Whenever we publish uncomfortable news about someone running for East Lansing’s School Board or City Council, we get people asking if we really must do that. The short answer is this:
The five hundred people who have stepped up to make ELi financially sustainable don’t support us because they’re hoping my staff and I have a nice day. They pay into this system because they want us to provide a critical service to them: bringing local news that matters.
They’ve made clear that they value transparency and accountability and that they want us to bring them what they might care about as they hit the East Lansing ballot booths.
While we have taken criticism for publishing evidence that a school board candidate plagiarized in statements to the school district, for pointing out notable campaign contribution patterns and violations of ethics codes and laws, and for fact-checking potentially misleading statements by those weighing in on local elections, we hear overwhelmingly from our readers that if we get a complaint about a seated or would-be public official, and we investigate, and we find substantiation, they want to know about it.
Today we published a report I worked on for almost two weeks, about City Council candidate Aaron Stephens being accused of having seriously mismanaged his position at Vice President for Finance of MSU’s model United Nations organization, MSUIRO. (Read it here.) Some folks have asked why we published this piece—why we put any effort into it—so I’m going to explain.
Now in our fourth fiscal year as a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen-reporting news organization, we are highly trusted around town. That means that people send us a lot of tips. Some come via our post office box, some come via someone pulling one of our reporters aside at a community event, and some come in anonymous envelopes left on my porch. (No kidding.)
The one for this story came from Michael Metiva by email on September 13, as noted in the story published today. I immediately shared Metiva’s message with ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols, and we talked about how we would approach this in our usual nonpartisan fashion: namely trying to find out what we could about however many sides existed to this story.
I interviewed Metiva by email and in person. As the article notes, he had direct knowledge of the situation, as he was the person who had to take over the officership from Stephens after Stephens resigned, and he was the person who had to try to wrest materials from Stephens for weeks. Metiva also pointed me to Emily Weiner who, as the articles notes, had served on the Executive Board of MSUIRO. Weiner corroborated and significantly expanded on what Metiva provided.
At that point, it was clear to us we had two people with direct knowledge of the situation willing to go on record with their names. This wasn’t hearsay, and both sources felt strongly what they knew should matter to the voters.
To not pursue the story at that point would amount to Ann and me deciding on behalf of the voters that they wouldn’t want to know about this. We don’t like to make that kind of paternalistic decision for our readers. Ann and I follow the general rule that if we know something that a reasonable person might consider pertinent to her or his election decision, we’ll find out what we can and bring it forward.
I contacted Stephens to tell him what we were working on and to get his response. I went back and forth between what he had to say and what Metiva and Weiner had to say. Stephens sent along the names and phone numbers of two people who had also served on MSUIRO’s Executive Board who he said would corroborate his view—that he did not mismanage the office. Both of those people declined to speak to us to defend Stephens on the record.
When I told him I had no one on the record from MSUIRO’s leadership to defend him, Stephens asked me for an in-person meeting late last week. I let him know I’d record the conversation and he indicated he was okay with that. When I showed up, he had with him Natalie Smith, whom I had not met before, to support his side of events. I asked Smith if she wanted to be on the record, and made clear I was recording the conversation, and she said she was okay with that.
Smith told me she’d been a member (though not an officer) of MSUIRO. After the meeting, it occurred to me that I should have asked about any relationships between Smith and Stephens, in case there was any perceived conflict of interest—frankly, to avoid someone pointing out to us later something we should have known.
At that point, Smith told me they are roommates. I asked her and Stephens why they didn’t think to disclose that at the outset. As noted in the article, Smith didn’t respond, and Stephens had his campaign manager contact me, who told me Stephens hadn’t disclosed it “because you didn’t ask.”
Stephens campaign manager called me yesterday to suggest that we would not be printing that Stephens and Smith are roommates if Smith were a man. I told her that in fact we would, because a reasonable person would find it relevant that the one person Stephens managed to get to vouch for him was sharing a lease and living space with him—that they were more than colleagues. (I noted I would not give a recommendation for my son without noting he is my son.)
Stephens’ campaign manager then suggested that I was invading Smith’s privacy. A standard tenet of journalism ethics is that you don’t invade people’s privacy. We follow that. But when someone chooses to go on the record in a political story, and consents to a recorded interview, their relationship to the subject is relevant. We are not breaking new ground in this journalistic approach.
In working on this story, we gave Stephens every opportunity to defend himself, and we also gave him the last word in the story, to talk about what he sees as the key issues of the campaign. Some might read the story we published as he-said/she-said, but if you read it carefully, you’ll see that Stephens himself acknowledges at least flubbing the transition, including not giving the MSUIRO back its checkbook for about two months at the start of a new school year.
Working on political reporting in East Lansing, I often say to my journalism colleagues from other cities, “All politics are local, but local politics are all personal.” That’s just the way it is going to be in a town where fewer than 20,000 of us live year-round. Do we enjoy pointing out when someone local in a position of authority has done something some might consider troubling?
Nope. I didn’t really sleep last night.
But that lack of sleep is my problem, not yours, and it’s part of the service Ann, our team, and I are committed to bringing you, because it’s real news that matters. If we make you uncomfortable sometimes with our reporting, we ask only that you consider whether you’d rather ELi didn’t exist, or that Ann and I decided not to tell you when there’s information that makes us lose sleep and might make you queasy.
The reality of transparency and accountability is that it’s sometimes pretty darn uncomfortable. We appreciate those of you who support us in that discomfort.
We are here to serve you, East Lansing, and we take that very seriously. I don’t get paid to do ELi, and as I’ve often pointed out, even the people we do pay get paid too little to make that the motivation. This team exists because we came to understand—before most of the rest of the nation—that you can’t have true democracy without a functioning press that takes accuracy, transparency, and nonpartisanship very, very seriously.
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