AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   January/February 2001

Island Ire   

Reporter sues Hawaii governor after losing her job

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     

HONOLULU JOURNALIST PLANS to file a lawsuit, after losing her job. The target? Hawaii Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano, who, reporter Malia Zimmerman says, bullied her former employer into firing her and discouraged other news organizations from hiring her.
Zimmerman says she got on the bad side of Gov. Cayetano and his staff by writing carefully documented, hard-hitting stories critical of his administration during the almost three years she worked at Pacific Business News. Some of her articles concerned alleged voting irregularities in the 1998 election, which Democrat Cayetano won by a narrow margin, and business owners who said they'd been harassed and intimidated by state regulatory agencies after openly supporting Republican candidates or criticizing Cayetano's policies.
The governor's communications director, Jackie Kido, says Zimmerman's stories were one-sided and full of errors and misquotes. The possible lawsuit is "without basis," she says.
The clashes came to a head on November 30, 1999, when Kido filed a complaint on behalf of the state with the Honolulu Community-Media Council, a volunteer organization that mediates disputes about news coverage.
Though the story that sparked the complaint mostly involved another reporter, Kido wrote in her cover letter to the council that Zimmerman was the main problem. The complaint itself said Pacific Business News "continuously ignored journalistic ethics by willfully engaging in the practice of manipulating information and knowingly reporting inaccurate, unbalanced and unsubstantiated stories." It asked that the weekly paper make a "public statement of wrongdoing," publish an apology itself and in the city's two major dailies, and provide its reporters with ethics training.
Pacific Business News rebutted the complaint point by point in a written response to the council. Kido's complaint "is rife with misrepresentations, inconsistencies and false evidence," PBN Editor Gina Mangieri wrote in a cover letter.
Kido met with Mangieri and the newspaper's publisher to try to reach an agreement. When they failed, Kido and the two PBN officials met with six members of the council. Again, neither side would budge.
On May 25, more than a month after the second meeting, Zimmerman says she refused a request to resign and was fired by Mangieri, who came to the paper from the mainland in February 1999. Zimmerman says she was told she was being let go for using her office computer to work on an outside job and for having a different news "philosophy" from Mangieri. She believes the paper buckled under pressure from the governor's office. "This town is run by a few bullies," she says.
Mangieri won't discuss the circumstances of Zimmerman's firing, but says there is no link between the termination and the governor's complaint. "The story is as simple as there being some other cause, and certainly not the governor having succeeded in exerting pressure," she says.
On June 5, Kido notified the media council that the state was withdrawing its complaint because of Zimmerman's termination, with the understanding that "should Ms. Zimmerman regain employment with PBN within the next 12-month period, the case may be reopened at our discretion."
Zimmerman, 32 and a single mother, has been unsuccessful in landing another reporting job in Honolulu, and she believes that the complaint and Kido's letter effectively blackballed her. She's now looking for about $1 million in venture capital to launch a Web site for the Honolulu business community that would include original reporting plus links to other news sites and public records. And she's looking for an attorney to take her case.
What does she want from the governor? "I want to hold his feet to the fire," Zimmerman says, "and make him and his administration own up to what he's done to me and other people."