VTDigger will no longer accept commentaries from a South Burlington attorney and opponent of basing Air Force F-35 fighter jets in Vermont because he misrepresented himself to a Pentagon media operations officer.
In an effort to gain information about F-35 basing, James Leas, a patent attorney who has written or co-written about a dozen op-ed pieces published on VTDigger.org, told a Pentagon spokesman that he was a freelance writer for the online news organization.
Leas contends that his misidentification was a mistake caused by his lack of familiarity with journalism terminology. We believe he was attempting to leverage the privilege granted him by VTDigger to have his anti-F-35 opinions published on our site and that he used that connection to gain information that might not be available to a member of the general public. In short, he was using our reputation to further his position in the argument over basing the F-35 with the Vermont Air National Guard.
Ann Stefanek, media operations officer for the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., told VTDigger that Leas called seeking information regarding the F-35 basing process and was asked if he was with the media and for which publication he worked. He replied that he was “a freelancer for the Vermont Digger,” Stefanek said in an email.
Stefanek said the Pentagon does not have a policy regarding misrepresenting oneself as a journalist, but provides a different level of service to professional reporters than to inquiries from the general public.
“We won’t provide him the same type of information or follow the timelines we use when responding to media when dealing with him in the future,” she wrote.
A freelance writer might submit an unsolicited article to a news organization for publication, but that writer would not be ethical in claiming he or she worked for that organization unless he or she had been retained by the publication in advance to write a specific article. Whether retained or not, the writer would have the expectation of being paid for their efforts, unlike the unsolicited and uncompensated opinion pieces submitted by Leas in opposition to the F-35.
As an attorney, Leas should be familiar with the concept of misrepresenting oneself. For example, it would likely be unacceptable for him to seek information under the pretense that he was working for a client when, in fact, he was not.
In a lengthy email exchange with VTDigger Editor and Co-Publisher Anne Galloway over the weekend, Leas repeatedly claimed that because he had written several “articles” for VTDigger he considered himself tantamount to a freelancer. He wrote no articles for VTDigger. His commentaries were simply statements of his opinion on the topic and cannot be construed as journalism by any measure, no more than a letter to the editor might be considered so.
Most writers of op-ed pieces seem to understand that their unsolicited submissions in no way qualify them as representatives of the host publication.
Leas’ commentaries will no longer be published by VTDigger. His previously published opinions will remain on the VTDigger website, under the assumption that he had not misrepresented his role.
VTDigger will continue to publish commentaries on all sides of the F-35 issue.
Editor’s note: Last line added at 1:34 p.m. Oct. 29 to clarify.