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.