Who's Watching the Sentinel's Ethics?
I don’t know if Joel Elliott deserved to be fired.
Elliott, until earlier this week a reporter at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, has a reputation for being outspoken. Sentinel editor Eric Conrad, the guy who fired Elliott, has a reputation for reacting negatively to criticism, real or perceived.
In his extensive series of reports on Elliott’s dismissal, pseudonymous blogger T. Cushing Munjoy quotes Elliott as saying he was canned in part because of his “attitude.”
I know from experience (experiences, actually) that if you can’t get along with your boss, sooner or later, you’re going to find yourself being escorted from the building by security. Job performance and talent are almost never enough to overcome the myriad conflicts that can be covered by the term “attitude.”
So I’ll have to take a pass on joining Munjoy’s online crusade to have Elliott reinstated. Almost all the information on his blog comes from Elliott himself or his anonymous supporters. To date, Conrad and the rest of his management team have stayed silent, which isn’t unusual – or unwise – when dealing with personnel matters. As a result, there’s insufficient evidence to conclude whose attitude is more acceptable. And given my frosty relationship with Conrad over the past couple of years of critiquing his paper, it’s probably to Elliott’s advantage to have me take a pass on endorsing his reinstatement.
But the exact nature of Elliott’s transgressions, or lack thereof, is only one of the mysteries intertwined in this matter. And several of these puzzles raise issues that are far more troubling than the actual firing, in that they call into question the ethics of the Sentinel’s leadership, including Conrad.
Here’s a rundown, based on Munjoy’s accounts.
In a Jan. 27 post, the blogger relates the tale of Elliott’s conflict with Waterville Police Chief Joe Massey last May. Elliott wrote a story in which he quoted the chief making a disparaging remark about Colby College’s disciplinary policies toward some students caught drinking.
"Colby might discipline them? Ha," Massey is reported by Elliott to have said. "I think they all got a six-pack and were sent to their rooms."
Massey got called on the carpet by city officials, resulting in his predictable claim that he’d been misquoted. The Sentinel never officially recanted, but, according to Munjoy, the incident became a perennial part of Elliott’s performance reviews and was even mentioned at the reporter’s firing.
Here’s what doesn’t fit. If the newspaper believed the quote was either erroneous or fictional, why didn’t it run a correction and discipline Elliott on the spot? If the Sentinel believed the comment was accurately reported, why keep bringing it up as a negative?
By trying to straddle the line for the last eight months, Conrad left his paper in one of two ethically untenable positions. Either he continued to employ a reporter who might be making things up, or he appeared to be operating behind the scenes to mollify a powerful local official angered by that reporter’s coverage.
In June, there was another case of a disputed quote, this time involving an official at the state Attorney General’s Office, who claimed Elliott used a comment she made while speaking off the record. (Disclosure: My wife is an assistant attorney general, and the official involved is an acquaintance.) Elliott was suspended for three days.
Three days? Since it’s obvious by its actions that the Sentinel management believed the AG’s version of the story, why wasn’t Elliott fired? Why keep a reporter who lies to his sources? How do you explain that to your readers?
If you’re the Sentinel, you don’t.
Finally, there’s the matter of the newspaper’s coverage of Colby College. Munjoy reports that a college public-relations official complained about Elliott’s reporting during a luncheon meeting with the Sentinel’s city editor in January, saying Colby didn’t want Elliott covering its events because he took “shots” at the school. A couple of days later, Elliott was suspended and, shortly thereafter, fired.
I’ve read the Sentinel daily for years, but have somehow missed these alleged “shots.” In fact, the paper’s coverage of the college is generally positive to the point of fawning. Typical is a Jan. 28 piece on the sharp decline in applications to Colby this year. The bad news is mitigated by giving prominent notice in the headlines and article to the school’s announcement that it’s receiving more requests for early admission (the story doesn’t explain why early admission requests balance the drop in applications) and that the application decline is not as severe at Colby as it is at other schools (although the only school mentioned by name is Bowdoin, which had almost the same percentage drop-off).
What isn’t mentioned in this story – or in any Sentinel story about Colby I can find – is that editor Conrad’s wife works for the school. While her job – she apparently writes for the college magazine – doesn’t necessarily constitute a conflict of interest, it could create the appearance of such a conflict. A newspaper concerned about its reputation would address that issue before it ever arose by routinely printing a disclosure about the relationship each time it ran a story about Colby. Now that the matter has been raised – whether fairly or not – as a result of Elliott’s termination, it’s even more important to the Sentinel’s credibility that it come clean, not only about the editor’s spouse, but about the role, if any, the Colby complaint played in the firing.
Mr. Conrad, you have the floor.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.