By Art Gallagher
On a website promoting his novels, the Senior Regional Content Strategist for The Asbury Park Press says “he gives thanks everyday to New Jersey’s long-line of corrupt officials.” On another website, the content strategist (Gannett’s 21st century term for “editor”) claims “he has exposed political corruption, insider deals, deadly medical mistakes, bureaucratic bumbling, and wasteful government spending.”
That’s important work.
But lately there must be a shortage of corruption. The Asbury Park Press has taken to publicizing the personal financial problems of municipal officials instead. There has been no evidence reported that those local officials did anything criminal or corrupt while experiencing those financial problems or as a result of them. In the two recent stories of elected officials’ personal finances, the problems have been going on for years and agreements have been made with the creditors for the successful resolution of the personal issues.
In another recent incident a local official’s son, an adult, was arrested outside of the town where the official serves. The Asbury Park Press published the defendants relationship to his father and the town where the father is an elected official, as if that were relevant to the story or the crime the son allegedly committed. The adult son’s alleged crime is irrelevant to his father’s public service.
In each of these incidents, the local elected officials are highly esteemed in their communities. They each have been elected and reelected. There has been no hint of corruption by any of those officials.
It serves absolutely no public purpose to publicly shame local elected officials for their personal financial problems or for the conduct of their adult children.
One could make an argument that personal financial problems on the part of an elected official is a concern because their situation could lead to the temptation of violating the public trust.
The flip side of that argument is that elected officials with personal financial problems, who do their jobs well and exhibit high levels of integrity, are demonstrating their good character and have earned the “Honorable” title routinely bestowed on office holders. There is no reason to believe that the three local officials The Asbury Park Press recently shamed are anything but “Honorable.”
We live in an economy where financial difficulties are all too common. Local elected officials are not immune. Given how little we pay them for the long hours they put it, many of them are more susceptible to falling behind on financial obligations should they, or a spouse, suffer a job loss or health crisis.
On the local level, “politicians” are very often civic minded people who spend too much time for too little money trying to make their communities a better place. They often do so to the detriment of their businesses, jobs and family lives.
The effect of public shaming for personal problems has the effect of making it more difficult for civic minded people to even consider taking on these thankless jobs. There is no evidence that shaming prevents corruption. Ethical shaming is a punishment for corruption and a warning to those who might be tempted. Unethical shaming, like what The Asbury Park Press is practicing, does harm to families and to communities. Unethical shaming drives good people away from public service.
Kelly McBride, a media ethicist with the highly esteemed Poytner Institute, provides great guidelines for journalism and public shaming. McBride’s work should be required reading for the editors and reporters of The Asbury Park Press.
In the meantime, the bean counters at Gannett should not be surprised if there is a big drop off in their legal advertising revenue in 2017.
Municipalities are reorganizing starting on Sunday and throughout next week. New Jersey’s media companies were successful in blocking the “revenge bill” that Governor Christie proposed this month which would have allowed towns to post their legal notices on their websites instead of in newspapers. But local elected officials have choices of which newspapers get the legal ads. Several Monmouth County towns, controlled by both Democrats and Republicans, are preparing to select weekly papers and The Star Ledger, instead of The Asbury Park Press, for the publication of those ads. In some towns, The Asbury Park Press will be authorized for legal ads only in the event of special meetings when the deadlines for the weeklies will not meet the publication requirements.
Maybe then the holier-than-thou click baiters in Neptune will understand what so many of their readers are going through. Or, they could simply call their former colleagues who have been laid off or been restructured out of their jobs.
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