Editor’s Note: Readers often wonder about the reporting and editing process and other news practices. We think it’s important to explain our decisions and how we work, and we do so from time to time in our occasional series called “Behind The Story.” 

On Thursday we published a column by Trisha Kehaulani Watson suggesting that Kirk Caldwell give up his bid for governor. On Friday we took it down.

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A number of readers have asked why the column is no longer on the site. The reason is that we made a mistake in publishing it.

We simply didn’t think through Watson’s longstanding political ties to U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele and what could easily be perceived as an effort to undermine the former Honolulu mayor’s campaign just days after media, including Civil Beat, reported that Kahele was probably going to run for governor himself.

No one asked us to pull the column although a few political observers immediately made the connection. And in hindsight we concluded we should have thought through the ethical pitfalls a little more carefully before we published.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with the content of the piece. Watson largely was raising the question that a lot of people have been asking about whether Caldwell really knows more than he’s letting on about the $250,000 payoff to former police chief Louis Kealoha and the involvement of three top city officials who are now charged with conspiracy because of it. Two of them were Caldwell’s top lieutenants.

But she went so far as to opine that Caldwell should step away from the governor’s race and let younger, fresher faces have a go at it.

All legitimate points for an opinion column — except for the fact that Watson is a well-known supporter of Kai Kahele. Two years ago, when Kahele ran for Congress, Watson held a top leadership post in his campaign organization.

We knew that then, and ended her Civil Beat column because it’s wholly unfair to let a candidate or their top supporters have a platform on our site that other candidates don’t have. We’ve discontinued other columns in the past when the writer has decided to run for office or has taken a position with an organization that creates an unresolvable conflict of interest.

Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele is widely believed to be considering a run for governor this year. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2021

Last year, with the 2020 election solidly behind her, we asked Watson if she’d like to come back as a Civil Beat columnist. She is a strong voice for Native Hawaiians and environmental issues and she’s such a good writer we really felt like we could work around some of the other potential conflicts that arise from other public positions she holds on local boards and organizations. And she told us she’d given up her leadership post with Kahele.

But there’s still no getting around the fact that she remains publicly a strong supporter of his. And while there may not be an actual conflict at this point (she says she’s not actively campaigning for him and he hasn’t declared himself a candidate yet) the appearance of conflict is something we should have thought through a bit more.

It’s not only unfair to Caldwell, but also to Josh Green and Vicky Cayetano and whoever may still jump into the Democratic primary race.

The problems that could arise for us from her ties to Kahele go beyond a single column and, frankly, aren’t just limited to the governor’s race but also his reelection campaign for Congress. In either situation, but especially in a governor’s race, many of the issues that will be on the table are the kinds of things Watson writes about. It’s hard to see how we avoid the appearance of conflict if her take on things lines up with his. Certainly his opponents will have a legitimate complaint that we are unfairly giving her space to further an agenda that may, coincidentally or not, align with his.

So we talked about all this with Watson on Friday. As she pointed out, we were the ones to approve the column and publish it. In the end, though, the conflicts seemed insurmountable and she’s decided to end the column.

This is one of those times when we owe readers an explanation as to why a writer many have come to enjoy won’t be appearing in our pages anymore.

But it also seems like a good time to talk about the political minefields journalists navigate in trying to cover elections throughout the state in a fair and meaningful way. This is a big election year with an open seat for governor, every legislative seat on the ballot and many races at the local level in all four counties up for grabs.

Our No. 1 goal is to offer readers as much detailed information on candidates and campaigns as our small staff can provide. But the political landscape sometimes shifts on us unexpectedly or, as in this case, we just didn’t connect the dots fast enough. We will constantly be reevaluating how and why we do things and we’ll do our best to explain our thinking as we go.

Our readers have never been shy about pointing out concerns, sending us ideas or asking for more reporting on specific issues. Please continue.

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