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Only about 1,200 people live in Hana, on a curvy highway hours from the main Maui airport. Civil Beat columnist Tad Bartimus is one of those, and the veteran journalist knows just about everyone in town.
She first met Sharon Mynar, for example, at her wedding 39 years ago, when Sharon’s trio provided the musical entertainment. She knows Terry Mynar as manager of the Hana Ranch Store, one of the community’s main gathering places. Bartimus had watched the Mynars’ daughter, Tricia, grow up and start her own family in their small community.
So when Bartimus heard from neighbors that Tricia had contracted a mysterious and scary disease and was in a hospital recovering, she called the family to check on them. After talking with Tricia, Bartimus thought she might have a bigger story to tell. She wrote a column about the situation on April 3, and the rat lungworm scare really took off locally and nationally.
While all sorts of media organizations jumped on Mynar’s story afterward, including The Washington Post, Bartimus’ credit in breaking this news has been diffused or stolen due to unethical journalistic practices, particularly with KHON’s deceitful follow-up coverage.
I wrote a column about this intellectual thievery already. But a couple of readers asked in the comments section afterward, isn’t it “plausible” that KHON simply didn’t know about Civil Beat’s story and found the source on their own and unwittingly copied the story?
Plausibility is a lawyerly way to approach an argument (as in, isn’t it possible?). This technique can be used to raise reasonable doubt in a jury’s mind, and one of those curious readers, raising the specter of plausibility, was Kenneth Lawson, associate faculty specialist at University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson Law School.
Taking one more quick step backward, I need to note here that a fundamental philosophy I have for this column is that I am inclined to judge the journalism as a product, not the journalist as a person, similar to the way a theater critic might view a performance. In that respect, I operate in a court of public opinion (not law), and my goal is to raise discussions, not necessarily end them.
I do often ask questions of the journalists, behind the scenes, just to make sure I understand clearly what happened before I write about it. Sometimes, though, I don’t. In this case, I didn’t feel the need to contact Namata. I also didn’t contact Bartimus, either, because the rip-off was so blatant.
Here were my clues: Before the column by Bartimus ran, KHON had covered the rat lungworm story two times in the past three years, most recently in May 2016. The KHON story echoed the work by Bartimus in many significant ways, including mimicking quotes. Rather than KHON’s source material being from an interview conducted on Maui, it appeared to be quickly gathered via phone and email. Mynar was not a public figure or seeking out attention. No public agency released her details. Hana is a remote place. KHON has no significant news presence on Maui, etc.
But what really caught my attention was anchor Joe Moore’s intro and exit to the story, in which he emphasized repeatedly that “we learned about this from a viewer.” I thought it was a brazenly unethical way to take credit. It also raised plausible doubt, I suppose, in the mind of viewers, including Lawson, about who did what. In response, I decided to dig deeper into this situation and write a clarification, if needed.
What I found in KHON’s response was worse than I even imagined. To begin with, I tried to contact the reporter Namata and ask her about her process on this piece. I eventually received an email response from Kristina Lockwood, KHON’s vice president and general manager, expressing disappointment in my assertion.
She wrote, “We got a tip from a viewer on March 28.” On March 29, the “assignment desk started investigating this story,” and, on April 3, “we ran the story, which coincidentally was the same day as your story ran in Civil Beat.”
When I asked her why Civil Beat wasn’t mentioned in the coverage, despite being in the same market and publishing basically the same core story about the same person many hours earlier in the day, Lockwood wrote, “It is purely coincidental that we had the same source. … therefore that does not warrant a credit.”
So I called that source, Tricia Mynar, and asked her to reconstruct what exactly happened and when in terms of this coverage. She confirmed that she talked to Bartimus first, because of their tight community connections, and was hesitant to tell her story to any media source, because she didn’t want to be perceived as a “whiner.”
She said that after the Bartimus column ran in Civil Beat on the morning of April 3, and she had posted it to the top of her Facebook page, KHON’s Namata contacted her through that Facebook page in the afternoon. She reportedly told her that she had read the Civil Beat story and wanted to put that story on TV. Mynar said she had never talked to Namata before that day, and the KHON story was put on air that night.
When I conveyed this information back to Lockwood and asked her to explain the discrepancies, she stopped returning my emails. Namata also did not return my email.
When reached by phone and asked to assess this situation, Bartimus said she was disturbed by KHON’s duplicity, adding, “Nobody else had that story.”
Bartimus’ lengthy and ground-breaking career as a journalist has included such distinctions as being the Associated Press’ first female bureau chief (in 1975) and first female special correspondent (in 1990) as well as serving as a roving national correspondent and foreign correspondent for AP, reporting from Latin America, Great Britain, the Caribbean and Asia.
When she was based in Saigon, she covered Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam during the Indochina War. She twice has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and has won many other awards for her work, including a lifetime achievement award from The Washington Press Club Foundation.
“When I started in this business,” she said, “I was always the only woman in the office. So, I’ve competed my entire life. … My attitude about competition always has been: I want to see everyone else in my rear-view mirror. If they rip me off, they rip me off. But I know I was first, and I’ve been out ahead on this story from the get go.”
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.