Commissioner Paul Gibson won't play ball

UPDATE: Paul Gibson sent in a completed survey at 8:34 pm tonight (later the same day) and included an apology for having inaccurate information. A politician who can apologize or admit they made a mistake is rare in my experience, and I commend him for it. The original post is below.

Calling candidates to complete our voter guide is one of the less exciting parts of my job, but it's important nonetheless to provide readers with some basic information about the names that will appear on their ballots in the upcoming general election Nov. 6. Candidates usually greet our requests for a head shot and a completed survey with similar enthusiasm, but Guilford County Commissioner Paul Gibson was the exception.

I've interviewed Gibson before, and my editor Jordan Green told me we've endorsed him in the past. When I called Gibson last week, he was angry to say the least, accusing our publisher Charles Womack of donating to his opponent and saying the donation jeopardized the journalistic integrity of our paper. I couldn't get a word in edgewise and was baffled by the entire conversation.

It turns out that my publisher did not donate to Gibson's opponent in District 5, and didn't seem to know who Jeff Phillips was. When I called Gibson back today to tell him this, he insisted that someone from YES! Weekly did, and that he was almost certain it was Womack. So even though Jordan had already looked at the campaign finance reports I checked again, even going over reports from Don Wendelken, who Phillips beat in the Republican primary. No donation to either candidate from anyone affiliated with YES! Weekly was listed.

So I called Gibson again. He was just as short as in our previous conversations, insisting Charles donated to someone and that it was on par with the head of CBS donating $100,000 to a Republican PAC. The assertion of a right wing bias at YES! Weekly is probably just as funny to anyone who knows our paper as it is to our editorial staff (all of whom, by the way, are registered independent, including myself) because we are routinely accused by conservative candidates of being too left wing.

It turns out Charles donated to Tony Wilkins, a Republican who ran for County Commissioners in a different district than Gibson. Charles said Wilkins is an old friend, and I'll also note that he was probably the most centrist or left-leaning (Wilkins might reject that characterization) Republican in the primary race. Linda Kellerman, who won the Democratic primary for the same race, had announced that she was dropping out of the race.

The most confusing part of the entire interaction is that I was calling Gibson for a candidate survey, not an article. The most controversial question on the survey is probably the fact that we ask candidates their age — there is no space for positions, it is just background information on the candidates. Every candidate answers the same questions, and we print exactly what they give us. Bias is an impossibility unless we only included some candidates (and of course we include everything we get back).

Our publisher doesn't have anything to do with our elections coverage — and invite you to prove me wrong. I challenged Gibson to point to an example of biased elections reporting in our paper, and I extend the invitation to the public. We report the facts and usually represent candidates in their own words. Our goal is to give voters accurate information about candidates so they can decide, and while we occasionally weigh in on who we think deserves our vote, we keep the endorsements and opinions separate from the news content.

There is still time for Gibson to change his mind. I emailed him the survey anyway, pointing out that it was voters (and not us) who were hurt by the lack of information.


Roch said...

My email:

Dear Commissioner Gibson,

I would like to see you win reelection. You are making it hard on yourself:

(This, among other missteps like supporting the county's censorship of speakers from the floor.)

Please be more of the seasoned statesman you are so that you do not submarine your reelection.

Your neighbor,

Hartzman said...

Womack should not have given to Tony.

He is a publisher of a paper
that endorses.

Looks like a two way apology is in order.

Charles said...

I am a business man and resident of Guilford County with concerns about how things are being done in our local government. Why shouldn't I also be allowed to support those I feel would best serve that same community?

Hartzman said...

"I am a business man and resident of Guilford County
with concerns about how things are being done in our local government.
Why shouldn't I also be allowed to support those
I feel would best serve that same community?"

Because you own a paper that takes candidate money for ads,
and then your team endorses who they want to win.

If you gave to Tony,
did your paper give him better coverage?

If I were running,
and the owner of a newspaper i gave money to for ads
gives to my opponent,
and then you endorse whoever,
how could it not look skewed?

Hartzman said...

How did you not influence the staff who endorsed,
with them knowing who you gave to?

Hartzman said...

Was there any news withheld or omitted
because of the contribution?

Does your paper appear to be more or less balanced and fair?

Do candidates you contribute to
receive preferential treatment?

"Journalists should:

—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable."

Hartzman said...

"Could your action, comments, donation or display
cause people to reasonably doubt your objectivity or that of the newspaper?

Could it be construed that the newspaper and its staff
are giving special treatment to the group?

Does your public role intersect with your work?

To be trusted, we have to be seen as decent, caring and courteous people.

That means listening, acknowledging when we’re wrong
and taking action to correct our mistakes."


Eric Ginsburg said...

I want to point out a few things:

1. I was unaware that Charles gave money to any candidate until it was brought up, nor did I know Charles supported Wilkins in any fashion.

2. The code of ethics you are citing is for journalists, not for publishers. There is a distinct difference in roles.

3. No news was withheld or omitted because of the political preferences of my publisher.

4. Does anyone think my coverage of the primary race involving Wilkins seems biased? Here's the article:
Not that you can judge off this alone, but consider that Wilkins' name is in the article 7 times, while Williams' appears 17 times and Henning's 13.

5. You ask how Charles didn't influence a staff making endorsements, but we did not endorse in this primary election except against the marriage amendment.

Hartzman said...

It's "the appearance of" Eric.

I have found you to be a pretty good writer so far.

I have not looked at the balance of the coverage,
because I expected none of what we see at the Rhino,
which may be the largest problem in Greensboro.