In its July 9 issue, the Fort Bragg Advocate ran an editorial that bravely confirmed what any thinking person already knew: Our local advertorial broadsheet — which is no more a newspaper than Bill O'Reilly is a journalist — has decided that the act of contacting and cultivating sources in the community (i.e., reporting) is a pesky and unnecessary task.
The piece, titled “'Everyone knew' doesn't equal proof,” attempted to justify the Advocate's refusal to report on two important local news stories — the case of Aaron Vargas, who was arrested in February for the murder of Darrell McNeill, and ongoing, year-long investigation into the suspicious death of 22-year-old Katlyn Long — by implying that the paper's high standards of journalistic integrity forbid them from doing so. It began, “Stories found in all news media are decided by one or more editors; criteria for those decisions is obviously different for the editors of a supermarket tabloid and 'The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.'” In this lofty scenario, the Advocate would presumably have you believe that they are the earnest, National Humanities Medal-winning, PBS program while those publications that have opted to cover these stories — including the Advertiser and, to a lesser degree, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat — are Us Weekly.
But the Advocate is not NewsHour. Unfortunately for all of us, they're barely The National Enquirer. The Enquirer, the quintessential American tabloid, at least occasionally launches actual investigations. Sometimes — as was the case this winter, when they exposed John Edwards's affair with a woman who worked with his campaign — they even break authentic, albeit sensational, news stories. With the exception of the competent reporting of Frank Hartzell, the same can scarcely be said of the Advocate, which routinely devotes large swaths of its front page to “articles” submitted by the very people that most newspapers seek to scrutinize, investigate and hold accountable.
I grew up in Fort Bragg, and the Advocate found its way to our kitchen table nearly every week, but it wasn't until relatively recently — when, a couple of years ago, my husband and I returned from journalism school in New York for a summer internship at the Advertiser — that I understood that much of my hometown paper is made up of press releases published as news stories. After years of reading the Advocate, I realized that what I had thought was simply fluffy journalism was, in fact, much more offensive than that.
In one recent issue of the Advocate, four of the five front-page stories were “submitted by” people other than Advocate reporters, including Fort Bragg's Mayor, Doug Hammerstrom, and the head of the local community college district, Jeff Marsee.
I scanned the issue and emailed it to Adam Penenberg, an ethics professor at NYU's journalism school. (You might remember Penenberg, who was played by Steve Zahn in the movie Shattered Glass, as the reporter who uncovered the fabrications and deceits of former-New Republic rising star Stephan Glass.) Penenberg wrote, “it is problematic for a newspaper, which purportedly has a mission to disseminate 'news' to a community, to rely on the subjects they cover to submit articles.”
“The general rule for transparency,” Penenberg continued, “is that a normal reader would be able to divine the situation immediately. The newspaper has a duty to put a box around these submissions, state that they are opinion pieces, and clearly identify the role of each writer.”
The Advocate does none of these things.
But Penenberg did allow that this is a “murky area” because the Advocate — which is owned by MediaNews Group, one of the largest newspaper companies in the country — abides by its own corporate mission statement: MediaNews provides “information and services” as well as local news. “They cover their butts,” Penenberg writes.
Josh Stearns of Free Press, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-partisan media reform organization that advocates against media consolidation, called Mendocino County — where MediaNews Group owns not only the Advocate but the Ukiah Daily Journal, the Willits News and the Mendocino Beacon — a “shocking example” of one company having a near monopoly on local news. He says the Advocate's use of submitted stories “closely mimics” another unnerving trend in journalism, the use of video news releases in broadcast news programming. These video clips — which promote a product or a political viewpoint — are designed to perfectly replicate legitimate TV news segments. The clips are given to the stations for free and seamlessly incorporated into the news program without attribution.
According to Stearns, the Federal Communications Commission has ruled that the practice is illegal and has levied fines against stations that have aired unattributed releases. The FCC doesn't regulate newspapers, but Stearns — who also reviewed the scanned images of the Advocate's front page — says the same ethical rules should apply to newspapers.
When asked what standards, if any, are used to determine what submitted articles the Advocate publishes, editor Katherine Lee says, “If they're informational, we publish them — as long as they're local.” Beyond that, she says the pieces aren't fact-checked to make sure the information is true, unless it strikes her as “inaccurate or incomplete.”
Like broadcast news shows that run video news releases, the benefit from this arrangement is clear: the Advocate can fill its pages with submitted material, without the burden and expense of news gathering. It's a cozy and convenient relationship, to be sure. Anyone who has spent hours interviewing subjects, reading documents and attending community meetings in the course of covering a complex story knows that reporting is a lot of work. It's not for everyone. And I understand why the Advocate might prefer to do as little of it as possible.
What I don't understand is why the paper would publish an editorial explaining their lack of coverage of important news stories based on their “responsibility as a government watchdog and the availability of verifiable information.” It's as if the Advocate defines verifiable information as only that which comes to them from official agencies — the police, the district attorney, etc. But, as any good reporter knows, the government is just as capable of offering self-serving information as anyone else.
In the case of Aaron Vargas, the police may have a vested interest beyond their interest in justice. At least two community members have said they reported Vargas's alleged victim, Darrell McNeill, to the Fort Bragg police because they believed he had molested local children. Because an arrest was never made, the police will neither confirm nor deny that reports were filed. But if these family members are telling the truth, the police department may have failed to effectively investigate a serious crime.
The Advocate seems to believe that the Fort Bragg police department is, inherently, a more reliable source than John Clemons, who has publicly said that his then-stepfather, Darrell McNeill, molested him as a child. (His mother says she reported the abuse to the police, but was told there wasn't sufficient evidence for an arrest.) Of course, it's possible that Clemons is lying. But it's also possible that our local police failed to investigate as fully as they might have.
Especially galling is the Advocate's assertion that, “we have not received a single letter from or been contacted by anyone who claims to be a victim of McNeill,” which implies that the lack of these letters undermines the allegations of abuse. The Advocate's editorial turns the role of a newspaper on its head — as if the job of a reporter is to sit in an office and wait for sources to call and tell their stories. In fact, that's the opposite of what journalists are supposed to do.
No, our local newspaper is no NewsHour. Instead, it operates like a gussied up version of PennySaver, the sad classified rag in which all comers can hock their goods and make a buck. The Advocate may spread its “content” — advertisements, press releases and cat-in-a-tree tales — across newsprint, but it takes more than words on a page to make a newspaper.