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American Journalism Review
Honolulu Feud  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   June 2001

Honolulu Feud   

A Letter from the co-author of "Broken Trust."

Related reading:
   » The Pulse of Paradise


THE EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR of the Honolulu Advertiser, Jerry Burris, questions Lucinda Fleeson's description of events leading up to publication of the "Broken Trust" essay by the Advertiser's competitor, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Letters and "The Pulse of Paradise").
The problem, according to Burris, was not that his Gannett-owned newspaper failed to realize the significance of the story, or that it was hesitant to upset powerful people. Instead, it was the "Broken Trust" authors who balked at Editor Jim Gatti's insistence on "appropriate journalistic due diligence... [which] included giving numerous people accused of...ethical misdeeds a chance to respond and finding sourcing for a number of allegations." Burris adds that the "Broken Trust" authors "decided they would take [their essay] elsewhere to get it published on their schedule and--as it turns out--on their terms."
To evaluate these claims, your readers need some background. I first told Burris of the plan to write "Broken Trust" about two months before my co-authors and I finally gave up on the Advertiser. During that first of many meetings with Burris, he emphasized that anything so controversial would have to be approved by his boss, Editor Gatti.
I provided a substantively complete draft a week later, and then tried for weeks to meet with Gatti. But he canceled meeting after meeting over a period of several weeks.
I finally camped outside his office and refused to leave the building until I had talked to him. Several hours later he gave me 10 minutes "to make my case." After 10 minutes, he said he needed two more days. Two days later he asked for another two days.
When we finally met, he said that the "Broken Trust" essay was trying to be journalism and opinion, and that it would run, if at all, only if we stripped it down to an opinion piece. He dismissed out of hand our suggestions that someone at the Advertiser write a companion story with the information we had assembled, and that a front-page article direct readers to our essay in the opinion section. He reminded us that he had not yet decided to publish anything, and stressed that there would be no lead or companion articles if and when he chose to publish a scaled-down opinion piece.
Burris' suggestion that we then imposed "terms" on the Star-Bulletin misses the mark. We wanted to see our essay published as soon as possible and hopefully without too much taken out. Gatti had told us it would take the Bulletin weeks to publish it, if it ran it at all, since it would be "starting from scratch."
When we finally gave up on Gatti, the editors of the Star-Bulletin read the essay in front of me and then inquired about our sources and ability to back it up. They also asked about the legal opinion that we had secured. Fortunately, the lawyer we had gone to was the same one the Bulletin usually uses for such matters.
When the Bulletin's editorial page editor told me that the essay would appear in the next day's afternoon paper, I was as surprised as I was delighted.
Eight days after "Broken Trust" appeared in the Bulletin, the Advertiser ran two front-page articles and an expanded opinion section filled with criticism of our essay.
The paper also ran a long summary of "Broken Trust" that pointed out its "flaws," and a long article by Gatti called "Newspaper Values Must Prevail Over Ultimatums." In it, he claimed that he chose not to publish "Broken Trust" because of his personal commitment to fairness: "[E]ven published opinions of others demand an obligation of fairness by the Advertiser.... [I had] questions very basic to how newspapers try to be fair and accurate, even if the subjects of our coverage are not in public favor."
Ironically, Gatti wrote about an "obligation to seek comment from persons targeted for criticism," describing this as "basic to how newspapers try to be fair and accurate." Neither Gatti nor anyone else at the Advertiser ever asked the "Broken Trust" authors to comment on the criticism directed our way by the Bishop Estate trustee, the justices or the paper itself.
The criticism was harsh. The justices described the essay as a "factually inaccurate, distorted, irresponsible opinion piece," declared that its authors had "gratuitously sought to degrade" and called it an "irresponsible attempt to erode" public confidence in the judiciary. The head trustee said the authors had merely "gone into the gutter making baseless and unprovable charges."
We were surprised to see such scurrilous statements in print and went to work immediately on our written responses. But when I dropped them off at the Advertiser's editorial offices the next morning, a sympathetic staffer told us that they would never appear: "Mr. Gatti has decided that his will be the last word on this."
Indeed, our responses never did appear in the Advertiser. This seems unfair to this nonjournalist, and at odds with Gatti's own description of journalistic ethics.

Randall Roth
Coauthor, "Broken Trust"
Honolulu, Hawaii

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