Why should we pay attention to a little story about a memorial in Hawaii Kai involving a lit-up beach tree, when we have a Manchurian candidate in the Oval Office, powerful sexual harassers popping up like dandelions, and nuclear-attack warning sirens actively being tested in Hawaii, again, for the first time in decades?

Because corruption, cronyism and abuse of power — often favoring rich interests — can surface anywhere. Those scourges are here in this state already, of course, but they also regularly need to be exposed and addressed throughout our local media channels, via open public discourse, or such behavior becomes commonplace, accepted, normalized, spreadable and without repercussions.

Fellow Civil Beat columnist Ian Lind broke this lit-up tree story late last month, noting the twinkling curiosity that initially appeared around the winter holidays last year. According to Lind’s reporting, Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board chair Natalie Iwasa first spotted this small lighted tree in Joe Lukela Beach Park in December 2016.

Honolulu businessman Mike Miske gave the city a $40,000 gift to turn this tree in a Hawaii Kai park into a memorial for his son. Ian Lind/Civil Beat

She said the board was taking December off, and by January, the mysterious lights had been removed just as quietly. The issue seemed to resolve itself, until November this year, when Honolulu City Council suddenly voted to accept a “gift” of the installation of the lights (valued at $40,000), and they reappeared on the tree.

What on the surface seems like a simple and benevolent communal gesture, by a private citizen, veils the hidden networking system, which intertwines back-room politicking, wealth and a blatant disregard for public property and process, not to mention associated environmental and safety concerns.

The person behind this tree-lighting gesture, by the way — who just happened to have $40,000 in hand to light a beach tree — was none other than Mike Miske, a local businessman with felony convictions tracing back decades for theft, kidnapping, assault and fraudulent use of a credit card.

Miske is a scary and tough guy who allegedly thumped 6-foot-5, 320-pound NFL lineman Trent Williams on the head with a champagne bottle, creating a gash that required stitches, even though the Pro Bowl player was surrounded by his friends in Miske’s nightclub at the time.

Journalists at small publications publish a worthwhile story, only to have bigger media companies swoop in, snatch up the story and repackage it as their own.

When a character like that gets involved in local politics, everyone should slow way down and talk it over before accepting a bag full of money, for whatever the cause. Instead, the Honolulu City Council sneakily rubber stamped his request and allowed Miske’s memorial to his son to rise on public property.

Maybe lots of people would like to put elaborate memorials to their lost loved ones in public parks, especially at the best beaches. (I’ll put my family shrine in the middle of Hanauma Bay.) But how could that really play out if everyone had such an equitable opportunity?

Another fascinating aspect of this story was the follow-up coverage of Lind’s column by two other large local media sources, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now. Lind, a former Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter, has been blogging about Hawaii politics, media “and more” for roughly the past decade, in addition to writing for Civil Beat, but before all of that, he published a small newsletter about money and politics in the state.

From those experiences, he said, he has become quite familiar with the “news food chain,” in which journalists at small publications dig around in the muck and find and publish a worthwhile story, only to have bigger media companies swoop in, snatch up the story and repackage it as their own, sometimes giving credit to the originator but mostly not. Just about every national news story outside of the biggest media cities — such as Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles — originates in such a big-fish-eats-little-fish way.

Lind said he appreciates credit from other journalists, when due, but doesn’t expect it or worry about it any more.

“People who read my columns or my blog know that I developed a story that later gets picked up, and they appreciate being there first,” Lind wrote in an email. “And, hopefully, they’ll think that they got a little extra from the original, since I can often take more time and space than is available to mainstream reporters.”

As a rough timeline, the behind-the-scenes politicking apparently took place for months, leading up to the quick council vote Nov. 1, followed many weeks later by Lind’s piece Nov. 27, Chelsea Davis’ Hawaii News Now version Nov. 29 and the Star-Advertiser story, by Andrew Gomes, on Nov. 30.

Davis did not respond to questions (if she does, after my deadline, I’ll post those in the comments section below). I asked her if Lind’s coverage prompted HNN’s piece, and, if so, why not give him credit for the work? I also asked whether giving such credit — or not — was a company policy or decided case by case. Her story inexplicably wrote around Miske’s involvement, too, not mentioning him by name and quoting other family members instead.

Gomes acknowledged that he had read Lind’s piece before finishing and publishing his own, but he also provided email snippets and other descriptions of his reporting activities to indicate he had been aware of the situation earlier and was waiting to write his story until after a neighborhood board meeting. Via email, he insisted that Lind’s piece “definitely did not alert me to it or prompt my story or contribute to or influence my story in any way.”

As for the bigger issue of who should get credit for what, and when, Gomes said that debate is a discussion more for editors at all media organizations, as a professional collective, and in practice, such decisions often end up being determined in ad-hoc ways, dictated by the particulars of the case. Because this story involved public meetings, a public process and public documents, Gomes argued that this topic was open game, regardless of who published something about it first.

Lind said as irritating as such a lack of credit can be for journalists who get the story first, he has even bigger concerns about another aspect of media competition: “When you tackle a pretty good story and other media shy away from it because they didn’t get it first. I personally like to see a story advanced, and appreciate when that’s done well.”

Another Civil Beat columnist, Denby Fawcett, for example, recently brought back to public consciousness the sexual assault accusations against the revered late Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye.

Fawcett’s recounting of those allegations directly within the current context of sexual harassment complaints across the nation shines a startlingly fresh and bright light on Inouye but also on bureaucratic memorials, particularly those that honor the powerful without much (or any) public debate about the nuances of such a tribute.

Inouye’s name was hurriedly and quietly hoisted onto our international airport in Honolulu earlier this year. To date, I haven’t spotted anyone else in the local media besides Fawcett even approaching that part of the complexity of the tribute. Maybe some media piggybacking would be helpful in that case, regardless of who gets credit for it in the end.

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.