A disgusting and destructive parasite continues to attack innocent people in our community. It slithers deep into the brains of our friends and neighbors. Its effects could be lethal.

Oh, that rat lungworm thing is really gross and concerning, too. But one has to marvel, again – jaw dropped – at KHON’s latest story “discovery” and at the lengths the local station went to cover its journalistic misdeeds.

This time, the victim was Civil Beat’s new Maui columnist, Tad Bartimus, who wrote about a preschool teacher on the neighboring island who was suffering from rat lungworm disease. On that evening’s KHON newscast, anchor Joe Moore announced the station’s sudden interest in this topic with: “We first heard about this case from a viewer via the ‘Report It’ feature on our website, so we started checking. …”

KHON anchor Joe Moore credited a viewer — twice — with coming up a with a tip on the Maui woman suffering from rat lungworm disease, but never mentioned the original source, Civil Beat columnist Tad Bartimus. Screen shot

“Checking” apparently meant reporter Brigette Namata went to Civil Beat’s website, where she grabbed the afflicted person’s name and details, called her and then reconstituted Bartimus’ column in a television format without giving Civil Beat any credit. Brazenly, at the end of the KHON piece, Moore emphasized, “Again, we learned about this from a viewer.”

I’m not sure what else to make of Moore’s superfluous bookending comments, other than as an expression of subconscious guilt and an effort to suppress it.

In that same airspace, Moore could have just credited the real fount of the story, meaning the journalist who did the initial fieldwork and the nonprofit media organization that funded it. Instead, KHON ate its own kind, and Hawaii news is weaker for it.

This state is a dynamic place, full of interesting people and fascinating stories, just waiting to be told (and told thoroughly). Ideas are everywhere, and all they take to find are journalists looking around and asking thoughtful questions.

Student Journalists Lead The Way

Some high school journalists in southeastern Kansas recently demonstrated the pervasiveness of such potential, by doing the most basic of investigative activities, checking on the background of their new principal.

As they found quickly – and many adult vetters on the hiring committee apparently missed – “Dr.” Amy Robertson “earned” her master’s and doctorate degrees at “Corllins University,” a phantom private college with no perceivable accreditation (or physical address). After the students questioned the legitimacy of those credentials, Robertson resigned.

In The Washington Post’s coverage of the story within the story, the student newspaper’s advisor, Emily Smith, described how “Everybody kept telling (the students), ‘stop poking your nose where it doesn’t belong.’”

But this school’s journalistic system had support, from advisors to the superintendent, as well as editorial independence, protected by state law, and the journalists asked the tough questions.

One has to marvel at KHON’s latest story “discovery” and at the lengths the local station went to cover its journalistic misdeeds.

Consider the contrast between what those student journalists accomplished and the work of KHON’s “web staff,” which recently covered the conclusion of a trial involving the former director of Waianae Community Outreach, a nonprofit organization designed to serve Hawaii’s most needy. Its former director, Sophina Placencia, was convicted of theft for stealing more than $500,000 from the center.

While dutifully recording the court system details, KHON missed the opportunity to do the basic background research on Placencia, like the high school students did, just to check on what she has been doing since her arrest.

On the second page of a Google search of Placencia’s name, her LinkedIn profile appears. Clicking on that link reveals quite a story. Placencia writes that she is a former nonprofit executive who “went stealth” and emerged “as a marketing strategy superhero.”

She noted, “Non-Profit Work is BRUTUAL (sic)! But NO, I DIDN’T QUIT!”

Then, she added, “I’ve got a ‘secret’ … I’m In Love with Learning, Strategic Thinking, and Helping People and Businesses Become Successful.”

Technically, all of the above appears to be true. She didn’t quit (she was arrested and removed from her position instead), and she has at least one big “secret.” But for some reason, I thought she was going to reveal something else, like maybe she has to report for her year in prison, before May 15. This is clever “marketing,” for sure.

In the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s coverage, Placencia reportedly took responsibility for what she did and acknowledged that she had tarnished both the reputation of the organization – which changed its name to Kealahou West Oahu in 2014, shortly after Placencia was caught – and her mother, who had preceded her as the organization’s executive director, and presumably paved her way for the opportunity.

Placencia’s primary credentials, as listed on LinkedIn, are her bachelor’s degrees from the for-profit institutions University of Phoenix and the American Academy of Art (no dates for the degrees provided).

University of Phoenix is its own sort of a spectacle, an imploding mess of a diploma mill.

The American Academy of Art, as reported by Forbes, also could be described as a diploma mill, if its students actually received many diplomas. Forbes found that the school accepts anyone with a high school diploma – with no art portfolio required – and a willingness to pay the $22,000 in annual tuition. But it graduates only a third of its students in six years (and only 6 percent of its online-only students).

With those credentials, and lifted by her mother’s ethos, Placencia somehow ended up as executive director of Waianae Community Outreach around the age of 25. Her thieving began, according to the reported timeline, almost as soon as she started.

If only some enterprising journalists, even if they were high school students, would have checked on her background in the beginning, maybe the  $554,541 in state Department of Human Services money (her Harley-Davidson motorcycle, pool, jewelry, etc., financed by your taxes!) wouldn’t have been stolen and squandered.

Placencia ends her LinkedIn portfolio overview with an “anonymous” quote: “The Only Dumb Question There Is, Is The One Never Asked,” to which, I’ll add, especially for journalists.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    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 brett.oppegaard@gmail.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.