by Max Brantley
We received a letter this afternoon that criticizes the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's decision to run an op-ed by Mike Huckabee critical of the newspaper's reporting staff. I'm told it's the work of some 21 news staff colleagues of Seth Blomeley, the Capitol reporter who endured most of Huckabee's ire for reporting on his destruction of computer hard drives and 11th hour plundering of the governor's emergency fund for pet projects. It is supposed to be submitted to the editorial department for publication as a letter to the editor.
On that, we'll just have to wait and see. Since the letter expresses a point of view on an interesting issue, I reprint it on the jump.
TEXT OF LETTER TO THE EDITOR
In the Jan. 19th and Jan. 20th editions of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, state Capitol bureau chief Seth Blomeley wrote articles regarding the destruction of some computer hard drives in the Governor's Office during the last days of the Mike Huckabee administration, as well as the depletion of a state emergency fund used by the office.
Seth made attempts to contact the governor for his stories. In his first story, published Jan. 19, Seth noted that Huckabee didn't respond to an email with questions about the hard drives or emergency fund, and his spokesman didn't return a phone message. On Jan. 20, Huckabee's spokesman commented on the issue. Again, however Huckabee didn't return messages left for him directly.
On Sunday, the newspaper printed, on the front page of the Perspective section, an op-ed piece by the former governor. We believe that by printing the piece, the newspaper gave Huckabee the opportunity to address the issue on his terms and to avoid answering a reporter's questions about the issues — an opportunity that is not afforded to other subjects of the newspaper's coverage.
The back-and-forth of question, answer, and follow-up question lies at journalism's foundation. But the op-ed format employed by the former governor ensures his assertions will remain unchallenged.
Also missing from this format was an editor's note explaining that the former governor had been given opportunities to comment before the stories were published. This omission makes the op-ed piece's headline — "And now, the rest of the story" — even more troubling to newsroom staff, for it implies Seth's coverage was unfair or incomplete.
We stand by our colleague and his story.
As reporters, we write stories every day that are disputed by the people we cover. Those complaints are routinely addressed via a newspaper policy that involves the reporter who wrote the story in question and those who edited it. Any resulting clarifications or corrections are written and approved by reporters and their supervisors.
We also are reminded regularly that the news-gathering and opinion sides of the newspaper operate independently of one another. And they should. But in this case, a delicate balance was violated. We allowed a subject unhappy with our coverage of an issue to attack a reporter and his stories, knowing there would be no follow-up questions. We also put his op-ed piece on the front page of the Perspectives section, rather than in the usual inside spot alloted for guest columns or submissions.
Good, solid journalism depends on following precedent in the interest of fairness. In this case, the newspaper deviated from its usual course, leaving its reporters confused and disturbed. What, we now wonder, will happen when other unhappy sources call? Will they be told they should have commented on an issue at the time stories were published? Or will they, too, be given premium op-ed space?