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Grade F for the Asheville Citizen-Times

December 11, 2013

I’ve always loved public interest reporting, and I’ve always loved newspapers. As a kid, I read about Nelly Bly (1864-1922), a courageous reporter who disguised herself as a mental patient and went undercover in order to detail the horrible conditions of people living in asylums. Her reporting changed lives. At North Buncombe High, one of my history teachers told us about public interest writer, Upton Sinclair. So I read “The Jungle,” Sinclair’s novel describing the horrific conditions of immigrant workers in Chicago’s meatpacking industry at the turn-of-the-century. That book made me really appreciate the labor movement. At UNCA, I had a class called “19th Century Newspaper Women.” I learned how the power of the pen advanced the suffrage movement.

Here’s what I know: Government exists to empower and protect people and that is also true for journalism. A healthy democracy depends on a free and independent press. Period.

I don’t like criticizing the local paper. It’s hard work putting out a paper, and it’s noble work. But I’m going to say it: Gannett, the owner of our local paper, the Asheville Citizen-Times (ACT), seems intent on running the ACT into the ground. This summer, Gannett laid off eight talented, well-respected staffers in the newsroom. That was a blow to the entire community. We need more local journalists not fewer.

Today, Ashvegas reports that Gannett plans on adding 12-14 pages of USA Today content to the local paper. That’s a terrible idea. I have no interest in 12-14 pages of canned USA Today stories. Do you? For national news, I turn to the in-depth coverage of sources like the New York Times. From the ACT, I want local news — and, no, that does not include all the tiresome Billy Graham stories running in the paper every other day.

I want in-depth investigative stories. I want to know which of my local reps rejects science. I want a local daily that will follow up on Tim Moffitt’s loyalty to the sinister privateering group ALEC. I want to know what happens at public meetings. What’s going on in the planning department? What’s going on with local businesses? What good things are our local non-profits doing? I want to know how the gas pump got crushed off its stand at Enmark. I want to laugh out loud with Susan Reinhardt columns. I don’t want to read about Syria in the ACT because there are too many good national news outlets that can do a much better job informing me about topics such as Syria.

Well, I digress. What I really want to talk about is the horrible recent breach of ethics on the part of the ACT. On November 27, the ACT ran a 48-page paid political insert sponsored by Moffitt’s firm — without disclosing to readers the origin or sponsorship of the document. This must have horrified the entire newsroom as certain standards in journalism are SACRED. Unlike Moffitt’s Raleigh Digest, real newspapers have to work in an open system in order to remain credible. Otherwise, who trusts them?  

The publisher’s response should have been strong and unequivocal. Instead, his tepid apology further marred the ACT’s credibility. I want the paper to succeed. However, with the newsroom lay-offs, this political insert business, and the announcement of more canned news — it all makes me wonder how long we will even have a local daily.

Here’s a description of the situation from Dr. Mark West, a board member with the Mountain Area Information Network:

The Asheville Citizen-Times ran a 48-page paid political insert, sponsored by a firm owned by Republican state representative Tim Moffitt, in its November 27 print edition without disclosing to readers the origin or sponsorship of the document. 

The insert, which was not readily distinguishable from newspaper content, praised the actions of the state legislature under Republican control as it cut educational budgets, eviscerated environmental programs, and pursued gerrymandering projects which brought about a Federal lawsuit against the state. 

Management of the Citizen-Times, which is owned by the Gannett newspaper chain, apologized on WLOS-TV for not labeling the insert as advertising, but did not mention its origin in Rep. Tim Moffitt’s InTouchNC, LLC. This firm’s business location is in Moffitt’s home, according to legal filings. 

The insert itself makes no mention of Moffitt’s affiliation, although copies of the insert appear on Moffitt’s web site. 

“The fact that the piece was paid for has to be prominently and clearly indicated,” says Dave Weinberger of the Harvard Business Review in a July 2013 article about sponsored journalism. And that’s precisely where Gannett failed. Worse, in their apology, they didn’t come clean about the political linkages of the sponsors of the insert. 

The statement in the newspaper says that the Citizen “apologizes for any confusion [the failure to label the insert as advertising] may have created.” That’s akin to saying “I’m sorry calling you a name offended you;” it’s an apology that does not really admit to wrongdoing. 

 The Citizen-Times should cover this major failure of journalistic ethics like any other news story. They should report on who did what, when, and how. 

 “If advertorials become effectively indistinguishable from editorial, aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?” Andrew Sullivan, former editor of the New Republic, wrote in a recent blog post. That’s a message the Citizen-Times should seriously consider.

Columbia Journalism Review has picked up the story:


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