronym:
Generally speaking, more TOPICAL factors involved means a more newsworthy story. When these factors are accounted for, though, a journalist (and editor) must weigh them. This is not a simple exercise. For example, Kenoi also could register some of those factors when he goes to the grocery store. Yes, it was timely that he just bought a jug of milk; yes, he is proximate and prominent, etc.
So what really determines this story as news (or not) is how odd or unusual an editor perceives it to be that a mayor was cursing and slurring a toast at a public event, combined with the mayor’s recent legal struggles, involving large alcohol purchases.
Without the legal issues, I think the argument would be very difficult to make that one drunken toast is newsworthy. With the legal issues, though, they raise questions about his competency as a public leader and the potential interference alcohol might have in the execution of his duties. Rob Ford, former mayor of Toronto, provided an example of how a story like this can develop and evolve through such incremental reportage.
If you are waiting for the answer to the question of should it have been published, I will ask you back: What do you think? Reporters and editors are individual people making individual decisions; there is no “mass media” agenda. Different editors would handle this in different ways. This decision started in the hands of the journalist, Blair, who received the video, pursued it and did his job by reporting on it and bringing it to the editors.
While conversations with the editors probably happened along the way, the journalist in such a situation can’t really know if the story is there or not until the reporting is complete. The editors, then, have to make the tough calls about whether it should be published.
Before criticizing an editor for letting a story like this surface, though, I also think you might want to consider what you want out of your news sources. Would you rather have this story appear and then be given a chance to talk about it and have this vigorous debate and even dismiss it? Or would you rather never have known this incident existed in the first place?
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.