Reporters from outside the state can throw elbows in ways that do not play well in Hawaii — and maybe both sides have a point.

I have lived in Hawaii for more than seven years and even if I stay here the rest of my life, I would not presume to be an authority on aloha.

I do, however, believe that aloha is a real thing, and that it makes my life here far richer. Hawaii’s appeal is so much more than inviting beaches and glorious mountain trails. 

But I am also a reporter, and in that role, I have seen the idea of aloha used, in essence, to block aggressive investigative reporting.

“Aloha, John, we unfortunately are unable to provide any information.” How many times have I received that email?

I have watched this tension play out rather dramatically in the aftermath of the Lahaina fire, which of course has drawn reporters from around the world, many of whom have probably not spent much time in the Aloha State.

Reporters and camera crews packed into a conference room at a state building in Waikluku to hear updates about the fires in Lahaina and elsewhere on Maui.
Reporters and camera crews packed into a conference room at a state building in Wailuku to hear updates about the fires in Lahaina and elsewhere on Maui. (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2023)

On the one hand, we have some reporters acting aggressively in a way that does not play well in Hawaii. On the other, government officials who at times seem to hold up aloha as a shield.

What is more pono – showing respect for officials who no doubt, for the most part, are doing their damnedest to deal with an almost unimaginable crisis? 

Or is it more righteous to ask questions that may seem impertinent on behalf of the many residents not in a position to do it themselves?

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It came to a head at the Maui press briefing on the Lahaina fire Wednesday, as it did in the one two days before.

The tensions began to ramp up when a reporter for CBS News asked Herman Andaya, then still the head of Maui County’s emergency response department, why he chose not to sound outdoor sirens to warn Lahaina residents that the flames were coming fast.

Civil Beat had published stories on Andaya and his decision before the press conference.

“You made the decision not to sound the sirens, which could have saved many lives,” the reporter said. “Do you regret the decision and have you considered handing over the reins to somebody with more experience?”

As Andaya answered, the reporter interrupted.

“So many people said they could have been saved if they had time to escape,” he said. “Had a siren gone off, they would have known that there was a crisis emerging. And as we know, so many bodies were found in the ground.”

At this point, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen intervened.

“You’re talking and you’re not letting him talk,” Bissen said. “If you want to talk, come up here.”

Before the next question was asked, Gov. Josh Green’s communications director Makana McClellan tried to lower the temperature: “We appreciate the questions. But I would encourage all of us to operate under the values of aloha and kindness. So as you’re asking the question, please respect the speaker.”

NBC news reporter Tom Llamas and iHeartMedia correspondent Steve Gregory were chided for their tough questions at a press conference on the Maui fires.
Some reporters were chided for their tough questions at a press conference on the Maui fires. (Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2023)

A few minutes later, an Associated Press reporter prefaced his question by stating that he was “a product of the land of aloha.”

The reporter stated that since the fire, there had been “a breakdown and a loss of trust,” as evidenced, in part, by what people were saying on social media. Part of the breakdown, he said, was because “officials are withholding information and aren’t being forthcoming.”

Then his question: “How do you make sure the people believe what you’re saying and regain the public’s trust?”

The reporter interrupted Green’s answer two times, and then, when the governor was finished, repeated his question. “So, sir, how do you regain the people’s trust?”

That led to a lot of people talking all at once. Once again, Bissen intervened by informing the reporter in biting tones that he was not the governor and, indicating Green, said “He’s the governor right now.” 

Things had gotten so testy at this point that McClellan felt the need to “reset the room.” She said that she would now “insist” rather than “request” that reporters listen to the answers and once again asked for kindness and aloha. She observed, “We’re not really demonstrating that right now.”

Before I arrived in Hawaii in 2016, I had been a reporter on the mainland for 25-plus years. I have taken part in many media scrums and testy exchanges. I’m sure I have barked a few nasty questions myself, frustrated that politicians or officials were not leveling with us. I was, in essence, one of the yapping dogs of the press. 

But one thing I recognized soon after getting off the plane in Honolulu was that this kind of confrontational journalism has not generally been practiced here. Press conferences at the mayor’s office sometimes reminded me of journalism on the mainland as I imagine it circa 1962 – the reporters and officials were all part of the same chummy club. Someone calls saying Public Official X is groping women — don’t worry, X, we got you covered.

Maui Mayor Richard Bissen intervened when reporters interrupted his emergency services director. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

One of my first stories at Civil Beat was critical of a state department. Soon after it was published, the head of that department called me and asked if she could meet with me. She came to our office, and in gentle tones, explained that since I had just arrived, I probably didn’t know how things were done in Hawaii. I had spoken harshly to the department’s spokeswoman. Not pono. 

Not to worry, though, she said – this kind of thing happened all the time with newcomers. In general, in her experience, people like me tended not to last too long in Hawaii. 

I found the meeting somewhat bizarre and disorienting. It took me an hour to realize that she had, very politely, just informed me that I was an ignorant haole who would soon be booted by general consensus off the islands. 

At first I was chagrined. Then I thought about the people who had suffered because of misguided or inane government policies I had written about. Even in my short time here, I had sensed that there was a hunger from the public for a more aggressive form of journalism that demanded answers and was not so deferential to authority. 

All of this came back to me watching that press conference. I do understand officials taking offense to questions that seemed at times outright hostile or angry. And I also know what it’s like in this state trying to get information that you believe the public would love to know. I’ve seen the many forms of obstruction over the years – often sugar-coated, wrapped in aloha. And it’s happening again in some quarters in the aftermath of Lahaina.

So yeah, the dogs sometimes need to yap.

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