Unfair Portrayal  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   March 2001

Unfair Portrayal   

A Letter to the editor and the author's response.

By Unknown
     

Related reading:
   » The Pulse of Paradise


IAM AS MUCH A sucker for a good David vs. Goliath story as the next guy. But I believe your reporter Lucinda Fleeson got so fixated on the clever possibilities of this fable that she badly misread the situation in Honolulu as the Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin gear up for independent competition (see "The Pulse of Paradise" January/February).
The theme of the story seemed to be that the Advertiser, owned by newspaper corporation Gannett, is a lumbering Goliath out of touch with, or even arrogant about, the interests and issues of the local community. Meanwhile, the much smaller Star-Bulletin, soon to be owned by Canadian newspaper chain owner David Black, is a feisty, brave little fighter in touch with the community and unafraid of the powers that be.
The central anecdote used to support this fable was the Advertiser's alleged indifference to a lengthy opinion article, published in the Star-Bulletin August 9, 1997, under the title "Broken Trust." "It was the biggest story in Hawaii since statehood," wrote Fleeson, "and the Gannett-owned Honolulu Advertiser is known as the paper that blew it, six ways to Sunday."
That sure supports the fable, I guess. But it just isn't true.
I appreciated the opportunity to have had a brief telephone conversation with Ms. Fleeson. I would have appreciated it even more if she had visited our newsroom, as she did the Star-Bulletin's. I would have shown her:
1. The numerous drafts of the "Broken Trust" article marked "not for publication" or "possible Focus article" that the principal author, Randall Roth, and I had been editing, rewriting and polishing for weeks.
2. The draft prepared for a meeting on August 7, where Advertiser Editor Jim Gatti and I met with Roth and coauthor Judge Sam King and went over the article virtually line by line.
3. My notes of that meeting, at which Roth and King agreed to wait until the following Sunday to publish the article so that appropriate journalistic due diligence could be completed. This included giving numerous people accused of crimes or ethical misdeeds a chance to respond and finding sourcing for a number of allegations.
As for whether the Advertiser was indifferent to, or uninterested in, the story of the Bishop Estate, I could have shown your writer:
The May 8, 1997, story that was the first to publicly break the furor on the campus of Kamehamha Schools, the furor that became the central proximate cause of the community uprising against the Bishop Estate trustees.
Numerous editorials calling for many of the key changes proposed in the "Broken Trust" article.
Numerous stories that first broke many of the serious breaches of fiduciary duty cited by the "Broken Trust" authors in their article.
More than 60 stories and editorials on the crisis at Bishop Estate that appeared between the May 8 story and the "Broken Trust" article.
None of this takes away from the impact of the "Broken Trust" essay. It also does not deny Roth's frustration at not being able to spend more time with Gatti during the editing process.
And finally, none of this takes away from my deep admiration for the staff and editors of the Star-Bulletin.
But it does take away, I submit, from the wildly inaccurate way in which our relationship with the Bishop Estate story and the "Broken Trust" article was portrayed. And it puts a big hole, I think, in the anecdote that the entire David vs. Goliath fable was built on.
Just hours after what I thought was a genial and productive meeting with some of the authors, Gatti and myself, during which they agreed with a handshake to publish the essay in the Advertiser, they concluded they could not wait another week and decided they would take it elsewhere to get it published on their schedule and--as it turns out--on their terms. We didn't give the essay the "cold shoulder." We gave it our all. The Star-Bulletin published the essay largely as it left our editing desk, including some of the last-minute changes proposed by Gatti.
Whether it was good journalism for the Star-Bulletin to take something that floated in over the transom and publish it a day later, without any apparent attempt at serious journalistic due diligence, is a question AJR and the Star-Bulletin might want to answer.
Finally, you might want to make note of some factual mistakes in the article. Here's a sampling:
1. Federal District Judge Alan Kay issued the restraining order stopping the sale of the Star-Bulletin, not Barry Kurren.
2. There are 51 state representatives and 12 of them were Republicans at the time you wrote the article. You had the lineup as 2 Republicans out of 25.
3. The name of the organization that operates the two newspapers is the Hawaii Newspaper Agency, not Hawaii Newspaper Association. 4. Our building is three stories, not two.
5. The state Attorney General was already looking into allegations about the Bishop Estate board before the "Broken Trust" article was published
6. Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898, not 1885.
7. Before the 1992 amendment to the joint operating agreement, 60 percent of the profits went to owners of the Star-Bulletin, and 40 percent to the Advertiser, not the other way around. It's an important detail in considering whether to accept that the Star-Bulletin was "struggling" in 1992.
8. The "Broken Trust" article was published in the Star-Bulletin August 9, two days after the authors met with Gatti, not on August 16.

Jerry Burris
Editorial Page Editor
Honolulu Advertiser
Honolulu, Hawaii

LUCINDA FLEESON RESPONDS: Thank you for drawing my attention to some regrettable errors. However, your account of interactions between the Honolulu Advertiser editors and the authors of "Broken Trust" runs counter to a detailed written report by professor Roth and my interview with former federal Judge Samuel King.
AJR acknowledged that you had a divergent view, although not at the length you would have wished. The painful bottom line remains: "Broken Trust" was published in the Star-Bulletin and not in the Advertiser.
On August 21, 2000, I telephoned to arrange to spend a day at the Advertiser. Then-editor Gatti wanted a phone interview, but on my insistence agreed to meet later that week. The visit was canceled when Advertiser Publisher Mike Fisch informed me that due to the pending lawsuit against the newspaper, Gannett lawyers asked him not to be interviewed, and that applied to Gatti as well. Just prior to AJR's press time, the Star-Bulletin was sold, ending the court case. I tried again to interview Advertiser executives and was able to include their comments, although by this time I was back in Washington, D.C.
Lastly, the David-Goliath metaphor referred to David Shapiro, the beleaguered managing editor who steered the Star-Bulletin against great odds, including a fight against Gannett, the largest newspaper company in the country. Yes, I think it fits.

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