I’m afraid that I don’t agree with the assumptions and insinuations in the column this week by Civil Beat’s “reader rep” Brett Oppegaard.
In a column published on Halloween, Oppegaard took aim at Honolulu Star-Advertiser Capital Bureau Chief Kevin Dayton for the sin of spending time on both sides of the divide between journalism and politics (“Reader Rep: Hawaii Mayor Billy Kenoi Scandal Stains Journalist, Too“).
The sub-head, probably not written by Oppegaard, stated the column’s conclusion: “The criminal trial of the Big Island mayor demonstrates why reporters shouldn’t cross the line between journalism and politics.”
Dayton is another example of a local journalist who left the profession to pursue work in government, politics or public relations and then returned (twice), his credibility tainted by the special interest he went to work for.
But it seems to me Oppegaard’s conclusion–that there’s a hard and fast line between journalism and politics that shouldn’t be crossed–came first, and his argument never really followed. He believes journalists are inevitably tainted if they obtain first-hand experience in politics. But that’s his starting point, not a point he demonstrates through evidence or history.
He does make one reference to Nestor Garcia, the reporter turned elected official who was disgraced while in office and then returned to a position in the news business, implying that Dayton’s sojourn on the staff of Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi was somehow equivalent to Garcia’s epic fall. I think he’s wrong there, and wrong on the larger point.
Dayton was not an elected official, and was never hit with allegations of violating ethics laws. Dayton did his job well, it seems, both as a reporter and a political staffer.
Dayton said by phone he should be judged on the content of his work, not his background….
“I believe I’m a good journalist. I work hard at my craft,” he said. “I try to operate with integrity, and I always have. I hope that comes through in the work that I do.”
I agree with Dayton. He is a good journalist. And he should be judged on his record, his reporting. But Oppegaard doesn’t do that. Instead, he tosses out a series of insinuations in the form of hypothetical questions, some which can’t be logically answered.
He asks: What about “all of the decisions a journalist makes…like what stories to pursue or not pursue, who to interview and not to interview, what questions to ask or not ask, etc.”
Fair questions. But these are questions that are inherent in journalism. They can’t be avoided. And they aren’t unique to someone in Dayton’s position. They are inherent in the fact that reporters and editors are people with their own biographies, their own set of experiences and beliefs, their perspectives and viewpoints, which all contribute to their answers to those questions.
To me, these questions don’t imply a criticism of Dayton or of those who have tasted what Oppegaard apparently considers the evil fruit of politics. Instead, they’re part of the everyday tension that journalists face and must deal with.
This debate hits a chord for me because I’ve done the same dance across the line between journalism and politics.
The difference, perhaps, is that I didn’t start as a journalist. I never set foot in a journalism class while in school, and started my career as a peace activist and educator, later gaining legislative experience as a public interest lobbyist for the nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, Common Cause. During that period, I spent considerable time with legislators, legislative staff, and with the journalists who covered politics. I tried to understand how they saw their roles, and I observed the process from their various viewpoints. It was quite an education, one that helped me later when I turned to writing.
Later, I campaigned for Neil Abercrombie, who served in the Senate while I was lobbying for Common Cause, and later served as his “senior advisor” after he was elected to the Honolulu City Council. I left Neil’s staff just before he made his first run for Congress.
It was only after all of that experience that I reinvented myself as a journalist by launching a small newsletter about Hawaii politics, focusing on the intersection of money and politics. I had learned a bit about that topic over the years, having seen it from the inside and the outside. And my unusual background made that initial foray into reporting a success, as I was often able to see and report interesting stories that went unnoticed by mainstream daily reporters.
During my relatively short tenure as a newsletter publisher, I earned accolades from the Republican Party as well as from progressive Democrats.
I was eventually offered, and accepted, a job as an investigative reporter for the late Honolulu Star-Bulletin. My unusual background, straddling that dangerous line between politics and journalism, likely gave heartburn to my editors from time to time. But it also provided an important background that helped my reporting.
And, like Dayton, I expected to be judged on my work. It think that was a fair expectation.
Yes, I personally was a Democrat. But I reported on questionable fundraising by island Democrats, and tracked the local roots of the Asian fundraising scandal that later rocked Bill Clinton’s presidency. My reporting challenged the leadership of one of the state’s largest unions, and contributed to the criminal charges that followed.
After leaving the Star-Bulletin, I’ve continued blogging about politics. For several years, I crossed back over to the political side of things as a legislative staffer, while continuing an independent daily blog. Yes, that was a challenge. And it had its awkward moments, for sure.
I continued writing for Honolulu Weekly and, more recently, Civil Beat. Should my experience on both sides of that political/journalism divide have forever barred me from being a reporter? I think not. And I’ll go further by saying that the experience in politics made me a better and more perceptive reporter.