Thursday, December 12, 2013

Samoa News finally raises questions about Faleomavaega

Samoa News deserves credit for publishing a story in today's paper about the virtual disappearance of our delegate to Congress and pointing out that our local media has done little to find out what is the true story behind his physical condition. In the absence of any media coverage, the public has had no choice but to speculate. There are rumors going around about him having had a stroke, being in a coma, losing his ability to speak, being paralyzed and all the rest. It is a logical follow on since he has publicly admitted to having had knee, heart and eye surgery as well as being diabetic and having other ailments. It is puzzling why his office has chosen to keep the lid on the news, which only heightens the speculation, rather than go public and let the chips fall where they may.

Just as ASG has to account for federal funds it spends, Faleomavaega is a federal public servant and must account for his time. We all are familiar with defendants who have tried to hide behind "Samoan custom" in a federal court of law. None has been successful. Similarly, it may be Samoan custom to respect an ill person's privacy but not when he is an elected federal official. Samoa News says it has repeatedly asked Faleomavaega's office for information on the Delegate's condition but has been ignored. If that is the case, then they need to periodically inform readers of that fact, because they are as guilty as the Delegate's office if they remain silent. The public wants to know and it is the media's job to find out the answers.

We are well aware that the paper has staff limitations but they do subscribe to AP and it seems to us they could task the Honolulu and Washington bureaus to do a little digging. After all, Faleomavaega is a senior member of Congress and the Ranking Democrat on a Foreign Affairs subcommittee, so this is a story that AP might want to cover anyway for its broader news value. It is simply not enough to say they aren't printing anything because the Delegate's office isn't giving them any information. In essence, they are admitting they practice handout journalism, waiting for the Delegate to give them the "official word." If they are doing that for Faleomavaega, might they also be doing that for the Fono and/or the Governor, or is the Delegate a special case? And if he is a special case, does that have anything to do with his sister-in-law being on Samoa News staff while serving as a national Democratic Party official.  Faleomavaega is the highest ranking elected Democrat in American Samoa and both he and his sister-in-law vote at Democratic National Conventions. It all goes to preserving the newspaper's credibility.

In the absence of pressing to get information and regularly reporting to readers, Samoa News surely must see why some people might connect all the dots and conclude there might be a cover up going on. After all, no legitimate newspaper in the country would employ a member of the Democratic or Republican Party, even as a janitor, without readers wondering if the political coverage weren't being influenced. There might not be a conflict of interest but there sure is the appearance of one. Especially so in a small operation like Samoa News where everyone wears multiple hats. She may be "copy" editor, but we have seen her byline on news stories, too.

Samoa News writes that the ABCDEFG blog alleges that this “suggests that Faleomavaega’s health situation is a lot more serious than his office has acknowledged and from here it could be construed that the local media is participating in a coverup." We are not alleging that, we are asserting it. We are not arguing that Mrs. Hunkin be fired but any time a political story is written involving Faleomavaega, they ought to run a disclaimer. And as far as how to press Faleomavaega's office to give up more information, they need to remember he needs them more than they need him. Next time his office hands out the text of some meaningless cocktail party remarks before some group not even related to American Samoa, or a press release on some issue of no concern to us such as the name of an NFL football team or some meeting with a dictator in Central Asia, just tell his office you won't print these things any more until they come clean on state of Faleomavaega's health and tell your readers that is what you are doing. Surely there has to be a healthy degree of skepticism about just taking the word of the Delegate's office on any of this.

At one point according to Samoa News's own reporting, the office said it was not a life threatening situation. But later a staff member was quoted in the media as saying they almost lost him. If it's a matter of both statements being true because his condition deteriorated between one utterance and the other, shouldn't the public through media have been advised with periodic updates? Finally, Samoa News says "[t]here has long been speculation at Samoa News as to who is the author of the blog and why they choose to remain anonymous since most news organizations usually don’t give credence to sources who won’t reveal themselves. (A notable exception was ‘Deep Throat’ and The Washington Post.)" We don't publish our names for the same reason Samoa News grants anonymity to writers of letters to the editor. It's a small community and people fear retribution. And frankly, it is probably why Samoa News does not go after this very legitimate story: fear.

Samoa News should feel free to publish or ignore anything we write. We are not asserting new facts or looking to be published. As a matter of fact, we do not do any original reporting. We ask questions based on stories published by others, whether it be some foreign trips of questionable value or something sneaky he has tried to do. We don't look at ourselves as being a news source. We just point readers in the direction of sources and they can make judgments for themselves. Our sources are basically the same sources Samoa News itself could easily access: news stories on the Internet.

When Faleomavaega announces he is in Asia "on assignment," for example, does anyone ask him who made the assignment and what the assignment is? No, they just take the handout and print it. We are only raising questions that we believe the local media themselves should be asking. As for using anonymous sources, papers do that every day by citing information from "a high government official" or "a person familiar with the situation" or other similar devices. As for Deep Throat, just imagine if The Washington Post had simply waited for handouts from the White House: Richard Nixon would have finished his second term.

Indeed, Watergate changed the face of journalism. This is not 1920, when Woodrow Wilson's wife could hide her husband's incapacitating stroke for 18 months. This is not 1945, when the White House succeeded in having the press conceal Franklin Roosevelt's wheelchair confinement for the entire 13 years of his presidency. This is not 1962, when the press practiced self-restraint and did not write about the rumors that John Kennedy was running women in and out of the White House. This is 2013 and the public demands more from the press. It is a public trust, no less so for Samoa News than The Washington Post.

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