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Journalistic truth emerges in spurts. It comes to us across multiple channels and in products of widely varying quality. This distribution system is typically linear — what you know today is more true than what you knew yesterday.
Yet significant exceptions exist, including a couple of curious local cases.
Tommy Russo, the publisher of the muckraking weekly MauiTime, became the focus of a statewide news story in 2012 when Maui police officers inappropriately arrested him for videographing them during a questionable traffic dragnet. Russo filmed the officers in action, and evidence showed Russo was working within legal journalistic bounds.
Other media sources in the state, including Maui’s daily newspaper, The Maui News, as well as Maui Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, rushed to report about the arrest, using Russo’s police mugshot, and even unchallenged verbiage provided by officers involved in the case, including what turned out to be misleading statements.
When Russo finally was cleared of all wrongdoing by the Hawaii Supreme Court in December – five years later – only his publication (MauiTime) and Civil Beat’s Chad Blair covered the big win for the First Amendment in similarly splashy fashion. KITV did have a short story about the Supreme Court case beginning (but not how it turned out).
Roughly two months have passed now, and Russo openly has wondered if this is it in terms of coverage to publicly clear his name. He said he is considering putting out a press release to his fellow journalists in Hawaii, just to make sure they at least are aware of the outcome.
Another type of incremental sequencing oddly enough brings us back to the “false missile alert” story, in which an anonymous “Button Pusher” has been trying recently to offer his narrative of what happened, and his role in it, when the state was terrorized by his errant alert Jan. 13.
In this case, the newer information actually makes us more confused about what is true.
Recently, Civil Beat admirably has initiated a new media-literacy initiative, entitled “Understanding the News,” which includes a segment called “Behind The Story.” For the first installment, however, Civil Beat decided to feature a self-justifying account of why it failed to follow its own published policy on anonymous sourcing when covering the tale of the anonymized Button Pusher.
For a bit of context, the Button Pusher’s attorney wanted the media to refocus on the poor guy’s apologetic acknowledgement of the mistake and reasons why it really wasn’t his fault. But the attorney didn’t want his client’s name circulated, supposedly because of death threats. Civil Beat and other media sources agreed to this shady deal, in which they reportedly didn’t even know who they were interviewing at the time of the session.
That level of anonymity is so ridiculously high that reporters and editors should have turned it down on the spot, regardless of what the competition did. Instead, the whole pack jumped at a chance to allow a mysterious character to speak from the shadows. This is the kind of treatment reserved for international spies and deep state secrets, not low-level bureaucrats whose job primarily is to not push the wrong button.
In reading Civil Beat’s coverage of this deal, as well as the work of other local journalists who took the same poisoned bait, such as Hawaii News Now, KHON, and KITV, I have to question what audiences really learned. In other words, was the deal worth it?
The Button Pusher basically said what already has been reported, through state spokespeople, plus a bunch of “it’s not really my fault” excuses. He said he thought the situation was real. He did what he thought was right. He’s getting death threats. He’s sorry, but it’s really someone else’s fault, of course; probably everybody else’s fault. Oh, and all of those bad things that have been said about him; those aren’t true, at least as far as he can recall.
Journalism is supposed to orient toward truth, in which we generally know more, and with more certainty, as the days and stories progress. Instead of taking this interview, and thereby implicitly committing to preserving this man’s anonymity and providing eternal cover, journalists should be pushing in the other direction, rooting out the Button Pusher’s full name, investigating his background and getting to the core of the conflicting stories.
Why do we care? Because he’s your employee, all of you taxpayers, doing a job you hired him to do, and he caused massive psychological damage. We should be holding him publicly and fully accountable for his actions, like the other people in this situation who already have been named, disciplined and, in some cases, fired.
He’s had death threats? Well, those people threatening him must already know who he is.
This case was a fundamental flop of core journalistic values. If this person wants to share his message, then he should put his name behind it, just like everybody else is required to do.
MauiTime publisher Russo had his name and photograph attached to accusations of illegal behavior, by unscrupulous police officers, and splattered throughout the news. He worked for years to clear his name and now that he has been cleared, he wondered why fellow media members aren’t as excited about publishing the resolution of his case.
Lee Imada, managing editor of the Maui News, said his publication had been covering Russo’s story along the way but just hasn’t had the time to finish it yet. The newspaper’s court reporter was on vacation in December, he said. His staff has been cut to almost a third of its size from the year 2000, and readers just aren’t clamoring to learn about the case’s resolution.
“I know this is important to (Russo), but a lot of court cases are sort of marginal. Sometimes, they can get lost. It’s not done intentionally,” Imada said. “Because our staff is so small, we try to focus on stories that touch the pulse of our community. That’s just the realities of the newspaper these days.”
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.