Opinion » Shredder

Rumors, mongers

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Some stories are just too good to bother with confirmation. That’s the consensus that seems to have developed around rumors about what might have caused the county’s top two administrators to simultaneously be put on paid administrative leave after two emergency meetings of the SLO County Board of Supervisors.

Here’s what we know for sure: County Administrative Officer David Edge was put on paid administrative leave on May 7. His second, Gail Wilcox, was placed on paid administrative leave May 11.

And … that’s about the sum of what’s verified.

But that hasn’t stopped reporters from writing, in both the old and new media, about what might have happened.

The reporter who broke the story is Karen Velie, a no-holds-barred, no-corrections-issued, former reporter for New Times who now writes for the website calcoastnews.com, which she started with investigative reporter Dan Blackburn, another former New Times staffer.

Citing an anonymous source, she wrote that Edge had “stepped down,” which he has since flatly denied. And she wrote that the cause was a sexual harassment allegation by Wilcox against Edge. That part hasn’t been directly addressed anywhere, as far as I can see. It might be true, but there’s no way to know. Even Velie doesn’t seem convinced.

Velie went on Dave Congalton’s radio show and explained that her source wasn’t that good—she implied that the person wasn’t in the room when the discussions went down—but said that she felt compelled to go with it anyway, since she couldn’t get any official sources to deny it.

That publish-first, brag-later approach isn’t exactly what they teach in journalism school, and it could get you sued, but that’s her risk to take. And to their credit, the Cal Coast duo make it clear whenever they’re interviewed that they have different standards than the old-media crowd. They use anonymous sources frequently and, seemingly, without any ethical qualms.

I’m sure as hell not going to piss all over them. I happily pass along news from unnamed sources sometimes, like I did when we had multiple sources discussing what went down the night Carson Starkey died in that reckless Cal Poly fraternity hazing. (Note the word “multiple.”)

Sometimes the Cal Coast crowd is right, sometimes they’re not, and I think their readers understand that fact and take it into account. It’s certainly worked for them at times, keeping a steady flow of anonymous tips by people who trust there’ll be little delay between the tip and the publication.

 I think they broke the story about the sheriff’s deputy arrested for kiddie porn, the one about deputies responding to a domestic dispute between Sheriff Pat Hedges and his now-separated wife, and they’ve covered the local hard-money lending meltdown—a complex, important story—like a blanket. Good stuff.

But every once in a while in the news business you hear the other side of the story, the one they didn’t know or just didn’t tell, and it makes you wonder exactly what they were playing at, or if they bothered to question the motives and truth of their sources themselves.

The site is kind of like Brett Favre: Lots of completions but also lots of interceptions. It works great in getting anonymous tips, but not so great in getting officials to respond. But hey, that’s their thing.

More concerning was the way the Tribune used the allegations on Cal Coast as a lever to get the rumors out there, without any substantiating reporting. Their sub-headline said, “David Edge denies he has resigned amid rumors of sexual harassment … .”

He might have “denied” that he tortures cats, believes in aliens, and licks other people’s silverware when they’re not looking, too, but that doesn’t make any of those denials into news stories.

The normally solid Bob Cuddy walked a very strange path in that story, finding a way to mention the Tribune had gotten an anonymous tip about the sexual harassment claim a day before but, because they couldn’t verify it, didn’t run with it.

In other words, they couldn’t prove it was true, so they were too classy to run it, but once someone else has published the same rumor, they ran with it. That’s both defensive (hey, we hear stuff too!) and schizophrenic, and not very classy. If you’re going to float above the muck, float. If you’re going to play in the muck, play. But don’t play in the muck and give yourself credit for floating.

(And go ahead, bring on the obvious criticism: Ol’ Shred is doing the same thing here, with a column about the allegations, when we couldn’t prove them enough to run a news item. That’s fine, but calls needed to be made.)

Standards are an absolute pisser in the news business. Most journalists learn that the choicest bits—those parts that address the motives, rivalries, love-lives, and hatreds behind the news—never make it into print or on the air because they’re fundamentally unverifiable. No fun.

The Tribune gets a lot of well-deserved shit for being consistently too pro-business and protective of local movers. They seem too often to let advertising interests weigh in on their editorial decisions—is there any other possible explanation for the weeks of front-page coverage they gave to the closure of Gottschalks?

Despite that, you could usually count on them to resist the temptations of reputation-trashing stories that weren’t yet established as true. Maybe their recent economic troubles have shaken this foundation, made them think they have to mix it up to hold on to their dwindling readers.

They shouldn’t. They should become more aggressive, more critical, and more flat-out interesting. But not by lowering their standards. That way badness lies.

Shredder hopes this new high horse doesn’t buck. Throw him a line at shredder@newtimesslo.com.

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