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“Objective” vs. Actual Journalism

By Anthony Noel

Preface
Nobody ever got into journalism for the money.

That old saw, sadly true, begs (among the uninitiated, anyway) the question, “Then why do they?”

Altruistic as it may sound, I am completely convinced that people get into journalism because they believe, initially at least and above all else, in the public’s right to know.

investigation

To know what, exactly?

Journalists believe in the public’s right to learn the facts of a specific public issue or incident without being unduly influenced by ancillary circumstances – things with no bearing on that issue or incident.

If that sounds a little thorny, it is. That’s why I’m opening with it before reporting on Allen Thomas’ failure to resign from the Greenville Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) back in 2011.

What do I mean by “ancillary circumstances”?

Consider an anonymous tip, called in to a television station: A house is on fire. After making sure the caller has notified 911, the assignment editor asks, “Are you certain it’s on fire? How do you know?”

“I live next door. I’m looking right at it!” he says.

The editor thanks the tipster and sends a camera crew. She isn’t concerned with whether the tipster sought coverage so he would, say, have a video record in case the fire damages his own home. She takes down his contact information in case she needs it later, but doesn’t require that he release his name for inclusion in the station’s reporting. Why would she? It’s news affecting residents within her coverage area. Her job is to ensure it is reported. 

The foregoing describes (in an admittedly oversimplified way) the opposite of what happened two years ago when I tipped off The Daily Reflector to then-mayoral-candidate Thomas’ extended stay on P&Z. The Reflector refused to report the story, explaining that “only on extremely rare occasions do we run stories using anonymous sources unless we believe it to be of overwhelming importance to our readership. After [their reporter] spoke to the parties involved in this case and you indicated your preference to remain anonymous, [emphasis mine] we decided a story on this topic did not meet or exceed this threshold.”

Perhaps you landed here from Lisa Ellison’s post, “Whence We Came.” It details steps I took back then as a concerned Greenville resident trying to get this story out, and how the near-total lack of anything resembling actual journalism in this city led to The Guardian’s creation.

I believed then (as now) that public officials must be held accountable when they break the rules, and that journalists are largely responsible for doing that. Because even when the rule that is broken affects something as profound and basic as the public’s right to representation (as in this case), the legal remedies are weak, if not non-existent. The only real tool we have for holding elected and appointed representatives accountable is shining the brightest light possible on their actions (to paraphrase Louis Brandeis). 

That job that becomes a whole lot harder to do when reporters, editors and/or publishers take greater interest in where information is coming from than what the information is saying, and whether it is accurate. If it seems credible – for example, if it is on the public record, as in this case – the journalist’s job is to investigate fully, verify doggedly, report precisely, and let the public draw its own conclusions.

In alerting The Reflector (and, after it demurred, three other Greenville media outlets) to the public record concerning Allen Thomas’ residency status during his tenure on P&Z, and in disclosing that record myself in J101 (reproduced below), I tried to ensure that my own politics would not have undue influence. For J101, I even borrowed a pseudonym (“Raoul Duke”) from another hero of mine (and like Brandeis, a Louisvillian) the late Hunter S. Thompson, who interestingly said:

Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long.”

I can’t know whether The Reflector simply bought Allen Thomas’ explanation of what happened or relegated the incident to underwhelming importance based on what others had to say. I do know, however, that my very public advocacy for smart growth and my donation to Thomas’ opponent for mayor in the last cycle colored the paper’s decision – when I refused to be labeled as its “source” – to spike the story.

But why? My politics had no bearing on Thomas’ actions. Why should they become a factor their reporting?

I’ll tell you exactly why. Labeling me the “source” of the story allowed The Reflector to hide behind “objective” journalism, rather than do the difficult, confrontational work of actual journalism. In so doing, it missed a story which, as you are about to see, would have shed important light on Thomas’ character at a critical moment in our city’s history. 

The Public Record
First, here, in order of their citation, are links to the public documents footnoted (yellow highlights) in J101 (another photo of which is included below the links, for referential convenience):
City code section 9-2-2
NC General Statute 160A-362
Pitt County Affirmation of Understanding
Resignation from P&Z
Talent Bank Form
Transaction Record (Trulia)

Image

Investigation: Asking Questions
Once you have evidence that something is amiss, the next step is to contact the subject directly and see what he has to say for himself, and – importantly – to not simply accept whatever he says if it contradicts the public record.

The email exchanges below are verbatim. (Editor’s note: This was originally planned for publication on July 18, 2012, the one-year anniversary of Thomas’ resignation from P&Z. Publishing it in the same context in which it was spiked by The Reflector in 2011 – during the municipal election campaign – seems more appropriate.)
———————————————————————————–
Monday, July 16, 2012 9:22 AM
From: Anthony Noel
To: Allen M. Thomas

Good morning Mayor Thomas,

My name is Anthony Noel, and I write for The Greenville Guardian. I am preparing a story about your resignation as Pitt County’s representative to the Greenville Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z), which appears to have violated both the city code (section 9-2-2) and an NC general statute (160A-362).

I am seeking your responses to the questions below. My deadline is Tuesday, July 17 at 6 p.m. If I have not heard from you by that time the story will state that you did not respond to a request for comment.

Here are my questions:

You signed a statement with Pitt County on December 29, 2008, upon your appointment to the P&Z, stating that you would immediately resign the seat if you relocated to an address not in the County. Why did you wait seven months after relocating to 1108 Bexley Drive, inside the Greenville city limits, before resigning the seat?

You stated on a Greenville Talent Bank form dated July 18, 2011, the same date as your resignation letter to Pitt County, that you lived “7 years in ETJ [Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction], 1 year in Greenville.” Was it actually one year that you resided inside the city limits at that time, or just seven months? If it was a year, what was your address prior to the Bexley Drive home?

Thanks in advance, Mr. Mayor, for your anticipated reply.

Regards,
Anthony Noel
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July 17, 2012 6:47:53 PM EDT
From: Allen M. Thomas
To: Anthony Noel

Hi Anthony,

I am traveling back from Charlotte to Greenville this evening. Stopping for a minute to fuel up and provide you a quick paragraph. I hope this is not your only literary effort and we can look forward to additional contributions on your part directed to today’s progress and the great foundation of work we’ve initiated in economic development. Also the families & communities we are working with each day to make their quality of life better in Greenville.

Per your question— I have enjoyed the opportunity to serve on various boards and commissions in Greenville over the years including the East Carolina University Board of Visitors, the City of Greenville  Board of Adjustments and Planning & Zoning Commission among others.  It was a[n] honor to be voted chairman of Planning & Zoning by my peers.  As a member when I updated my address they [city officials] mentioned since I was reestablishing from ETJ Greenville to another part of Greenville I needed [to] change membership on the board and reapply as a new member– which I did.

Even though I was the chairman and experienced member of the board my application was turned down by Council member Calvin Mercer.  As it turns out I should thank Calvin-  as that set me on course to run for office and [be] elected Mayor by the citizens of Greenville.

Serving on city boards and commissions were a great experience.  It introduced me to many of the important aspects of city government and our needs in the community which have proven valuable in my role as Mayor of the city of Greenville.     —All the best and have a great summer. If you have the time I encourage you to take the opportunity to apply and serve on a  board or commission  which matches your interests and help make a difference in Greenville.

Best regards,
Allen
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Tuesday, July 17, 2012 7:49 PM
From: Anthony Noel
To: Allen M. Thomas

Mr. Mayor,

Thank you for your reply. As someone who travels frequently myself, I know it can be difficult to respond timely. Though received after my deadline, I may use the pertinent parts of your response.

That said, your reply prompts the below follow-up. If you choose to respond I must have that response by midnight, this date:

Documents on the public record and in my possession show that you did not re-apply for appointment to the P&Z until the same day you resigned as the Pitt County rep to that commission. You did that July 18, 2011, seven months after you relocated to the home on Bexley, inside city limits. Mr. Mayor, I have the “Affirmation of Understanding for Board Appointees” you signed with Pitt on December 29, 2008; your signed letter of resignation with Pitt dated July 18, 2011; and your Greenville Talent Bank form, also dated July 18, 2011.

So I want to give you a final opportunity to address my question:

Why didn’t you resign your seat on the P&Z until seven months (or more) after you were required to do so by (1) the entity that appointed you (Pitt), (2) the city code, and (3) NC general statute?

Again, I need your reply by midnight.

Safe travels home,
Anthony Noel
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July 17, 2012 9:20:16 PM EDT
From: Allen M. Thomas
To: Anthony Noel

Hello Anthony. We moved in 2011. Your dates are wrong. We moved from one part of Greenville to another part of Greenville, never gave it a second thought. Sorry if that is not exciting but that[’]s the bottom line. Like most homeowners I’m probably STILL getting some mail at [the] old address! When wrapping up loose ends, mailings etc., I updated my address & when doing so they [city officials] mentioned since I was reestablishing from ETJ Greenville to another part of Greenville I needed [to] change membership on the board and reapply as a new member– which I did.  As [I] said before– my application was turned down by Council member Calvin Mercer. As it turns out, [I’m] appreciative as it– helped launch me on course to run for office and [be] elected as Mayor by the citizens of Greenville.

That’s the scoop Anthony.  End of commentary from this end.  All the best on your new pursuit as a writer for the blog.  Again I look forward to your next efforts, may I suggest calling on Merrill Flood, Bianca Shoneman and Carl Rees to discuss economic development.
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Tuesday, July 17, 2012 9:58 PM
From: Anthony Noel
To: Allen Thomas

If you want this to be your last word I respect that, Mr. Mayor. But since you’ve got a couple of hours to think about it, and since I want to be sure you have every chance to respond fully, please note that public records indicate you bought the house on Bexley January 18, 2011 (scan attached). You resigned as Pitt’s P&Z representative July 18, 2011. That’s a seven-month delay, and you signed an “Affirmation of Understanding” stating your requirement to step down immediately upon relocating out of the county. Your appointment to the P&Z was contingent on your residency in the ETJ, and Greenville city limits are not within ETJ.

I wish you all the best as well, Mr. Mayor, I sincerely do. Just understand that, when public officials do not fulfill the responsibilities of their office – including failure to resign when they are supposed to – the public has a right to know.

Best regards,
Tony
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July 17, 2012 11:48:58 PM EDT
From: Allen Thomas
Sent: Anthony Noel

That[’]s nice Anthony but doesn’t establish anything– as we didn’t move to Bexley till later in 2011, as we continued to rent our home on the other side of Greenville because of other obligations.  Irregardless- we didn’t move “out of the county” or “in the county” and had no reason to think moving ‘into’ Greenville would make anyone unavailable for a Greenville board? Go figure. Proud to serve! Sorry it doesn’t fit your theory, old news– out there a year ago but all the best in whatever it is you wish to spend time blogging. Have a good one!
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Tuesday, July 17, 2012 11:59 PM
From: Anthony Noel
To: Allen M. Thomas

So the information you provided on your re-application was false? Dated July 18 of last year, it says you resided “7 years in ETJ, 1 year in Greenville.” Scan attached…
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From: Allen M. Thomas
Sent: July 18, 2012 12:04:05 AM EDT
To: Anthony Noel

Actually I’ve been a resident of Greenville for 20+ years off & on. But whose [sic] counting! Have a great night Anthony!

Verification: Confirming the Subject’s Statements
No question about it, if Thomas lived in the ETJ until “later in 2011,” remaining a Pitt County representative to P&Z was legitimate. That proved not to be the case.

Document 2796 from the Pitt County Register of Deeds shows Thomas sold his home in the ETJ to Cullen and Betty Spivey on October 18, 2010. If anybody would know when Thomas moved out of the home they were moving into, it would be them.

On July 18 of last year I stopped by the Spivey’s home. Cullen Spivey answered the door.

After introducing myself, exchanging pleasantries with both Cullen and Betty, and explaining the information I was seeking, I asked Betty Spivey if she knew when Thomas moved out. “In late January [2011] I think – early February at the latest.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” Betty said, adding, “He said he didn’t think it was fair to keep us from moving in [here] any longer.” Cullen nodded in agreement.

“And he moved to the house over on Bexley?” I asked.

“That’s right,” Cullen Spivey said.

After a few more pleasantries I thanked the Spiveys for their time, and was on my way.

One Last Shot
Thursday, July 19, 2012 9:58 AM
From: Anthony Noel
To: Allen M. Thomas

Good morning Mayor Thomas,

I’m just trying to tie down some loose ends in the story we’ve been discussing. I reached the Spiveys and confirmed that you rented the house on Darrell Drive from the time they purchased it in October 2010 until late January/early February of 2011.

Can you please provide the address(es) of your residence after you moved out of the Darrell Drive house, and the date you began residing in the home on Bexley?

Thanks again for your help.
Anthony Noel
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July 19, 2012 6:26:35 PM EDT
From: Allen M. Thomas <amthomas@greenvillenc.gov>
To: Anthony Noel

Hello Anthony, My wife received a phone from a disturbed Mrs. Betty Spivey about a “strange person” who came on her property last evening “claiming to be a journalist writing for a newspaper asking a bunch of questions.” She was not happy and felt something was strange about you, what you were saying and you were misrepresenting who you were.
You are not a journalist Anthony. Buying a few dollars of bandwidth/month to write a blog—isn’t a newspaper– and doesn’t make me or you a journalist. It is one thing to unknowingly make a mistake which you and I have done– and we own up to it and move on. It’s another to deliberately mislead people. Why did you tell Mrs. Spivey you were a journalist with a newspaper instead [of] disclosing your actual background? Is there a reason for no full disclosure? A journalist is someone accredited, who usually gets paid for their craft whose work is based on credibility and objectively [sic]— something you clearly lack– in this endeavor. You are a political operative–with a single motive, and that’s okay.
Anthony I appreciate your zeal for your political allegiances and in fact I’m sure we agree on much more that [sic] we disagree. I appreciate your zeal for Pat Dunn and Calvin Mercer. You were a financial contributor to Pat Dunn’s campaign in last year’s election and you worked very hard to get her elected as a campaign operative. I appreciate that hard work as a lot of folks worked very hard for me with the same goal. Fact of the matter is— the people of Greenville voted in November 2011—the election is over. Pat Dunn had my respect for her contributions to the city, we never disparaged her in the campaign. It was not about Pat, it was about Greenville– it was time to move the city forward, new energy— and the voters agreed.
We are all human and I can appreciate you getting carried away. I know you’ve been shopping this story since 2011 to everyone from the Daily Reflector to city staff, etc, to anyone who would listen and they’ve all checked into it and turned it down as inconsequential. Rejection from the professional press, is a pretty clear litmus test Anthony.
In the meantime, good luck with your blog Anthony.  There’s nothing else to add to your story on this end. I’m comfortable weighing what your [sic] selling– against the work we are doing— and what we’ve done over the years at ECU helping to get state funding for the Heart Institute, serving on the ECU Board of Trustees and Board of Visitors, in Greenville serving on the Board of Adjustments, serving as Chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission and now as Mayor of Greenville fighting to make a difference in the community. Those things may not matter to you as a newer resident of Greenville but they matter to me and they matter to the citizens. We’ll keep working[.] I wish you luck at some point maybe you can take the drive you have, we can work together and turn it into positive things for the community. We can use your help.

Best regards,
Allen
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July 19, 2012 8:07 PM EDT
From: Anthony Noel
To: Allen Thomas

Actually, Mr. Mayor, Ms. Spivey and her husband were welcoming, kind, and thoughtfully answered my perfectly reasonable questions. Something you continue refusing to do.

Though you question my journalism experience, you are completely unaware of my service in that role, here and elsewhere. I have served a host of local, regional and national readerships across more than 25 years in the field and my work as a reporter and editor has been recognized for excellence. I therefore hope you’ll remember that I have tried at every turn to give you ample opportunity to explain your extended stay on P and Z. I have asked what are perfectly reasonable questions, sir, whether from a citizen (which I am) [or] a journalist (which I am as well).

As to your attempt to paint me as politically biased, I [will] disclose my politics in the article, and moreover, have warned the people I happen to support politically that they are every bit as subject to investigation by The Guardian as anyone else. If you don’t [sic] doubt that, just ask them.

Good night, Mr. Mayor.
agn

Conclusion
Drawing conclusions enters the realm of opinion. While I won’t pretend not to have some strong ones on this entire episode, opinion and reporting are two different things, so maybe I’ll share some thoughts in my column sometime.

At this point, dear reader, my work is done, and the fun, for you, is just beginning. You get to decide for yourself what it all means.

Maybe the best way to finish this is with the question posed up top: Why would anybody get into journalism?

The answer, for me, has never changed: The public truly does have a right to know.

(Editor’s note: A follow-up to this post is here.)

Responses (6)

  1. John Collins says:

    Fascinating!

  2. Paul Justice says:

    Soooooo is this the worst thing he’s done? And you’d be much more credible if you weren’t a contributor to the current mayor’s former opponent

    • Anthony Noel says:

      Thanks for your comment, Paul. My support of Mr. Thomas’ opponent in 2011 is disclosed in the piece. Not sure how it affects the “credibility” of everything in it, since it’s all on the public record.

      As far as whether this is “the worst thing he’s ever done,” it is important to note that “worst” is your word, not mine. The piece makes no value judgment on Mr. Thomas’ record one way or the other; it merely reports the facts on that record.

    • Carol Collins says:

      I do not see why a public record becomes either more or less credible depending on who calls our attention to it. Mr. Noel did not distort the public record; he merely shared it and his questions arising from his knowledge of that public record.

      The rest of the words in the article are those of Mr. Thomas. Thus, the image we see of Mr. Thomas in this article is the one that Mr. Thomas paints of himself. Mr. Noel is not responsible for what Mr. Thomas said. (You could say that Mr. Thomas wrote the meat of the article.) Mr. Noel is responsible for neither the existence of the public record nor Mr. Thomas’ words, and moreover Mr. Noel offered no opinions. Thus, I cannot see how Mr. Noel’s credibility is an issue.

      I do see the following as a definite take-away: If as one of Mr. Thomas constituents, I ask Mr. Thomas a question about how he is fulfilling his role as an elected public official, will I not only receive no answer (as Mr. Noel did to his last question) but will I also have to endure his insults by his calling me not credible and a “political operative” (as Mr. Noel did)?

  3. Carol Collins says:

    Tony, Thanks for info!

  4. Tom Shane says:

    Nice work. He seems to have trouble telling the truth. He’ll be a successful politician.

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