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The Trentonian Sucks!

At this stage in the life cycle of this Administration, it has been demonstrated many, many, many times over that the individuals serving this regime in City Hall have a fast and loose relationship with the truth.

From the Indicted Occupant of the Mayor’s Office down to his aides and assistants, time and time again we have heard statements, read press releases, and seen news reports containing falsehoods, misleading statements, incorrect information and bare-assed lies.

And that’s when the folks making the statements have been openly identified, quoted and attributed. Their veracity is usually highly suspect On The Record. How can anyone give any of these guys the benefit of the doubt OFF The Record??

The Trentonian apparently has no problems hearing these guys out and giving their news pages over to them without giving them a second thought.

Case in point: this morning’s piece, credited to David Foster. The headline in the online version (I didn’t have a chance to see the print version today) is, “Trenton Recreation Van blew a tire in crash, source says.”

The article presents itself as an update to an incident from Monday evening, in which a City of Trenton-owned passenger van containing 10 children and 5 adults had an accident on Interstate 295. The van ran off the road and overturned at least once, according to a spokesman for the NJ State Police investigating the accident. Thankfully, of the 12 van passengers injured, none were hurt seriously and all were released after treatment.

One Sergeant Brian Polite was identified and quoted by the Trenton Times reporter on the Tuesday story, Alex Zdan. Few other details were available by press time for that article. And, according to that article, “City officials and Mayor Tony Mack did not respond to requests for more details on the trip today.”

One full day later, the Trentonian ran its story by Mr. Foster. More details were provided, but only as provided by a person identified as “a source with knowledge of the situation.”

This “source” provided several assertions about the incident, having to do with the purpose of the trip and its funding; the name of the driver; additional  vehicles used to transport other people on the field trip; the history of such trips; and the various permissions given by parents for their children to attend, as well as that given by the city to the driver who may or may not be a City employee.

All of these assertions were reported by Mr. Foster and The Trentonian without confirmation or validation by any second source. Not one person is quoted by name or on the record in this article. Other than two references to information provided by “the New Jersey State Police” and “A state police spokesman,” this entire article is attributed to this one sole, anonymous source.

This kind of thing is poor and sloppy journalism, and is roundly criticized as bad practice on normal news beats, let alone one as consistently mendacious as 319 East State Street.

The Society of Professional Journalists (not an oxymoron, I tell you) has specific policies recommended for the use of anonymous sources in news stories. In general, the SPJ cautions reporters on the use of these sources, for two main reasons. First (excerpted, with emphasis from the orginal),

Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability. The most important professional possession of journalists is credibility. If the news consumers don’t have faith that the stories they are reading or watching are accurate and fair, if they suspect information attributed to an anonymous source has been made up, then the journalists are as useful as a parka at the equator.

To protect their credibility and the credibility of their stories, reporters should use every possible avenue to confirm and attribute information before relying on unnamed sources.

And second,

Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

The information-gathering business is a give-and-take practice with a lot of public officials… Media outlet practices vary, but journalists should not overlook the danger of legal problems and credibility damage from publishing anonymously sourced information that is not confirmed by public records or credible sources. Before journalists allow themselves to be used by an anonymous source they should be sure to question whether the news value warrants whatever the source hopes to accomplish.

Journalists should never take information off the record without the approval of a supervisor and an understanding of the news outlet’s policy… And publishing information without verification from multiple sources, even if they are all off the record, is a dangerous practice…

The wisdom of using anonymous sources has been the subject of an ongoing debate in journalism for years…  Reporters and editors must weigh the cost of relying on anonymous sources.

Anonymity is often granted when the source in question may be “leaking” confidential information, and may have reason to expect punishment by his or her superiors should their identity be disclosed. It’s not clear this is the reason The Trentonian is using an unnamed source.

Most of the reporting I have read so far on this has contained some variation on the phrase used above by Mr. Zdan: “City officials and Mayor Tony Mack did not respond to requests for more details on the trip today.” Those City officials would include the two nominally in charge of the Recreation Department on a day-to-day level, Anthony Roberts and Paul Harris. Mr. Foster’s Trentonian piece merely states “Efforts to reach state police for comment Wednesday night were unsuccessful.” [Emphasis mine - KM]

Since Mr. Foster says he was only unable to reach state police for comment, are we then to conclude that he was in fact able to reach a “City official,” but one who was only willing to speak off the record and anonymously?

If so, why the anonymity on this matter? After all, on the same day this “source” spoke to the Trentonian on deep background, the Administration went out of its way to publicize its efforts on behalf of the IO’s “plan” to beg for more State funding for city police. The City was proud to say, “Mayor Tony Mack wants to keep the lines of communication open between our community and City Hall as we continue to lobby the State to support its Capital City.” [Emphais mine - KM]

So, it’s OK to keep the lines of communication open between our community and City Hall when talking about begging for money, but not when it involves a scary automobile accident that injured a dozen of our children?

How can this be?

Why is it that as of this morning, three days after the accident, we have heard no statement from City Hall? Nothing from the IO, nothing from Mr. Roberts, nothing from Mr. Harris? Only this “source.”

Can it be possible that the “source” was only willing to answer some questions, but not other, potentially more embarrassing questions? Questions that still do need to be asked, such as:

  • Why was this 11-passenger van crammed with 15 people? How were the other 4 persons seated? Who allowed that?
  • How many seat belts were in the car? Were they all being used?
  • Were the other van or three school buses used on this field trip similarly overcrowded?
  • Several city vehicles are old and/or poorly maintained. They are (barely) suitable for city street driving, let alone driving on an Interstate. What vehicle was involved on Monday, and what was its condition and service record?
  • What kind of permission did the driver have from the City? Did the City’s liability insurance or self-insurance program cover the driver and all the van’s passengers? What is the City’s liability here?
  • We are told that the funding that paid for Monday’s transportation was provided by the federally-funded summer lunch program. The “source” said this is a long-standing and presumably allowable use of those funds. Really? Money from a food program can be used to bus children to an amusement park?

I understand that this accident is still under investigation, and that many details cannot yet be disclosed. But that still does not explain why there is utter official silence from the City of Trenton three days after an incident that could have ended so tragically.

And it does not explain why a professional newspaper, facing three days of official silence, chose to publish a news piece entirely and exclusively sourced by one unnamed person. A person who for unknown and undisclosed reasons requested, and was given, anonymity.

A person, we may safely presume, who is highly enough placed in City Hall to provide the kind of information contained in Mr. Foster’s piece.

A City Hall known for years for misinformation and lies.

With all that as context, why in hell did this newspaper run this piece? Certainly by now, they should be extra, extra cautious and skeptical of any information volunteered by any of these guys. Especially when it comes under the guise of anonymity!! What, in the name of Edward R. Murrow, were they thinking?!?!?!

The Trentonian sucks!


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