Deafening silence

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Independent reporters fail to defend their editor

In my blog entry of August 23, John Rieti, a reporter with The Independent, posted the following comment:

The reason The Independent's editorial staff are noticeably absent is not because they've been forbidden from speaking, and they're definitely not hanging their heads in quiet embarrassment.

If their heads are down it's because they're busy working.

It's pretty offensive to read lines like that, especially when it's on a media blog too lazy to shoot off an e-mail to the newsroom staff and ask us what we think? (Our addresses are at the bottom of every article for future reference.)

Rieti was responding to my complaints about his editor, Ryan Cleary, who failed to disclose some vested interests in a page one story.

So I took Rieti's advice and emailed the reporters, asking how they felt about their boss's behavior. After all, an editor should set the standard for integrity and ethics not embarrass his reporters or compromise their reputations with trickery like this.

Here is the letter I sent to John Rieti, Ivan Morgan, Stephanie Porter, Mandy Cook and Brian Callahan, with a copy to Ryan Cleary:

Hi there:

John Rieti has suggested that I ask the reporters at The Independent for their opinions on the Cleary/Astraeus story. So fair enough.

What is your opinion of what Cleary did? (He accepted free tickets to write a travel piece but didn't disclose this in the article - if you didn't read the photo caption, you would have missed it. More to the point, he wrote a glowing piece about Astraeus, urging people to use the airline, without disclosing that the publisher of The Independent was instrumental in bringing Astraeus here to service his Humber Valley Resort... and thus has a vested interest in seeing that the flights continue. Cleary's only acknowledgement of this, a week later, was to say that bloggers were "big on pointing out my potential biases.")

No explanation, no apology, for something that no real reporter would do: allow the business interests of his owner to infiltrate a major story, without full disclosure. His retort, that I am being bought by my clients (which I answered on August 23) is simply avoiding the question.

I am not asking for general comments about how hard the reporters work. This is a given. I am interested in how reporters feel when the editor pulls a stunt like the above.

Do you think there are ethical issues in what Cleary did? If so, did you challenge him on it? What did he say?

Why didn't you resign? Do you think your reputation as a journalist is being tainted by this? I think it is... and I have earned the right to raise this point, having resigned three times on points of principle (and threatening to in another situation, in which I won by standing my ground).

Integrity is a nice thing, but it's all rather meaningless if we look the other way when it is violated.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Geoff Meeker

I don't take any pleasure in writing letters like this, just as I'm sure the reporters don't relish receiving them. The fact remains, however, that the credibility of the editor reflects directly on the journalists who work under him unless something in journalism has changed drastically over the last 20 years.

To make my point, it might help to relate the story referenced above, about winning a battle by threatening to resign. I don't mind talking about it now because all of the players have changed; there has been a complete turnover in editorial, sales and senior management personnel. It took place during the 1980s, when I was managing editor of a local entertainment publication.

We had launched a new project, in which readers voted for their favorite retail outlets, restaurants, nightclubs, and more. The editorial staff managed the vote counting, keeping a running tally of the daily results in a notebook. As we approached the end, voting patterns became obvious and it was clear in most cases which business was going to win in their category.

At this point, a couple of salespersons asked to see the notebook. Seeing no harm in it, I showed them.

After a moment, they became alarmed, pointing out that a few key advertising clients were not winning. Off they went to see the general manager, who would normally arbitrate disputes (which were not uncommon) between the sales and editorial departments.

They returned with the notebook a few minutes later, and to my astonishment had added several check marks each indicating a vote. Advertisers that were losing were now winning. I told them that this was not acceptable. They said not to worry about it; that the general manager had approved it.

The editorial staff gathered around and were crestfallen when I showed them what had happened. They asked if there was anything I could do. I nodded, picked up a jar of White Out and erased the added votes. I told them I was going to see the general manager, and would quit if he didn't back me up.

I will never forget the look in their eyes. This was not an investigative newspaper and the editorial staff didn't do a lot of hard' journalism, but they sure knew right from wrong. They backed me completely and I'm reasonably sure that, if I had walked, they would have followed me.

My ensuing discussion with the general manager was intense and I did put my job on the line. But I won in the end. The votes were not tampered with. In fact, the manager came back later and thanked me for standing on principle, saying it was the right thing to do.

The Independent likes to pose as a hard-hitting investigative newspaper, but has taken some major credibility hits lately all relating to poor judgment on the editor's behalf. First, Ryan Cleary stumped for Danny Williams at a political rally, something no self-respecting editor would do. Then he wrote a suck piece about Astraeus airlines, without divulging the direct link that the majority owner of The Independent has to the story.

I sent that email to the reporters of The Independent back on September 7, but have not received a reply from anyone, not even the outspoken John Rieti.

Has Ryan Cleary ordered everyone to shut up and be quiet?

Or are they too embarrassed to say a word?

The silence is deafening.

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  • Doug
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Geoff:

    As a frequent visitor to your blog site, I am a little mystified as to why you seem to have such a hate on for The Independent, and its editor Ryan Cleary. You seem to be going out of your way to diss both the paper and Cleary, and I'm not really sure I can figure out why. What's your motivation here? If Cleary is guility, as you suggest, of doing a suck piece about Astraeus airlines, without divulging the direct link that the majority owner of The Independent has to the story, then so what? I think any reader with half a clue would have picked up on that. I can only assume that in your self-appointed role as a blogger about media, you felt somehow obliged to point that out. But again, I ask, to what purpose? I am not commenting to take a side in this, because, frankly, I don't see the point of this. As a veteran of the media, public relations and communications community here in St. John's, I've come to grips with the fact we all operate in a pretty small fish bowl here. I'm exceptionally grateful for The Independent and I love reading it over the weekends (thanks to the fact they have started publishing on Fridays.) Many of us who have been around, have lots of war stories about supposed unethical behaviour in the media and in the PR business. Personally, I wasn't offended by the Astraeus piece, and I really can't understand why you would be either. I thought it was informative and - thanks to the author actually having taken a trip on the airpline - reflective of what it was like to actually fly with the airline. Was it a set-up? I expect it was. But you must admit that hundreds of familiarization trips and media availabilities are the result of set ups. I read recently that on a daily basis between 80 to 90 percent of news material that is presented as news stories in our newspapers and broadcast media is generated by news releases and pitches to news editors by PR types like you and I. Most of it never states the obvious - that this news story is the result of a pitch made via news release or PR smoozing.