Sunday, May 9, 2010

Is the New Paltz Times protecting Edgar Rodriguez?

Back when the Middle School debate was in full swing. Edgar Rodriguez came out with some pretty strong accusations of racism, which prompted me to dig deeper.  It turned out that this wasn't the first time Edgar had felt discriminated against by the district; in fact, he's got an ongoing lawsuit against both the school district and high school principal Barbara Clinton.  I reviewed the documents available and decided not to blog about it because it was complex, dealt with family issues, and I didn't know that I was divorced enough from the issues to write about it neutrally.

Asking the New Paltz Times for help

I sent an email to Deb Alexsa, editor of the New Paltz Times, on December 26, 2009:

I can't recall if you covered this in any depth back when the District Shared Decision Making Committee was contemplating its belly buttons, but this might be a good time to consider a piece about Edgar Rodriguez' legal actions against the NP school district.
The files on his civil suit, as well as the content of a Commissioner's Hearing that related to the Committee, are available in Bev Cleary's office.  They spent considerable time stripping out the non-FOILable information, so I'd love to see someone get some use from it.
I decided that the cases (the civil suit is still ongoing) were too complex to touch upon in my blog.
My response came shortly thereafter when Mike Townsend interviewed me about the topic.  I didn't know much, but Mike later told me that he'd interviewed many people and wrote (if I recall correctly) a six-page feature story about the lawsuit, which publisher Geddy Sveikauskas decided not to run.

The Middle School issue came and went, and here we are in a School Board election with Edgar running.  I sent Deb another email on April 30:

Hi Deb,
I know that Mike Townsend researched a feature piece about Edgar Rodriguez' school district related lawsuits, and that it was ultimately shelved.  Not knowing what the story covered, I would very much like to see it in print now.  If I had been aware of even the small amount of info I've reviewed myself, it may have changed my vote in Edgar's last run, and I would like the rest of the citizens of New Paltz to have the opportunity to review it through the practiced eye of a trained investigative journalist.
Would it be possible to let me know if the piece could be updated and included in the next issue or, if not, a specific reason for not running it?
If Ulster Publishing elects not to publish the article, perhaps it could be made available to another publication?
Thanks for letting me know.
Terence P Ward
I got no response, when in the past Deb has always replied to me quickly (even when my emails were less than complimentary).  I waited until the next paper came out and, seeing the story wasn't there, I sent a letter to the editor:

Edgar Rodriguez is willing to ask the tough questions, and it's a trait to be valued.  What's not clear to me is whether or not he is also willing to answer the tough questions, because nobody is willing to ask him any.  It never comes up at School Board meetings, and the New Paltz Times buried the story.  All I know is that there's a six-inch-high stack of papers at the district office that relate to his lawsuit against the district - and that's only including what they're legally required to provide to the public.
I was hoping the New Paltz Times would run the story on this ongoing legal action some time ago, because I can't make heads or tails of it and I think it's information that we should all have in front of us as we make our decision on May 18.  Maybe the details about the lawsuit will make Edgar a more appealing candidate for some of us; others may find that a full understanding doesn't sway their poll decision in the slightest.
All I'm asking is an open discussion about the nature of this lawsuit so that we can make an informed decision about this candidate.  Is that unreasonable?
Terence P Ward 
New Paltz
This time Deb replied to me almost immediately:

Hi Terence,
Mike wrote this story some time ago and our publisher dealt with it because I was on vacation. When I returned, he said it wasn’t worth running and not to put any extra time into it. Why doesn’t someone just ask him the question at candidate’s night? I can’t run your letter because it is the week before the election and negative letters about candidates are not allowed.
Maybe someone would ask at candidate's night, I mused, but I was looking for broader coverage.  My reply:

Honestly, Deb, if you had given me this same response as quickly to my inquiry about the story, I wouldn't have bothered with the letter.  How about I remove reference to the specific candidate and issues, and send in a letter asking why the publisher deemed a six-page feature story on why one of our district trustees is suing the district not worth running?
If Geddy is going to make controversial decisions, he should at least benefit from the publicity the way Rupert Murdoch does.  If you tell me directly not to waste my time, that's fine too - no need to ask the question if it won't make print.
Her reply was short:
Not sure what you mean about your inquiry about the story. I wouldn’t run the letter this week. 
Maybe I was unclear, but I was asking for a way to frame the letter so that it didn't appear to be picking on a candidate.  Or, as I said to my wife who teaches journalism, "Why can't we write a story that covers every candidate that is currently suing the school board?"

I'm still looking for answers on Edgar, why he is pressing this lawsuit and how he feels he can be impartial in this situation - if he does.  I have a lot of opinions about Edgar's hopes and plans, but all I want to know now is why the New Paltz Times and its parent Ulster Publishing continue to bury a perfectly good story.  Rumor has it that Mike Townsend pitched a different angle to Geddy again this week but it was again quashed (I have not spoken to Mike so I can't confirm that).

If anyone is interested, contact the District Information Officer Bev Sickler to arrange to look at the publicly-available lawsuit documents.  Copies of pages are a quarter each but you can look as much as you like for free if you fill out a Freedom of Information request.


Maria said...

I'm wondering about the fairness and ethics of posting private emails between a person and yourself.

Is this about disagreeing with the New Paltz Times, or hatred of Edgar? Honestly, in this post, I really can't see the difference; and I think that it's important that the difference is made clear.

I do disagree with Edgar's Antics, and think that he's acting like a spoiled child, playing the "race card" when he didn't get his way.

If you are so against the New Paltz Times and it's lack of coverage, perhaps the creation of a rival paper is in order.

Terence said...

I don't have enough facts to form a credible opinion about Edgar - that's why I'm asking for an unbiased party to report on those facts. Ulster Publishing has proven not to be an unbiased party, which is really the issue here. I don't know if there is anything inappropriate about Edgar's double role here, and I am certain I'm not the only one. I've been ticked off at some of Edgar's antics too, but considering the field of candidates I may yet decide he's the best choice - but not this way.

As for whether or not it is ethical to reprint my personal correspondence with a newspaper editor, my view differs from yours. I was prepared to submit a letter about this topic, but an inexplicably delayed reply email prevented me from sending one in early enough to appear in last week's issue. I cannot demonstrate this without showing the chain of events. Emails are frequently used to blow the top off of cover-ups and scandals, and I'm sure it's rarely been with the permission of the sender. An email, once sent, is no longer the property of the sender. Had I broken some personal confidence in this post, or disclosed trade secrets I would have been in the wrong, but there is no reasonable expectation that a business email will be kept private. Look to Enron, Arthur Anderson, and an endless series of high-profile business cases and imagine a world where nobody was permitted to be a whistle blower. Is that really what you're suggesting?

Anonymous said...

Crowdsource it. Scan the docs and post them here. Put up a paypal tip jar and ask for donations. I'll contribute. Or just take pics w/ a decent cellphone camera. It works well enough. The NP Times does fine with nice around-town stories, but they've never demonstrated the will nor the chops to tackle tough, sensitive stuff. Someone who claims to have the best interests of the district, the kids, and the taxpayers at heart is suing said district? Yeah, I wanna know about it. How else can I, as a voter, decide what it means? As to Maria's question, no correspondence with a newspaper is private. For your sake, never assume it is. If the need came up, they'd publish it without hesitation.

msinno said...

I think the real headline should be "Is Terrence Trying to Create Controversy?"

Reading this post it seems like you are trying to use Michael Moore style tactics. You highlight that they normally respond to quite quickly and in this instance did not. Then after your letter to the editor you receive an almost immediate response. Coincidence.....YES. The answer is buried in Deb's reply to you. She was on vacation. So it's actually quite explicable!

When it comes to revealing email communications without consent, is it ethical? That depends on the situation. It's not exactly like you are revealing that the NP Times has admitted to clubbing Baby Seals, or dumping print waste in the Wallkill River. You are showing a quite mundane exchange that has little bearing on anything. Except to show the reason why Deb's response was delayed and their standard line on not publishing negative letters about the candidates during the election.

In my opinion you are wrong in doing this since there is very little that is informative in the exchange. Except that Deb was on vacation.

For the record I think the Mr. Rodriguez should resign the school board. It is a conflict of interest that he serves on the board and at the same time is suing the district. Further, the NP Times is softball journalism at best but that is their prerogative. I have never really seen them try to be anything else.

Martin McPhillips said...

My rule of thumb when it comes to the personalities on the school board is don't go there. You could knock off ten thick volumes down that road. Total distraction and unimportant.

Plus, the New Paltz Times could not find its own ass with both hands and a flashlight.