Editor’s Note: On a Document That Disappeared, Then Reappeared
Pardon the interruption here, folks. In the interest of transparency and reader accountability, we want to make you aware of a major editorial decision that has unfolded over the past few days.
On Friday afternoon, we published our usual detailed Council Report; it included Shane Smith’s reportage on a heated exchange between former mayor Gerald McCann and Ward E councilman Steven Fulop that happened during the meeting.
McCann brandished a 2008 police report that included an allegation that the Fulop campaign, during the 2005 council race against Junior Maldonado, had paid several people money to vote multiple times at different polling places.
Here’s how we played it:
Providing an undercard to the main event of the police and fire contracts dustup, former mayor McCann and councilman Fulop locked horns during the public hearing portion of the meeting when McCann resuscitated an accusation of voter fraud he has previously made against Fulop.
McCann distributed to the council copies of a police report dated April 2008, in which city resident William Cortez stated that he and others were paid a total of $1,000 by someone from Fulop’s campaign to vote in several locations under several names in the 2005 election. Charges relating to the alleged fraud were never brought against Fulop or any other individual.
We went on to quote Fulop saying the report was “fraudulent,” and saying “there is not a shred of truth to this.”
We also linked to the police report, which we had obtained Friday morning, via fax, from the City Clerk’s office.
And that’s where things went a bit off the rails.
Not too long after the story went live, as Shane and I were out on Long Island picking up the Spring/Summer issue of NEW magazine, we found out that Fulop was not too pleased that we had linked to the report. After several hours of back and forth with the councilman and his council aide, in which they repeatedly insisted we had obtained the incendiary document illegally, we were eventually threatened with legal action: Fulop said he’d file suit against us on Monday.
By this point, it was getting towards the end of the business day, we were on the road, and we weren’t thrilled with the idea of jumping right into a legal battle that could potentially bankrupt us. We eventually decided that rather than continue our showdown with Fulop, we would — for the moment — pull the document off the story, and off our servers. In the meantime, we would continue to discuss the situation internally, as well with with our own attorney.
The result? We have decided to re-post the document and once again enable the link within the story.
We believe that we were well within our legal rights to publish and link to the document, and we know we obtained it in a legal fashion. The latter point, however, is moot — American courts have consistently ruled that news organizations have the right to publish government documents, regardless of how they are obtained, and regardless of whether or not they are designated “public records.”
We also believe that we gave the police report adequate context, did not sensationalize it, clearly explained to our readers that nothing had come of it, and in no way presented the testimony contained in the document as fact. Any “average Jane” reading our story would be hard pressed, in our minds, to believe that Fulop was guilty of the allegations.
“Linking to or posting the report is a good idea, as long as you [give] your audience enough context to judge the material for themselves,” Poynter Institute journalism ethics expert Kelly McBride told us after we sought out her advice as well. We believe we did exactly that.
Lastly, not wanting to blindside the councilman, we also gave him the opportunity to state his case and respond. Here is his statement:
Last Friday, JCI ran an item that described an exchange between former mayor and convicted felon Gerald McCann and me. Mr. McCann, a political opponent, appeared at the council meeting to circulate a fraudulent investigative report filed in 2008 that was quickly proven to be untrue. This is the type of baseless political stunt that Mr. McCann is well-known for and a great example of Jersey City gutter politics.
My initial consideration of a lawsuit stemmed from my belief that reputation and integrity are everything and must be defended at all costs. Publishing a link to a fabricated allegation as if it is factual smears one’s character and does nothing to advance the story; it only serves to sensationalize. To be clear: I do not take issue with the story that was published, only the link to a document with baseless claims. Though I disagree with JCI‘s actions in this case, I do appreciate and respect the work of the Jersey City Independent.