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Why we published: Great Debate Mystery stories

This the third time I’ve written a “Why we published” editorial in the Sacto Politico’s first year of existence. Each time, the occasion was an exclusive report published outside our normal twice-a-month cycle. The goal of these editorials is to give readers additional background on an important story and answer the very natural question “why we published?”

The first such editorial came last October amid a series of scoops about extremist associations by the Congressional campaign of state GOP-endorsed candidate Buzz Patterson in his face-off against Sacramento-area U.S. Rep. Ami Bera. This included our reporting that Patterson – who produced provocative and extremist controversary throughout the entire cycle – had trained his staff and volunteers using a recent national strategist from one of the largest hate groups in the U.S.

The second editorial concerned the still politically charged atmosphere within SEIU Local 1000 following the upset election of Richard Louis Brown as union president. Our story broke the news that someone had falsely called the police the night after Brown’s victory to investigate a woman reportedly screaming from inside his home. Police wakened Brown, who was asleep alone at 5 a.m., and Brown held his union opponents responsible for the dirty trick.

Now here’s our third editorial occasioned by a very different dirty-trick mystery that has entangled the Sacramento Press Club. The dirty-trick part involved an opponent in a civil lawsuit against recall candidate John Cox. That opponent got a private investigator to interrupt the press club’s Aug. 17 recall debate and serve Cox with a subpoena. The mystery part is who gave Cox’s opponent a ticket into the press club’s closed-door debate?

most obvious explanation for “why we published” is always this: “It’s news.” It’s news when a member of a debate organizer is connected in some fashion to a dirty trick. It’s additional news when the host organization is a press club and they refuse to name its member involved. It further news when the press club refuses to other provide background information to confirm its claims their member was unaware of and/or not party to the dirty trick.

Another aspect that unites all these stories is a bedrock commitment to the public interest. This includes but goes beyond the standard “public right to know.” By shining a public light, these stories seek to political players to high standards and encourage everyone to be good stewards of their professions and our democracy. This applies be it a Congressional candidate, the disappointed supporters of a deposed union chief, or a media organization behaving in a less than transparent way.

When I first began asking how the process server got into the closed-door debate, I assumed it would make a quick item for a larger debate roundup piece. The event was open only to press club members, accredited media, campaign personnel, and guests invited by press club members. So I expected another campaign may have invited the process server, or perhaps the individual got credentialed impersonating a reporter, which is also what John Cox told me he assumed had happened.

But when a member of the press club told me their understanding was a press club member had bought the ticket used by the process server, one’s reportorial spidey senses start tingling. Then when the press club confirmed but would not directly respond to multiple requests for the member’s name or explain why they wouldn’t share it, it transforms into a larger political mystery.

Political reporters are trained that coverups are usually more complex and intriguing than the crimes. In this case, no crime existed, though a victim did. That was Cox who was victimized by a dirty trick that went viral, by poor event security, and possibly by involvement of a member of the press club.

One of the few extra details the press club would share was it knew the member was not a journalist and that the member was unaware how the ticket would ultimately be used. So what made the press club certain of this and how the ticket got to the process server? Well, the press club would not elaborate. In other words, “Trust us and go away,” which you’d think a press club would know is generally not the best approach to turn away a reporter.

I’ve heard both plaudits and criticism about my original report. One person criticized my story-telling choice. I chose a “tick-tock” approach to explain step-by-step the timeline of my investigation. This created a mystery format that seemed appropriate for reporting on a political mystery. Did I expertly pull it off? Did it add to the reading pleasure of the piece? Who knows, but I take criticism of “style” as very different from criticism of “substance.”

One of the more remarkable criticisms I heard was that my story could not be considered fair and newsworthy if only one person (this reporter) is asking questions. However, there’s a simple term in journalism for stories unearthed by a single, enterprising reporter: “a scoop.” Plus, the public interest is never served if reporters only cover the same topics in packs.

In many ways, “Why we published?” is a far less interesting question than why would a press club deepen a mystery and only bring more attention to itself by refusing to fully explain a regrettable situation? Such avoidance of openness only makes people wonder who or what else might the press club be protecting?

Of course, they may be hiding nothing other than their own embarrassment. Maybe as well this is the first time some leaders of the press club have been on the other side of a news story – the question-answering side. They just fumbled every step of the way.

But consider that the Sacramento Press Club hosted a debate and invited candidates to it. A political debate is by nature mutually beneficial event for the main participants. Media outlets get a newsworthy event to cover, and the candidates get valuable free coverage that most of them otherwise would not get individually. However, a political debate is more than just convenient content for news outlets and free PR for candidates. Debates serve an important role in any properly functioning democracy. They provide busy voters a chance to size up multiple candidates side-by-side, including sometimes for the first time. Thus host organizations should consider it a serious undertaking and guard the reputation and perception of the debate format accordingly.

Plus in this age, more and more candidates are choosing to avoid debates in order to avoid “gotcha moments” of which the Cox subpoena was a perfect example. Thus the burden on hosts of political debates should be akin to that core medical principle of “do no harm” – in this case don no harm to the institution of debates.

But unfortunately, at no time has the Sacramento Press Club stepped back and expressed regret for the incident happening on their watch. They’ve also shared no information about corrective actions will be put in place to avoid a repeat in the future. And last, they’ve taken a very stubborn position that they do not owe John Cox or any of the other debate participant the courtesy of a proactive call to explain any of this off the record.

The press club did tell me they had arranged for security at the event. They would not share what this entailed, but in the 15-second video of the subpoena, there’s no evidence of any security. The process server loudly interrupts and walks uninterrupted right up to the stage. After the server throws the court papers toward Cox, the debate’s timekeeper stands up and ushers the server away. Compliments to the timekeeper who the press club said is a board member, but shouldn’t 15 seconds be long enough for any actual security present to have reacted? So what were the security measures in place? What failed? And will the member who purchased the ticket still be allowed to purchase and share future tickets?

All fair questions that the press club feels beyond the pale of public transparency. This is especially concerning as this was a situation that could have gone sideways quick. As John Cox points out in today’s article as well, what if the man had approached the stage with a weapon and not a subpoena?

From the outside, the press club’s initial response resembles a group of teenagers who hope the vase they chipped will escape other people’s notice. But once I started asking questions and then when two reputable candidates have gone on the record to criticize the press club’s handling of this, why not just get everything out there?

But instead of following best practices, press club president Alexei Koseff replied yesterday with the following statement. This came in response to a list of questions I emailed to him, along with direct on-the-record quotes from Cox and recent recall candidate Doug Ose registering their concerns and complaints:

“The Sacramento Press Club has received no complaints about our debate. If anyone has a concern that they’d like to discuss, please ask them to contact us directly. Given how the Sacramento Press Club was mischaracterized in your original story, we decline to comment further.”

First, about Koseff claiming the press club was mischaracterized in my earlier story: When asked three times to provide the basis of this claim on-the-record and for publication, he would not. Further, no one from the press club (including Koseff) or any other group has requested a correction to or retraction of the original story.

Second, his statement incorrectly denied receiving any complaints even though I had forwarded such comments that very day for his response. Evidence of this was pretty clear as Koseff’s emailed statement came directly in response to my relaying the complaints and concerns I received from Cox and Ose, and are part of the email chain.

The press club’s stance also puts it in the position of protecting the identity of one member who wittingly or unwittingly created this controversary while criticizing another member (me) for doing what members of a press club do: report the news. And let’s not forget the anonymous member who could take the spotlight off the press club at any time by stepping forward publicly.

Last Koseff’s statement makes it appear the press club will not answer Cox or Ose’s complaints unless those individuals or their people make a special effort pick up the phone to discuss them with the press club. But Cox is involved in the homestretch of an election, and Ose is recovering from a heart attack. Plus it was the Press Club’s poor security and one of its own members who – inadvertently or not – created the situation that victimized an invited candidate. Simple civility would suggest a less stubborn stance, let alone professional concern for the reputation of the press club and its members.

As I mentioned in both my stories, I am a member of the press club. So this is not a story I revel in reporting, but it’s also not one I turn my back on. I do believe everyone in journalism – and all sectors of society, for that matter – need be stronger stewards of our professions. No one is perfect. Mistakes are made, and corrections necessary. But when all parties in our political system dig in Hatfield & McCoy-style against everyone else, you get something like the combative, distrustful public square we have today.

Why the Sacramento Press Club chooses to not lead by example in this regard is one last reason why we published.

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