Margolis: Dissemblers, truth-tellers and one controversial reporter

Photo of Eric Blaisdell. Lyndon State Critic

Photo of Eric Blaisdell. Lyndon State Critic

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is a columnist for VTDigger.

Maybe if the folks in the truth-telling business had told the truth at the outset, this sad story would not have evolved as it did.

Or maybe if the guy to whom they did not tell the truth – and his bosses – had given the matter a little more thought, the sad story would not have evolved as it did.

But executives at the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus dissembled (and that’s being charitable) when Seven Days reporter Paul Heintz called to ask whether they knew that their recently hired reporter had served prison time and was on both the New Hampshire and Vermont sex offender registries.

Bad move. First, because the truth was bound to emerge, as it quickly did, producing a second story in Seven Days, just what the TA execs did not want. Second, those in the truth-telling business ought to tell the truth. Not doing so debases the brand. Third, it seems to have – understandably, because reporters do not like to be given the run-around – inspired Heintz and his editors to make more of the story than they might have had the Times Argus bosses been candid to begin with.

Make more of the story, perhaps, than is either necessary or decent.

Considering his guilty plea, it’s hard to say that Blaisdell did nothing wrong. But he did not hurt anyone – man, woman or child.

Raising the question as to whether the most innocent person in this sad story is the one who has pleaded guilty – 27-year-old reporter Eric Blaisdell, who spent more than eight months in jail. He has served his time and mental health authorities in New Hampshire judge him fit (with a few restrictions) to go about his life and his business in the community.

Considering his guilty plea, it’s hard to say that Blaisdell did nothing wrong. But he did not hurt anyone – man, woman or child. He responded to – responded to, not initiated – online offers of sex with young girls, one of them 13. It may not be immaterial to note (and Heintz, to his credit, noted it) that the offer was “trolled” online not by law enforcement officials but by a private vigilante outfit called Perverted-Justice.com, whose tactics have been likened to entrapment by some judges.

But Blaisdell never touched a teenage girl. He never met them or contacted them. From the evidence at hand, there is no reason to think he ever intended to meet or contact them. He was apparently a sad, lonely and – let’s be candid here – horny 21-year-old engaged in fantasies which may be unhealthy, but perhaps not all that unnatural.

It would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that he was jailed for clicking a few keys on his computer keyboard. But it would be literally correct. “You can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking,” wrote the great lyricist Frank Loesser. But now you can, at least if you let some thoughts wander online.

We know about Blaisdell’s past because it was revealed last week in Heintz’s “Fair Game” column. Heintz is an energetic reporter whose coverage of this year’s Vermont political campaigns was as good as anyone’s. And it’s hard to criticize a reporter for writing something that’s true and newsworthy. The information in last week’s “Fair Game” column was true.

Newsworthy? Maybe not.

Consider that to elevate the story from mere gossip to a subject of public interest, Heintz writes that Blaisdell’s “readers have a right to know of any real or perceived conflicts of interest he may have.” And again in fairness to Heintz, he did not invent this angle, though he clearly endorsed it. He went to exactly the right expert source, Kelly McBride, the senior faculty member in journalistic ethics at the highly regarded Poynter Institute for Journalism in St. Petersburg.

“You can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking,” wrote the great lyricist Frank Loesser. But now you can, at least if you let some thoughts wander on line.

But McBride’s expertise notwithstanding, where is the conflict of interest? Heintz does not even try to explain where such a conflict might arise. Is there some suspicion that, were he covering the trial of someone accused of child abuse, Blaisdell would be too sympathetic to the defendant? Neither Heintz nor McBride say so, and there’s just as much reason to believe that Blaisdell’s experience might make him less sympathetic to the defendant.

When I was a reporter at Newsday years ago, one of my most valued colleagues had spent some years in the West Virginia (if I’m remembering correctly) penitentiary. He’d been a thief. No one ever suggested that he not be allowed to cover the trial of an accused robber, or that a brief note be inserted under his byline informing readers that he’d served time. (He ended up winning several prestigious journalism awards, and had unique insights into prison life that helped those of us covering the 1971 Attica prison uprising).

Should a vegetarian reporter not have been permitted to cover the recent flap over Green Mountain College’s oxen? What about the health care debate? No doubt some reporters covering it had a friend or relative who’d been denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition. No one called for disclosure of this personal information, nor should they.

If I cover a legislative hearing about raising alcohol and tobacco taxes, my readers need not know that I occasionally enjoy a martini (or better yet, two) before dinner and a cigar afterward. That’s not a conflict of interest. Neither is having been in prison. No one asks journalists to disclose the companies in which they own stock, which might actually create a conflict of interest if any of them owned great gobs of shares in certain companies. Alas, almost none of us is in that situation.

Perhaps some might argue that exhibiting a sexual interest in teenage girls is different from being a vegetarian, or liking a cocktail now and then, or even my former colleague’s criminal past. In this view, a grown man’s sexual interest in young girls is proof of an incurable mental disorder, meaning an offender is likely to re-offend.

But in Blaisdell’s case, New Hampshire’s mental health officials do not agree, and neither, it seems, does the scholarly research. A 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal reported on Justice Department and other studies indicating that, for instance, convicted child molesters (which Blaisdell, remember, is not) are less likely to re-offend than other criminals released from prison.

But one need not be an expert to realize that there is nothing unusual or unnatural about a young man being sexually attracted to younger girls. One just has to have spent a bit of time in a locker room, the barracks, a construction site or a saloon. Or to know a little history and literature. Juliet (Romeo’s main squeeze) was 13, an age when many a Medieval Vernonan or ancient Roman young woman was married and a mother. Even in parts of early Colonial America the marriageable age was 12.

As much as the Mitchells should be condemned for not playing straight with Heintz, they should be commended for giving this young man a chance to ply his preferred trade and get his life together.

This does not let Blaisdell off the hook. He lives here and now and is subject to today’s laws. But it does undercut the theory that he is some kind of incurable pervert who can never be trusted. He was a mixed-up young guy. He is now – so say the authorities – less mixed up and able to cope.

Heintz noted, with apparent disapproval, that Blaisdell has already covered stories at schools and trials of accused child molesters. But so what? Under the terms of his release, he has to notify school officials that he is coming, and tell them about his place on the offender registry. This may be unnecessary. Visitors to schools are not permitted to be alone with children (except perhaps their own) under any circumstances.

As to his stories about those trials, has anybody read through them to see if they show any bias? Well, yes, come to think of it; his editors did. That’s their job. Let them do it.

The Times Argus has a small staff, smaller than it used to be (and it shows). An editor doesn’t have the luxury of a policy under which some reporters can’t cover some stories. A general assignment reporter has to be able to cover everything, and to be judged by his or her work, not by some event in his or her past.

As much as Times Argus publisher John Mitchell and his son, state editor Rob Mitchell, should be condemned for not playing straight with Heintz, they should be commended for giving this young man a chance to ply his preferred trade and get his life together.

Hang in there, Eric. Don’t let the commotion bother you. Who knows? Maybe one day, like my former Newsday colleague, who spent more time in the pokey than you did, you’ll win a prestigious journalism prize, too.

Jon Margolis

Comments

  1. louis berney :

    It always galls me to see newspaper editors or publishers — those whose product depends on others responding to reporters’ questions — refusing to comment to reporters, as the Mitchells initially did. That, to me, is the height of hypocrisy. As Jon so aptly points out, those in the truth-telling business ought to tell the truth. To hide behind a no-comment demeans their very livelihood.

  2. Stephanie Kaplan :

    Excellent article. Jon has put the whole situation into its proper context.

  3. Margolis goes a good way to confirming the concerns about conflict of interest that he, Margolis, poo-poos in the story. In this case I’m referring to a reporter covering a reporter and those that hire reporters.

    This story is unnecessarily easy on Blaisdale and the Mitchells.

    Unanswered questions (and ones Margolis apparently is not interested in pursuing): Where on the internet was Blaisdale when he was “trolled”? Was he in a chatroom known to be frequented by young teens? Was Blaisdale misrepresenting his age so it mirrored his potential victims?

    And the Mitchells? Who isn’t aware of the hyper-vigilance applied to those who prey or show intention to prey on our youth and children? Remember – Blaisdale is covering school events (as a school board member I’m certainly interested in this fact).

    Finally – in my opinion Margolis is better suited to the opeds. The above is not a researched news story as is evidenced by his opinion that men in general are nothing more than un-trolled child molesters or pursuing teens for sex.

    • Retired Chicago Tribune political writer Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s columnist. As such he belongs on the front page with other professional journalists.

      • Patrick Cashman :

        He’s a journalist emeritus, therefore everything he writes is automatically journalism? That’s a heavy load to bear.

    • Karl Riemer :

      Rama, I see nothing suggesting JM has the opinion, much less expresses the opinion, you ascribe to him. Unless you’re extrapolating from your personal knowledge of his character, perhaps you’re extrapolating from your personal knowledge of your own.

      • “But one need not be an expert to realize that there is nothing unusual or unnatural about a young man being sexually attracted to younger girls. One just has to have spent a bit of time in a locker room, the barracks, a construction site or a saloon.” … as written above by Margolis.

        It’s not much of an extrapolation when given that bit of excusing Blaisdale’s actions.

  4. barbara morrow :

    You’d have to go a long way to find a journalist with the credentials, credibility and chops that Jon Margolis has. VT Digger is lucky to have him on board. Having said that, it doesn’t make him infallible. Nonetheless, his reporting, aside from criticism of his own field, brings up an issue that plagues us, and that is painting all “sex offenders” with the same brush. And what to do with them after they’ve done their time. We have a long way to go trying to figure out how to label and handle sex offenders. I’m not excusing them at all. But Margolis brings up some excellent points and his usual highly readable way. Thanks for running this.

  5. Sex is still a dirty word in America. Always will be. How would they have handled this problem in Sweden, or Denmark?
    I think the troller here was the Seven Day reporter who has his own agenda. For some reason, my mind goes back to Mccarthyism.

  6. kevin ellis :

    Great piece. This story needs this discussion.

  7. Jon Margolis :

    Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute returned a phone call early Monday morning, and her point of view should be part of this discussion.

    McBride said a reporter could face a potential conflict of interest when covering a story related to a “personal experience,” based on “personal choice.”

    For instance, she said, “a reporter who had filed for bankruptcy may be banned from covering a bankruptcy trial,” and a gay reporter in San Francisco was pulled off covering the judicial appeal of California’s gay marriage ban, not because she was gay, but because she and her partner filed for a marriage application while the case was pending.

    “I don’t think you can have a conflict of interest because of how you were born,” McBride said.” But (when) she and her partner went down and applied for a marriage license, they made themselves part of the controversy.”

    Not all these potential conflicts are “unmanageable,” McBride said, but at the very least they should be disclosed to a newspaper’s readers. To begin with, she said, the readers are going to find out anyway.

    “It’s not like the audience won’t find out,” she said. “Those lists are so public and if (a reporter’s name is) on a sex offender list (it) will show up.”

    Because so much more information is so easily available, McBride said, news organizations have to be far more transparent than they were a few decades ago.

    “Journalists are being held to a much higher degree of accountability,” she said. In the past, journalists believed that their own “independence and neutrality” was sufficient protection against conflict of interest, she said, but while standards have not changed, conditions have, and journalists have to be more open with their audiences.

    If anything, she said, editors at small newspapers have to be more nimble about knowing when to assign – or not assign – a certain reporter to some stories because conflicts of interest are both more common and better known in the community.

    For instance, she said, an editor would not assign a reporter to cover his or her own church. Nor should the spouse the president of the local hospital board of trustees cover stories about the hospital. In these cases, she said, not only is there a potential conflict of interest, but readers would know about the conflict.

  8. Thanks for this, John & VTD.

    a few more facts:
    1. Almost everyone accused of a sex crime against a child pleads guilty, whether he is or not. The damage of more public exposure &, given juries’ credulity & outsize penalties, the risk of trial are just too great.

    2. There are 750,000 Americans on sex offender registries. Many — maybe most — are there because they had sex with or thought about having sex with a minor when they were nearly minors themselves. Or in some states, were minors themselves. Being on an SOR means you can’t freely find housing, work, travel, worship, or have a family life; you live in perpetual fear of vigilante violence & gratuitous “exposes” like the one in this case.

    3. Actually we don’t have a long way to go trying to figure out how to label and handle sex offenders. For many years, the most credible criminologists–and groups like Amnesty International–have condemned the U.S. sex-crimes regime of surveillance of fantasy and draconian penalties as ineffective in protecting public safety and a violation of basic human rights.

    These laws are the result of three decades of public hysteria & political opportunism, & it’s time to turn them around. For more information on how you can help, go to ncrj.org (National Center for Reason & Justice).

  9. Jon’s points are well taken, but they miss some critical historical context and the larger issue that many of us who once worked at the Times Argus are concerned about (though in discussion it is apparent we are not all of one mind).

    I came back to the newspaper for a third stint, as a deputy (managing) editor, after its last embarrassing management failure: hiring an editor, Scott Fletcher, who eventually was fired in 2002 for fabricating sensational front-page stories out of thin air. Those of us, former editors and reporters with ties to a once-proud newspaper, could see disaster approaching from outside, though the brazenness of it was far more breathtaking than imagined, and the paper’s ignorance of it more incomprehensible than imagined.

    Now fast forward to today. In my view, a judgment on Mr. Blaisdell’s actions is not the issue; nor is the idea of second chances, which I believe in. Here is the crux:

    Considering that the Times Argus (or any newspaper’s) most important asset is its reputation and integrity, which must be put first and foremost, it boggles the mind to think of hiring Mr. Blaisdell. If he had applied to work in an accounting office, or in construction, or even as a desk editor, there are reasonable arguments for a second chance.
    But to hire a convicted sex offender, notwithstanding any mitigating circumstances, to represent the newspaper in the community – knowing the flammability of the label – puts your biggest asset at risk. This was a very bad and poorly thought-out decision, a train wreck waiting to happen.

    Worse, to then hire such a person and NOT understand – in the news business no less! – that sooner or later this would become public, and NOT be prepared to answer questions, is incomprehensible. To do this in light of the previous mistakes with Mr. Fletcher is truly astounding. (If you were bound and determined to head down this perilous path for some inscrutable reason, the ONLY way to do it would have been to announce it at the start and be completely public and honest about it. That of course would require foresight the paper seems not to have.)
    The Times Argus has lost/laid off many veteran journalists and editors (including myself and VtDigger, founder and editor Anne Galloway). In the process, it has clearly shed its editorial common sense and institutional memory. I feel sorry for Mr. Blaisdell, but he never should have been put in the position he is in now. Management was, again, asleep at the switch.

  10. Karl Riemer :

    Jon, well and properly said.

    “Make more of the story, perhaps, than is either necessary or decent.” has lately become something of a 7D signature. A whiff of retributive recklessness, journalistic monkeywrenching, has begun seeping out under the door down there. It’s beginning to look like the point of hurting people is simply to demonstrate they can, that bringing pain is its own reward.

  11. Kathy Callaghan :

    Mr. Blaisdell has been doing a file job as a newspaper reporter. His prior record has little to do with his current work ethic. The Times Argus handled this matter tastefully and supported their employee. Good for them. Jon Margolis wrote an excellent piece setting the situation out properly. Mr. Heintz was looking to create sensationalism and found something to chew on.

    Why aren’t we willing to give someone a second chance? Remember, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.

  12. I applaud Jon Margolis for a rational approach to what is too often an irrational subject. The initials “S.O.” (for sex offender) have become the 21st century scarlet letters. The main point that should be emphasized over and over again is that people accused (and convicted) of “sex offenses” range from what we would all agree is horrendous (child rapists)to cases such as those like Eric Blaisdell, who was, as Margolis points out, apparently a horny, stupid 21 year old who did not, in fact, do anything sexual to a minor. For responding on the internet, he served a ridiculous prison term that cost all of us taxpayers money for no reason, and he is now being stigmatized for life (and costing us more money to track). Leave him alone!

    And Andy Nemethy, I am very surprised that you would say it “boggles the mind” that the Times-Argus would hire Blaisdell, thus joining the witch-hunt mentality. Blaisdell should be judged on the quality of his reporting, period. And I also disagree with the ethicist from Poynter who thinks he should not be allowed to report on child abuse cases. His experience might make Blaisdell a better, more balanced reporter than many others who offer the common knee-jerk media response of “guilty until proven innocent” in many such cases.

  13. Keith Vance :

    At the end of the day, a news organization’s only asset is its credibility. Great care should be taken if that credibility is ever put in jeopardy. Journalism is a highly competitive industry, even for low-paying gigs in small-town newspapers.

  14. Great work, Jon. Just finished my semesterly briefing on journalistic ethics and issues, and this fiasco – and your column as well – covers a whole host of these issues.

  15. Randy Koch :

    How come Americans have such a lust for punishment? I’ve heard that sex offenders can end up serving their long terms but remain still locked up if they don’t admit their guilt and receive counseling. Sort of like with “terrorism” convicts who are considered beyond redemption.

  16. mark floegel :

    I found this piece shocking. This subject does deserve discussion; unfortunately, this is a poor beginning. I began my career as a police reporter for a small town newspaper in New York State. I interviewed sex offenders and while I had sympathy for their mental illness, I was sickened by their crimes and impressed by the need to protect potential victims. I was equally sickened to see Jon Margolis attempt to give such crimes “context” by bringing in the Roman Empire and Colonial America – two contexts in which slavery was blessed and women were considered chattel. If Mr. Margolis is going for context he shouldn’t stop halfway. His article reminds me of Whoopi Goldberg’s claim that Roman Polanski’s crime wasn’t “rape rape.” Just because Jon Margolis makes an ass of himself with a keyboard, doesn’t mean the Vermont Digger should publish it. Trash bins serve a needed purpose.

  17. Bud Haas :

    It’s not worth adding anything more to this particular story, but over here in Bradford we’ve got a bunch of big spenders wanting to hire a cop for the high school because a school gym teacher and coach is currently being accused of sexually assaulting a minor…13 years ago.
    Nothing like sex and fear to rile up the troops.
    Suggesting that that particular student would have “gone to the cop in the school” rather than another school employee, conselor or like, doesn’t say much for our school, or I think unlikely.
    I fear that a bigger risk is that some “minor” offenses would become unjustly criminalized by having police directly in the school.

  18. Suzi Wizowaty :

    Good piece, Jon.

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