Monday, July 19, 2010

Media relations: scorpion and the frog

An Anon source used Public Documents Law (although they would have had to I.D. themselves in the original request) to acquire email exchanges from public officials in the venerable Amherst Regional School system.

Yeah, you would think by now they would know better.

I suspect it was the same Anon who asked me a while back how to do such a request (and they wondered if only bloggers and print journalist are entitled to such a magic wand). If so, I'm glad I gave them the exceedingly simple 'how-to' instructions.

They anonymously snail-mailed the results to a friend who, in turn, snail-mailed them to me. And I kind of wish I had them a week ago, so I could have incorporated them into a "final paper" for my online journalism ethics class.

The infamous A-Rod affair:

As some of you may remember, I broke the story of highest paid School Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez taking abundant time off (with pay of course) by publishing the document he casually tossed to the School Committee at the 2/9 School Committee meeting outlining his upcoming days off, vacation and sick time; and then only 8 days later, I broke the story of his sudden departure.

And yes, journalistically speaking I only had one solid source--but it was ultra-solid (and a secondary, slightly squishy, source for corroboration.) The Gazette eventually caught up four days later and they too only had one solid source for their front page story.

But they beat me cold turkey on the A-Rod strikes back front page above the fold story a few months later, moments after A-Rod picked up his final check from the taxpayers of Amherst, where he wanted to "set the record strait" by lambasting the town and highlighted his "accomplishments" over a very short, expensive, tenure.

The June 9 article headlined "Ex-School chief fires on Amherst, questions commitment to diversity, change" by Nick Grabbe, played the classic he said/she said with A-Rod hammering the schools, Regional School Chair Farshid Hajir defending the schools honor and transparently loquacious School Committee member Catherine Sanderson agreeing with the former Super's important points.

All very interesting in a Peyton Place sort of way. No wonder it made the front page, above the fold and was jealousy guarded by the Gazette during production. It also stimulated some fascinating behind-the-scenes emails.

Michael DeChiara, chair of the Shutesbury School Committee (yes, the same one who wants to shut down public officials who blog--mainly Catherine Sanderson) emailed the Gazette:

"In the on-going coverage of Amherst schools, I along with others have come to wonder about the objectivity of reporting by Mr. Nick Grabbe. Today's June 9 article give further rise to speculation that the Gazette has become a mouthpiece for one particular view from the Amherst school committee. This is concerning given the responsibility newspapers have to reasonable coverage and the Gazette's role in the community. I would hope internally there is some discussion about how to address serious issues in a way that promotes public discourse rather than ends up fanning flames by promoting one-sided stories."

And if that was not a mouthful, he continues. "Why was a statement from a possible disgraced Superintendent who held the position for only 8-months receive 'front page, above the fold' coverage if not to highlight issues that promote one side's agenda?"

And then of course we get to the real source of his irritation: "Why is Ms. Sanderson repeatedly quoted rather than the Chair of the committee, Irv Rhodes? While it is known that Ms. Sanderson is a regular source for Mr. Grabbe, given that this is an article about the Supt. one must wonder thy the Chair was not asked to respond."

Yeah, like committee chairs are right up there with God.

Mr. DeChiara also forwarded the missive to Regional School Chair Farshid Hajir who instantly responded:

"Here are some facts I plan to include in a letter to the Gazette to be published; if they don't do it, I will send it to the Republican.

Grabbe sent me the Alberto polemic only under the condition that I would discuss it with nobody, he specifically said if I discuss it with the school committee he would refuse to quote me in his article and he would refuse to allow me space to respond to the article."

He continues, and once again we get to the crux of the irritation: "At no time did Grabbe drop any hint that he had shown it to Catherine Sanderson or any other member. He told me that he had shown it to me as chair of the region so he could get an official response, that he trusted my word."

Although in closing Hajir does admit, "In retrospect, I dropped the ball on this: I could have secured a promise from Grabbe that he would not talk to anyone else, but I just didn't think of it because he was being so secretive and because she is not the chair of anything. I should not have underestimated the coziness of their relationship."

Let's hope Mr Hajir has learned a valuable lesson: never play poker for money until you know the rules of the game.

Mr. Grabbe's article


Anonymous said...


Hey Amherst, how's it going???????

Karate KId said...

Larry, You do realize, of course, that you are writing so called news stories about yourself.

Have you completely lost it?

Will you be hiring a camera operator to follow you around?

"Here he is at Hess buying milk and gas. Yes. folks, somehow this intrepid reporter actually made it all the way to the corner for this purchase."

SLow day for news, again, huh Larr?