On Thursday, the Williamson Daily News in southern West Virginia unleashed a spirited and somewhat bizarre attack on an unnamed TV news station in an editorial, accusing it of coverage that was “irresponsible at best, defamation at worst.”
Though the editorial didn’t actually identify the target of its ire, the newspaper was referring to a May 20 report by WCHS, an ABC affiliate about 80 miles away in Charleston. The station had broken news about an investigation into public officials at a courthouse in Mingo County, where the Williamson newspaper is based. In the piece, weekend anchor and reporter Kallie Cart said the station had learned the FBI and state police were looking into “alleged election violations” and “other possible federal crimes.”
“We were in Mingo County on Monday and learned that a federal grand jury recently met and that indictments are expected soon,” Cart says in the segment. “We have also confirmed through numerous sources that investigators are targeting the county’s only judge.” Cart named the judge along with another public official. And though she credited “numerous sources” for the information, she didn’t say who they were.
The report didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Joshua Byers, the regional editor for Civitas Media, which owns the Williamson Daily News and four other community papers in southern West Virginia, told me that reporters at the paper had been looking into similar allegations for months, but didn’t have enough credible information to publish, and the paper wasn’t going to do so without on-the-record sources or proper documentation.
“The rumors in the community about this have been rampant,” Byers said.
It should be noted here that Mingo County has a long, embarrassing history with Boss Hogg-style politics and public corruption. In the late 1980s more than 50 public officials in this corner of coal country—from school board members to cops to county officials—went to jail for crimes ranging from bribery, perjury, and embezzlement to drug-dealing and jury tampering. The New York Times reported at the time that federal prosecutors said they’d “never seen corruption quite so pervasive.”
It should also be noted that the late editor of the Williamson Daily News, a newsroom legend named Wally Warden, was a crusader against that culture of corruption. “His newspaper was credited with supporting and often leading federal drug and political corruption probes in Mingo County,” read an obituary in The Charleston Gazette when Warden died of Hodgkin’s Disease in 1991.
So it’s striking that now, two decades later, that same paper has attacked another news organization for reporting on possible political corruption in Mingo County. Parsing the editorial, the objections seem to be: 1) the use of unnamed sources is wrong, 2) an ongoing investigation is not itself a newsworthy event, and 3) those out-of-towner journalists are reckless because they don’t have any connection to the consequences.
Here’s how it begins:
It’s been no secret that there have been rumblings over at the Mingo County Courthouse in recent months, but we were shocked when a television station in Charleston decided to hide behind anonymous sources and report on an event that simply hasn’t happened yet and may never happen.
It’s irresponsible at best, defamation at worst.
We don’t report on rumor. It’s not what we do.
We don’t hide behind anonymous sources. It’s not what we do.
The editorial goes on to say the paper understands how “it’s easy for television media to jump the gun on a potential big story,” because those Charleston reporters don’t live in the area. “They won’t see those that they’ve unjustly attacked at the grocery store or at a youth baseball game,” it reads. “It’s easy to hide behind anonymous sources when you are not invested in the community… We want what’s best for our community and right now, what’s best, is not to perpetuate rumors.”
Here’s the rest, excerpted at length because it really is something:
Perhaps television media just doesn’t understand what real journalism is. The job of a journalist is to find out what really happened. Inexperienced reporters will often use anonymous sources because they’re not able to convince the sources that the information they have is important. We think that’s just lazy. A good reporter can get someone to go on record, if indeed there is something factual there.
If there is a story to be told about legitimate allegations against any of our county officials, you can be sure you’ll be able to read the facts in our news pages. And we promise our readers that we’ll be fair with the story and present both sides because after all, we have a lot more than 30 seconds to tell the story.