Don’t shoot the messenger, unless the messenger shoots first | Publisher’s Desk

Publisher Eric LaFontaine

When I step in it, I typically know. Whether it’s gum, dog poop, a conversation or a bad situation; when both sides of the argument are raising concerns, as journalists, we know we’ve done a good job.

Has the Mercer Island Reporter stepped in it? Honestly, I’m not 100 percent sure.

On Sept. 14, the MIR Editorial Board began interviewing candidates for the council seats up for election. Each candidate received 30 minutes to answer the six carefully vetted questions on schools, politics, transportation, parking the levy lid and infrastructure. We interviewed Benson Wong, council position 6 and Joy Langley, council position 4.

On Oct. 12, the MIR Editorial Board interviewed Mark Coen, council position 6 and Tom Acker, council position 4. Each candidate was asked the same questions as the previous, and was evaluated based on their answers.

Wednesday, Oct. 18, the Reporter published the board’s editorial endorsing Benson Wong and Joy Langley. The board’s decision was based on the facts provided. No one on the editorial board had any material reason to suspect the candidates were not being truthful in the credentials they were presenting.

Remember: general news published in the MIR is different than editorial content published on the opinion page. Having cleared the air, let’s continue.

At 12:33 p.m., Oct. 23, the MIR received an email with a post from the Mercer Island Next Door page titled “Think Mercer Island Reporter Editorial Board Impartial? Think again …” In the post, the author ties a connection of three MIR Editorial Board members to Mayor Bruce Bassett.

The MIR was about 1:27 away from going to press. In layperson terms, all the stories had been written, proofed and paginated and we were read to hit the print button. And if you think one hour and 27 minutes is enough time to completely change the layout of a newspaper — it isn’t.

So we went with what we had. Wednesday, Oct. 25, reporter Katie Metzger published a superbly fair and balanced story on the debates at the Mercer Island Beach Club. At the time, we had little reason to begin questioning any of the candidate’s integrity.

Now, back to the Next Door post. In total, three of the seven MIR editorial board members are claimed to have ties to Mayor Bassett. After taking a deeper dive on the subject, the member appointed by Bassett to the utility commission was just that, an appointment. Which leaves two of seven board members with potential ties to Bassett.

This raises the question, is there a Mercer Island resident who doesn’t have ties, positive or negative, to the mayor?

Considering two of the four remaining board members don’t live on the island, are both sworn professional journalists by trade, it’s pretty clear democracy was working. The editorial board’s endorsement was based on the facts and information that were provided. No one, including the media, had any reason to question a candidate’s degree.

Wednesday, Oct. 25, once the MIR hit stands, several residents began sending lengthy emails to the MIR raising questions related to Ms. Langley’s experience and education. In these emails, Langley’s work experience with Expedia was questioned, as was her $100 donation to California’s Prop 64 in 2016 and more specifically, her degree from Cornell University.

This was the first time the MIR became aware of the questions being raised.

Here’s where you — the reader — may not understand the difference between general news and content printed in the newspaper, and editorialized content printed on the opinion pages, along with other reader’s editorialized content. Remember, the editorial board’s endorsement of Langley was independent of the Reporter’s objective news-gathering role. The MIR is merely the vehicle and messenger in this story.

Now, back to the emails. Several residents claimed the degree was not recorded with the National Student Clearinghouse, an online third-party clearinghouse for the purpose of verifying a college degree. Langley’s BA from Ithaca College and her Masters in political science from George Washington University were both listed, however, the Cornell degree was not. This raised some concerns, to which our staff began immediately researching Ms. Langley’s credentials and making contact with the Cornell’s registrar’s office (just as many of our readers had already been doing). Ms. Metzger contacted the school twice on Oct. 26 and 27.

Wednesday, Oct. 25, the MIR provided Langley with a deadline to produce her Cornell degree. Thursday, Oct. 26, Langley provided the MIR with a copy of her Cornell degree, to which Langley later posted to her website the next day. Langley did not allow the MIR to make a copy of the degree.

Friday, Oct. 27, the editorial boarddiscussed the questions being raised about the validity of Langley’s degree. The board acknowledged the questions raised, discussed the issues democratically and trusted the copy of the Cornell degree that was provided to the MIR was valid. In the meantime, Reporter staff continued its investigation.

Over the weekend, the MIR continued to receive emails from residents questioning the Cornell degree and openly criticizing the MIR for our response to the story and claiming Cornell stated “no one from the Mercer Island Reporter ever contacted the school about Joy Langley.”

Here’s where the backstory comes into play.

Monday, Oct. 30, I personally called Joy Langley and asked if her Cornell degree was legitimate. She said it was. She also stated she had her records sealed and kept private at Cornell University for a personal reason related to her safety. To me, this made sense why Cornell was flat out saying (to paraphrase) “we have no record that Joy Langley even exists.” They couldn’t say, one way or the other, because doing so would break a federal law related to student privacy.

With the MIR up against deadline, we went to press with another fair and balanced story based entirely on the facts at the time. The story addressed the concerns being raised and presented a timeline for clarification. Even though the story went to press at 2 p.m. on Oct. 30, doesn’t mean we stopped chasing the story.

In my conversation with Langley, she stated she was unsealing the documents and would have verification by 10 a.m. the following day (Tuesday, Oct. 31), from Cornell that would “allow Cornell to verify her degree but keep them from breaking a federal law.”

The following day, Langley met with the MIR staff, but did not provide any further documentation and said it would take two weeks for the records to be unsealed. I asked her if I could see her original Cornell diploma. She responded no.

Tuesday, Oct. 31, the MIR received an email with a new post on the MI Next Door page containing a documented email from John Carberry, senior director of Media Relations at Cornell University that stated “Cornell University has no record of a person named Joy Langley or Joy Esther Langley attending or graduating from this institution. The Office of the University Registrar has likewise received no request from, nor engaged in any correspondence or conversation with, Ms. Langley on this matter.”

To say that I was stunned is an understatement. We had already gone to press with a fair and balanced story that would hit readers on Wednesday, Nov. 1. Our staff writer did the only thing a great journalist would keep doing — digging on the story.

I personally called Mr. Carberry to clarify his statement. He was very careful with how he responded and seemed to stay right on message with “neither confirming nor denying” that Joy Langley received a degree from Cornell. He stated, because of the sensitivity of the situation and all the unique requests from outside parties, that all correspondence was being sent to him. He acknowledged that the school’s response was carefully worded to consider all parties. In my opinion, Mr. Carberry did exactly what the law bound him to do.

A few hours later, it hit me. It seemed that Mr. Carberry’s statement was actually supporting Langley’s claim that her records were purposefully kept private. I called Mr. Carberry back and asked, hypothetically, if I was trying to get information on another student who had a privacy lock on their records, would his office give me the same type of response. To paraphrase Mr. Carberry again, his response was yes.

It still didn’t add up, however. I felt we didn’t have all the verifiable facts yet, so Langley was given another deadline to produce verification from Cornell that she did in fact receive a degree. This was essentially her last chance to prove her degree.

In the meantime, we attempted to find a commencement program from the 2004 Cornell graduation listing Langley’s name but were unsuccessful. After contacting the school, I was again sent to Mr. Carberry. We even combed through the commencement pictures from the 2004 event, but were unable to find a picture of Langley.

The following morning, Nov. 1, Mr. Carberry responded to the MIR by stating, “After receiving numerous inquiries and speaking directly with Ms. Langley, Cornell University re-examined its digital and paper archives, at the university and college level, and can confirm that we have no record of a person named Joy Langley or Joy Esther Langley attending or graduating from this institution.” He also stated,” We can also confirm that the Office of the University Registrar has never received a request to make private any records related to Ms. Langley.”

The MIR was the first to break the story online at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 1. The Seattle Times picked up the story at 11 p.m. the same day.

Mr. Carberry also clarified “in reviewing a voicemail line monitored by a staffer who is out this week, we did find two messages from the Mercer Island Reporter, one on Monday at about 11 a.m.our time, and another on Tuesday at 2:44 p.m., shortly before we first spoke.” Hopefully the moderator of the MI Next Door page will clarify these two material misstatements, assuming they value the same ethical and moral standards we, as journalists, are bound by.

It didn’t take an online blogger to break the story. What it took was a community that deeply cared about their future and exercised their democratic right to be heard. We heard you and we took notice.

In a 24-hour news cycle, it’s challenging to publish a weekly print newspaper. The news moves fast and as journalists, we move even faster. Sometimes the vehicle (the printed paper), isn’t able to move as fast as readers would like.

So where does that leave us? Since I’m writing this before the election, but knowing it won’t be read until after the election, I don’t have the answer.

Again, the board’s primary responsibility is to look at all sides of an issue and then put together the Reporter’s editorials, which we reach by consensus, independently from the Reporter’s objective news-gathering role.

Our duty as a community newspaper isn’t to create the news; it’s to report on the news and create open dialogue for the community to share its values and path forward.

Remember, “fake news” only exists if we don’t allow democracy to work. Don’t shoot the messenger, unless the messenger shoots first.

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