Conflicts of Interest: Why won't The Sun credit us for our stories?

City Paper

Last week, I got a text from the street artist Nether telling me about a piece he put up on the bus stop where officer Vincent Cosom, Jr. was recorded punching a resident as another officer held him. Nether wanted to meet and talk about it, so we got together and I wrote a story. It was posted later in the afternoon (“Local street artist Nether creates work on bus stop where video captured police beating citizen,” Noise, Oct. 29). 

Moments after the story went online, Justin Fenton, the Sun reporter, tweeted asking if it was a coincidence that the story went up the same day as Cosom was charged with assault and perjury. Brandon Weigel, our blogs editor, responded that it was a coincidence and updated our story with a link to Fenton’s piece about Cosom being charged. By the next morning, Fenton had a second story about Cosom and it mentioned Nether’s piece, which had since been removed. There was no link to our story and there was no mention that we reported on it first.

This seems to be a matter of policy for the paper. Tim Smith did something similar when he reported on the theaters which were buying the buildings at 408-414 N. Howard St. I had gotten to know people in that community as sources and so they let me know it was happening. Smith, who isn’t so up on the more experimental theaters, had not (when writing about “Potatoes of August” he essentially dismissed the work of EMP as meaningless without trying very hard to understand it). But after Kevin Litten of the Baltimore Business Journal came out with a piece on the theaters (which also failed to acknowledge our reporting), there was Smith on the scene, like Columbus, as if he had discovered it. It’s possible that he—and his editors—were, in this case, unaware of our piece and I’m sure that I often fail to attribute something to someone out of sheer ignorance—I am most often ignorant. But there are dozens of similar instances.

In these cases, it’s not that big of a deal. In other harder news stories, it is more significant. But, whatever the story, and whatever the reason behind it, it does a disservice to the reader. For news organizations, transparency is better than a lack of transparency and full disclosure is better than a lack of full disclosure. That’s the point of this column: to address how difficult it is to be honest and open and transparent in a town this small. And it is complicated and we can’t be fully transparent, as when things are off-the-record or have some legal liability—but that is another part of honesty. If we agree something is off the record, we let it remain there. And our readers also understand this. But the only real reason not to give credit when it is due is “fuck you, we don’t have to.” (TV and radio stations certainly do the same thing to The Sun).

Even worse, perhaps, from my perspective, is that this lack of giving credit can take part of the fun out of the enterprise and there really is no reason to do this job in this kind of world if it is not fun. For instance, last week, I was sitting in the courthouse waiting to see what happened in the Young Moose bail hearing when Fenton walked in and sat down on the other side of the courtroom. He’s a nice guy and seems to love his job and is extremely good at it. And, spending much more time in courtrooms than I, he must have been happy that there was someone else there (he later remarked that he was able to see me in a necktie, but the tie was so tattered that Young Moose’s manager Teron Matthews said he could tell I was a writer by the way I looked—speaking of Matthews, his sports coat over a Young Moose T-shirt was a great detail Fenton got in his story and I did not get in mine). Mostly, it’s great to have corroboration, or conflict, with one’s own view. Though we might not like to admit it, all of  us in this industry are, as Tom Rachman’s great 2010 novel puts it, “imperfectionists”—we do the best we can to make sense of a fucked-up world before deadline. And then we do it again. And it is a blast to try to be imperfect in a better way than the other person. But it’s also kind of fun, even though we aren’t really a breaking-news organization, to get it faster. So, I will admit that when the judge deemed that it would be cruel and unusual to keep Young Moose in jail without bail, I ran up Calvert Street back to the office from the courthouse, looking over my shoulder, hoping not only that my story was better, but also that it was first (especially since they beat us the first time). It would be a lot more enjoyable if the loser had to say “as first reported by,” almost as if it were a wager (“Rapper Young Moose to be freed on bail,” The News Hole, Oct. 27). 

(Speaking of wagers, have you seen this week’s crazy feature, fucking 9,000 words or so on 24 hours at the casino? Aroo, as its author would say. While this particular practice of The Sun that I’ve been griping about is kind of loathsome, the Baltimore Sun Media Group has made it possible for us to run 9,000-word features, which is amazing—I don’t know if any other alt-weekly in the country is still able to do such things, so really I just want us to keep being able to do what we’re doing.)

If there were healthy competition, there could also be more collaboration. The Sun’s music reporting can be shoddy and it hampers them on a story like the Young Moose one. But Brandon Soderberg, who is much better at covering rap than anyone they have, would have been happy to chat with Fenton about it, had he asked. 

But, they don’t, perhaps for the same reason that they also don’t report on it when we fuck up: They’re the big guys in town and it is beneath them to acknowledge that anyone else exists, even if they own that someone else.  But, I am begging to be criticized: We are all better if we compete with each other.  Come on, Zurawik, you must hate that you didn’t get to write about Pussy Riot being on “House of Cards” after we broke it—presumably because we were the source of the story. You should start doing media criticism and fuck with us. It would be fun. I love this job and most of the people who do it and I wish we could fight more.  More points of view are better for us all.

Even if we are the little guys and we don’t all come from the rarified trade-school halls of some journalism school somewhere, and even if we have less people and fewer resources, sometimes we do it first and sometimes we do it better (when it comes to arts, almost always). We almost always do it with more flair. And we always have more fun. Join us. 

Coming soon: a report on “glowfacing,” a disease that has infected most of us in this industry that causes us to walk around casting light on our faces with miniature computers we keep in our pockets. 

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