Getting beyond “he said this, but they said that” reporting

Star-Advertiser reporter Rob Perez has continued his digging into Honolulu’s contract for auto towing with two stories on overcharging by the current contractor, Leeward Auto Wreckers.

I’m a fan of Rob’s reporting, but there are some things I don’t understand.

One is the tendency to sidestep documents in favor of quotes from sources about the documents.

Take the most recent towing story (“1 in 5 city towing bills inflated, invoices show”) was published yesterday, December 23. It reports on a review of recent invoices for tows by the contractor.

Perez reported:

Most of the inflated bills from Leeward Auto Wreckers involved vehicles that were picked up near the company’s Pearl City lot but were towed to a Kapolei lot instead, adding an extra eight to 10 miles roughly to the tab, the newspaper found.

At the $7.50-per-mile rate that the company charged until recently, that added an extra $60 to $75 to the bill.

Good stuff. Getting into the invoices gave the story substance. But….

According to the story, city spokesman Johnny Brannon said the contract requires towing to the nearest storage lot in order to reduce costs to the vehicle owners.

In a recent interview, Hans Tandal, Leeward Auto’s operations manager, told the newspaper that the contract did not require the company to tow cars to the nearest lot.

That directly contradicted what Brannon subsequently told the newspaper. Tandal did not respond to a phone message asking about the contradiction. [emphasis added]

I fully expected the next step would be to bust through the “he said – they said” standoff by quoting from the contract itself, but that didn’t happen. Instead, readers were left with the unresolved contradiction.

It seems to me that a lot of reporters and/or editors prefer this approach. Perhaps reporting competing quotes is thought to add some dramatic tension that would otherwise be lost. Or perhaps this is designed to keep the reporter out of the role of arbiter of such disputes, even when there’s an objective answer available (in this case, the terms of the contract itself).

Another thing that strikes me as odd is that Perez never reports any information about the company or its owners. His stories quote Hans Tandal, identified as the company’s operations manager.

It’s always been my approach to provide some details that could eventually lead to filling out our understanding of the situation. So here’s what I gleaned from a quick sweep. At least the ownership and officers of Leeward Auto Wreckers would certainly be relevant to the stories. And I would think that further digging into the background of the company and its principals would likely yield some interesting results.

Here’s what state business registration records show.

BUSINESS TYPE Domestic Profit Corporation
KAPOLEI, Hawaii 96707
WAIANAE, Hawaii 96792

NAME sort OFFICE sorted help DATE sort
BATHE,BILL T Dec 31, 2001

Other companies in which Ternora is listed as an officer:

C O M P A N Y I N F O R M A T I O N FileBusiness Name/TypeAddress
Domestic Profit Corporation91-209 KUHELA ST

Domestic Limited Liability Company (LLC)91-209 KUHELA ST

63962-C5 ATDE LLC
Domestic Limited Liability Company (LLC)765 AMANA ST STE 500

Domestic Limited Liability Company (LLC)91-209 KUHELA ST

Domestic Profit Corporation91-209 KUHELA ST

16 responses to “Getting beyond “he said this, but they said that” reporting

  1. Quoting folks of little standing is the trend of today, whether reporters wish to do so or not. It is an editors’ demand, Background and records too often are seen as passe. That takes effort against a balky bureaucracy.

  2. Amazing! The Honolulu Police Department facilitating highway robbery.

    Why am I not surprised.

  3. John Stewart had the quote of the year on the subject of modern “he said, she said” journalism: “When did ‘fact-checker’ become a spereate job?”

  4. Ian, First, I am awfully glad that Rob Perez simply wrote the story, period. This comes in large part from my having the experience of having to retrieve a friend’s car around two in the morning for around $145 in real cash–that was the demand. The car was towed from around Ward and Beretania to some place around the edges of Pearl Ridge, around ten miles away. This was not even as shocking as the same bill (only to be paid in real cash) a number of years earlier for an estimate to tow my car about two miles max from Likelike into Kaneohe. I guess that was a rather discretionary call for the tower, but there was nothing unusual about the tow, other than it happened around 9 at night.

    I often talked to Rob Perez while director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. He seemed to do very excellent and controversial work, and took much time to ensure he was being fair, and getting quotes right. I have also seen the other dark side, where things have been said about me without my being even contacted on the matter. Many of these nutty comments were either not true in the least, or had no basis whatsoever in fact and amounted to no more than mere speculation put out as fact, and other comments about me that would require the writer to have been omniscient about my life or work–and I use the word omniscient not as an exaggeration.

    As for contracts and other documents, having, as a lawyer, looked over these for over 30 years, especially as evidence, I can tell you that most of the time both sides argue about what they really mean, which hardly puts them a lot of the time much ahead of quotes (which can be very damaging down the road). And these written documents do not arise in a vacuum–both sides will assert what they meant in creating the documents. In fact, many times a quote may be more damning. As an example of contracts or documents, let’s pause and think about all the time that was spent on Obama’s birth certificate.

    Let me be clear that I am just relating my own personal views. I have not been a reporter, Ian, while you have, so I presume you have more insight into such matters. But I thought I would add a little from my own experience. I am sure there are honest towing companies (and assume most are). I also assume that taking advantage of people who are held basically hostage is something that frequently happens, and maybe something we should think about this time of the year, if not all year.

    Thanks for raising these issues, and Happy Holidays!

    • I agree on these points, but I must add the following:

      If a contract’s language is vague and can be interpreted different ways, THAT is when we need to SEE the language, not just hear people talk about it. Not seeing the language in the contract is a game-stopper for someone who puts facts BEFORE the argument. Even if the language is vague. Talking about the language, but not having the actual language, is a perfect example of Cart Before Horse.

      • Tim, I agree. Seeing the language is of course critical, along with what the parties say about it–so us readers (or whoever) can judge. As for my comment, I was not implying disputes about vague language–in my experience, parties often take different sides on the clearest of language, as to what was meant and so forth. I am not being flip here, but when one starts talking in terms of “what the definition of ‘is’ is”, one sees how far this all can go–in writing or when spoken. But I agree–seeing the document is of course critical, regardless of what is said about it.

  5. Ian, since you raised the issue of basically “he said, she said” reporting and relying on mere quotes from the two sides involved, I would be interested in your perspective or someone else’s as to why reporters frequently assert supposed facts about people without first contacting them, which seems a common practice to me. This, to me, seems more egregious than at least seeking comments or quotes from both sides about what they did or did not do, or at least checking with the accused, so to speak, regarding what another alleges about them, regardless of who that might be. I agree that if documents assist in a “he said, she said” matter, not even contacting someone about their actions in regard to a matter seems logically more problematic. Looking at documents on top of getting quotes from the two sides is two steps up it seems from not seeking a comment from someone at all about a matter.

    In my role as a lawyer for the Hawaii State Ethics Commission when I worked there, I learned that relying on the comments of others, including newspapers, about the truth of things without hearing from the other side could lead to disastrous results.

    For example, one day charges were filed with the State Ethics Commission by an individual (an eye witness) against a number of legislators who were in the Capitol Rotunda, and the charge alleged all were campaigning on state property illegally. However, a photograph showed that one of the legislators charged was not even present at the event. We would have checked this out anyway, before proceeding. However, it seems that journalists often assert that someone has done or not done something without checking with the person for the person’s view of the matter. Am I off-base here?

    It seems that the notion of “fact-checking” as a separate enterprise is indeed quizzical, though I think the original notion was for a reporter to check–for the first time–the veracity of a claim someone had asserted as fact. So it seems there are two concepts of “fact-checking” floating around–one as to reporters doing their jobs, and another as to a reporter checking out a claim made by someone.

    As for journalism, you and your readers might be interested in a related matter. When I was the director of the State Ethics Commission, a few times reporters would call me and literally beg me to confirm or convey information which was confidential by law. Even after I explained the information was confidential by law (and thus illegal for me to release), reporters would still continue to (really) beg me to disclose the information. One once said, “Come on, give me a break”–I suppose so the reporter would have a story, one way or the other.

    At an ethics conference on the Mainland I once attended, one of the speakers was a prominent journalist from the Austin, Texas, area. After hearing his speech on how ethics directors should interact with the media, I asked him privately about the ethics of journalists begging for legally confidential information, especially when they were writing a story on the apparent breach of an ethics law by a government official. I thought this was rather ironic. When I asked the question, the speaker was at a loss for an answer. He then said, “our job is to get information”. So, to my mind, while writing about the horrors of a breach of ethics laws, here are reporters asking for ethics laws to be breached for their benefit–more appalling, I suppose, when making such a request to the director of an ethics commission. If this happened only once by a clueless reporter, that might be different. But, I am talking about competent and seasoned reporters.

    I realize this is different from receiving information that might be improper for someone to release, but continuing to ask for information you have been told is confidential by law amazes me.

    I would note lest someone thinks that I am implying something, that you, Ian, of course never did this, nor would I think you would in a million years.

    So, I suppose a reporter can take “fact-checking” a little too far, in my view. I would be interested in what you or others have to say about this journalistic practice.

    It seems the range of obtaining facts for a story is quite broad–ranging from asking for information knowing it is confidential by law and begging for its release, to, as you assert, being lax about not going further and examining documents to clarify matters. I am glad that you raised the issue of doing competent work.

    Again, Happy Holidays!

  6. Ian, not to belabor the issue, but I think there is a general but not accurate notion that a “he said, she said” matter is a draw. I don’t think that is the case, and not the case in law–if need be, prosecutions and lawsuits go forward in such situations probably more times than not–there is always the credibility of the witnesses to consider that can tip the balance. One side may often appear to be more credible than the other, so it is not necessarily a 50-50 proposition.

    In Perez’s story, you have a prominent city official without any apparent bias commenting on a city contract. On the other side, you have a comment denying what the city official says by someone who is basically being accused (and therefore may have a reason or motive for contradicting the city official). You have the fact that the manager of the towing firm would not return a call. Given all of this, this is not a 50-50 situation, as the story is written.

    The city contract is also a public record I presume, obtainable by anyone, under the UIPA.

    Anyway, the point is, in my view, that it is wrong to assume that two contradictory comments leave us nowhere and do not constitute a valid and complete story. The monkey is on the city’s back now to see if the towing contract has been violated. And, anyone who feels he or she may have been overcharged now has that information.

    I think this constitutes a valid story and a useful story. It is a matter for the city now to see what is going on. After I gave this some more thought, at present, what is the point of including the contract? Is the point for us to figure out who is right–the city official or manager? I don’t think so.

    • In another era when public officials had more respect, your point might have had more weight.
      Today it is another story. No one is going to take the city view at face value on most issues.

      My point is simply that when a document, in this case the contract, is in dispute, the document itself should be directly referenced in the story.
      And the editorial decision, reflected in many stories of this kind, is a retreat from the proper role of the news media to bring the most relevant information to the reader.


  7. I totally get your point about the contract but am I missing something regarding information from the DCCA BREG records?

    What part of that information was relevant enuf to the issue (whether the contract required towing to the closest base yard) to warrant inclusion in a print article — where space is limited and production costs high — as opposed to a blog — where space limits and production costs are not an issue?

    If you had found a complaints history that demonstrated a record of overcharging, that information would seem to be more relevant than the ownership background.

    • Ohiaforest3400, I agree with your comment about the DCCA BREG records as to the article Perez wrote. As to the “he said–she said” aspect of the story, Ian wrote in his blog: “I fully expected the next step would be to bust through the ‘he said-they said’ standoff by quoting from the contract itself, but that didn’t happen. Instead, readers were left with the unresolved contradiction.” As a reader, I must admit I was not bothered by the lack of quotations from the contract, and I remain unconvinced that I should be concerned. If I had a towing problem with the company, or now suspected one based on Perez’s article, I would know and could take action.

      At this point, we don’t know if it was feasible or not to quote from the contract in a fair way, as Ian states he fully expected. That assumes this could easily be done. I don’t know if that is true. Based on my reading, writing, and reviewing of government contracts for decades, I would not assume categorically that contracts can be easily quoted. They can be quite long, and we don’t know if quoting only parts of the contract would even be helpful in terms of getting at the truth–the same issue in a contract may be referenced in more than one place. In any event, I still maintain that for the purposes of the Perez article, quoting the contract so that readers can decide who is correct–Brannon or the towing manager–is not necessary for the story. Of more importance, readers have been put on notice that perhaps they were illegally gouged. That seems sufficient and the point of the story.

      As I indicated above, Perez has a quote from a prominent city official stating that the contract required the towing company to do something they were not in fact supposedly doing, The manager of the towing company disagreed, and, according to Perez, did not respond to a phone message from Perez. As I explained above, this is really not a “he said-she said” debate in terms of assuming this is a 50-50 situation. The quotes, invoices, and actions give more credibility to the city, at this point, to me.

      Anyway, as I mentioned, in law, there is no such thing as the concept of a “he said-she said” that leaves us in legal limbo. A judge or jury or administrative agency with adjudicatory powers takes into account the testimony, under oath, of the witnesses, and their credibility, but here we have other facts as well.

      In responding to my comments above, Ian tells me: “No one is going to take the city view at face value on most issues.” Ian speaks from some basis of experience or authority, I assume. Ohiaforest3400, do you agree with Ian’s broad view?

      As for myself, I would not assume this to be true–that the “no ones” reading the paper are not going to give comments by city officials credibility “on most issues”. Ian states that the veracity of city officials in a past era was more reliable, but not anymore. I am not sure what era Ian is talking about. But, speaking for myself, I have been in Hawaii a long time and for more than 28 years worked at the State Ethics Commission. I don’t agree with Ian’s assessment, general in nature, as to the veracity of city officials all the time.

      Ian, you state that when a document is in dispute, the document itself should be referenced in the story. Like your comments about the veracity of city officials, this is a very general comment–I myself think it depends on the situation.

      Ian, if I recall, you have also worked for the city and the state. Does this mean your readers should assume things automatically about what you did in these positions? Do you discount other city and state officials or employees in a similar automatic fashion? I am not being argumentative here–I am rather confused as to your views. Just as Ohiaforest3400 talks about the relevance of certain documents to a story, I assume he has been around and can also comment on the degree we can take Brannon’s assertion at least as to the issue of being made in good faith.

      I think one of the problems here is making sweeping generalizations, as if quoting documents “in dispute” is an elementary requirement of journalism, despite the nature of the story, its other contents, etc. I find that making sweeping comments about the veracity of government officials in all the eras you know about is unfair, and certainly unfair if used to nullify the comments of Brannon in a per se fashion.

      As to a related matter, I would wonder what you think, Ian, of posting government contracts on line, when they are public documents under the UIPA. I think this would go very far in enhancing the taxpayers’ understanding of things, and would lead to more honesty in government. To me, I believe it should be done. It’s our government. Perhaps Ohiaforest3400 can comment on this issue as well. This posting of contracts could be limited to those over a certain dollar amount, to avoid being overly burdensome. I think many agencies of government have been lax in providing information on-line. I believe the Legislature’s website is an example of how useful agency information can be–not to imply that takes care of all issues at the Legislature. Thanks, Ian, for raising these issues. I think we need to consider these important matters.

  8. I’m not sure that I am intelligent enough to understand the criticism, rhetoric and issue regarding the reporting by Ron Perez when it is Tandal that should be the subject of focus. First of all Ron Perez is still working on updating his articles. Tandal has a litany of business names, LLC, dropped lawsuits, the BBB lowered his B rating to an F and then discontinued his membership and his license for car repair was stripped from him by the DCCA. RICO. He has a history of deceit and dropped lawsuits under as many as a dozen different business names. How do I know? Because I sued him in small claims court (successfully) for keeping my car for 4 months and not returning it, for actually working on my car without a valid business license and for damaging the engine and interior and exterior of the car. Yes, I proved it was him. Pretty amazing for the little, old, fat lady that I am. I’ve posted this on several websites and although Tandal has referred to me as a “very disturbed person” he cannot sue me for slander because every word I write is the truth and I can prove it. I’m not going to respond to this thread since frankly, it seems that it’s been hijacked but if you want to know more about Tandal, go to the DCCA website. Ron Perez did us all a favor and he continues to do so. I think he should be given the consideration, time and respect to complete his investigatory articles. Tandal is not an innocent businessman who erred. Tandal cheats with every fiber in his body and breathes lies every time he opens his pie hole.

  9. Funny, I got sidetracked celebrating Christmas and missed all the fun everyone was having with Journalism 101.

    Well, I could go into my efforts to get Ian or another journalist, anyone, to simply ask the director of the Ethics Commission why it took two years to investigate the lobbying case involving a well known church. Ian never asked it and no one else did. It was an obvious question. This talk about Perez and what he should be doing seem ironic to me. But hey, I guess its just me.

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