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Weakly's "source" was dead wrong

Original post made by Paul K, Southgate, on Apr 26, 2007

After reading today's Weakly story <Web Link the release of the Emily Harrison report, I'm struck by two things.

1. If the allegations made by her co-workers are true, she should have been fired a long time ago but hasn't because it's difficult if not impossible to fire a government employee. I guess Frank Benest recognizes this since he did everything he could to get her fired, and when eh realized it wasn't going to work, began praising her to make the best out of a bad situation.

2. You can't trust the Weakly, particularly when it cites unidentified sources in a story. Go back to the Weakly's April 6th story <Web Link and look at all the things that were wrong in that report.

On April 4th, Weakly said Gary Baum launched the Harrison investigation. Now we learn it was actually Frank Benest who launched it.

On April 4th, the Weakly said the allegations were made by a "mid-level staffer." Now we learn it was Benest, a top-level staffer, who made the allegations about how she treated others and him.

The April 4th story sugar-coated the allegations against Harrison, suggesting that the source knew the allegations were much worse and used the Weakly to try and put out the fire. Nothing in that original report discussed her alleged harassment of people based on their political or religious beliefs, her rolling of her eyes, her insubordination, etc.

Did Jay and the Weakly get "used" by their source, or were they trying to help the city with a cover-up?

The original story contains many other inaccuracies which would have never been revealed to the public had the report remained secret. Thank goodness the Daily filed a request to obtain the documents! (The Weakly jumped in and filed its request for the report only after the Daily did so first.)

Since this "source" gave the Weakly bad information, the Weakly should declare that it's promise is anonymity is off and reveal the liar.

It's funny how newspapers always demand transparency from other institutions in society, but when the tables are turned, they cover everything up and ignore their critics.

Comments (9)

Posted by LeeR
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2007 at 11:05 am

My guess is that the source is Emily Harrison.

Posted by Rodham
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2007 at 11:45 am

The Weekly should correct such errors and explain how they happened. But I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
editor emeritus
on Apr 26, 2007 at 10:23 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Hi --

In response to Paul K’s “Palo Alto Weakly” posting (a rather tired and petty-insult play on words, I thought), I will provide some background and thoughts, with advance apologies for the length.

1) The Weekly is neither “out to get” Harrison, as some have alleged, or trying to “sugar-coat” or support a “cover-up” of some sort. Our goal is simply to find out what is happening on a story of significant public interest and importance and report it as quickly, accurately and in depth as possible so readers can reach their own conclusions (and then debate them on Town Square).

2) No responsible journalist I know enjoys writing stories based on anonymous sources. In this case, we spent several hours talking with fearful and reluctant persons knowledgeable about the situation to get what was going on, who was involved and how long the alleged behavior had been going on. Sometimes it's a case in which it's a choice between the public getting no information at all about an important situation or having to rely on (trust?) a journalist (such as the late David Halberstam) to find out what's truly happening from trusted (and verified) sources and report that.

We developed significant information, but chose not to publish some of it until we could get at least a “second source” (or third) to confirm it. This is standard journalistic practice. But even trusted and well-meaning sources (anonymous or quoted by name) can sometimes be wrong about details, and this was the case about who initiated the investigation that led to the suspension of Harrison.

We used the term “reportedly,” thus clearly indicating to the reader that we are passing on information. When we learned of the error, we corrected it online and in print at the earliest opportunity.

2) The initial story actually was posted March 27, not April 4, and quoted Harrison, reached at her home on a Sunday. The story reported the suspension, and that it was “due to a run-in several months ago with an unidentified staff member.” The sources were Harrison, not an unidentified source, and Phil Plymale, head of the Service Employees International Uniion chapter representing city employees -- who told us he didn’t think a union person was involved, hence “mid-level” in a later story. We quoted accurately what Plymale said about Harrison.

On April 6 (not April 4, according to our records) we posted a story disclosing that a formal investigation led to the suspension and that “Sources indicate that the grievance was filed by a mid-level staff member, but no time frame has been established as to any specific incident or situation on which the grievance was based.” There is a difference between who filed the original “grievance” and who “initiated the investigation” -- it was in fact a mid-level (i.e. “non-union”) staff member who filed the grievance, as the sources indicated. “Allegations” is a general, vague term -- and many people have made them in this story. It could apply to either or both the person who filed the grievance and Benest.

At the time we were pretty sure the person filing the grievance worked on the seventh floor but did not report that because we wanted to get additional confirmation. We also learned (not easily) that the investigation uncovered a multi-year pattern of behavior with certain individuals, but needed further confirmation of that as well.

City Attorney Gary Baum at that time would “neither confirm nor deny” that an investigation had occurred.

3) The Weekly filed a Public Records Act request as soon as a letter could be prepared and delivered. The letter was dated March 29 and received by the city attorney’s office April 2. We only learned days or a week later that the Daily News had filed a request of its own. We have reported on both requests, but I haven’t seen a reference to the Weekly’s request in the Daily News’ articles for some reason. I do not know who filed first, and question the relevancy of that anyway.

I would be pleased to discuss this matter further if Paul K. desires a real dialogue about standard responsible-journalism practices and the Weekly’s intent in this complex, challenging and rather saddening story.


Posted by Carol Mullen
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 27, 2007 at 6:20 pm

I have other concerns: one employee is singled out for special attention, and although his name is not given, it's made very clear that his religion was an issue between him and Emily Harrison. Either he expressed homophobic attitudes during working hours - in which case we Palo Altans all have a problem - or Emily Harrison assumed he had those attitudes, without reason - in which case, yes, she has the problem.

Or perhaps neither of the above. Is this an issue of nepotism?

Privacy issues are one thing. Respecting sexual preferences while "on duty" is the law - or isn't it?

I think the Weekly should make it clear why you brought in this one employee's religion.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with being an ardent feminist, and absolutely nothing wrong with being a lesbian. They are not the same thing.

This article hints at things it may not say; but says far more than it should, having begun.

Posted by trudy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 28, 2007 at 3:48 am

The light begins to dawn. Why am I suddenly thinking that an alternative explanation for what has been going on is not that Harrison has a behavior problem, but that various city employees are homophobic...

Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 28, 2007 at 4:07 pm

Trudy, you may be exactly right. The Weekly and Daily have in the past emboldened citizens who have used implied homophobic public innuendo to shame city staffers whose actions they disagreed with. This has happened in public, right in front of City Council, with not ONE word of protest.

In most cases, these people were given free passes by the press, and labeled in a complimentary way - as" police watchdogs". Sad.

This was an insult to our community that the press, and general silence, helped to enable.

There certainly IS another side to a lot of these stories. btw, this isn't to excuse retailiatory behavior by the Asst. City Manager; that was wrong. But, she _was_ punished for that behavior. The Weekly's furthere expose (and the Daily's) have done this community, and many good, hard-working individuals a huge disservice.

Diana Diamond is especially complicit in this, with her recent muck-raking followed up by hallow "concern" to her muck-raked victims.

The Weekly should re-consider her contributions to their paper, as she appears to have lost her edge, now relying on tired gossip, and bashing those who support needed infrastructure changes in our city. Who needs that?

Posted by Pet
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 28, 2007 at 5:00 pm

Carol, you ask why the religion of the harassed employee is relevant. Consider what the slant of the story would likely be if the Asst. City Manager were a conservative Christian and the harassed subordinate were a liberal feminist (or lesbian for that matter.) I don't have any doubt that the offense would be magnified by these respective affiliations of the parties in the minds of most Palo Altans, and that this fact would be not only mentioned, but highlighted, in the press stories.

I think we'd all have big problems if a Christian Manager mocked a liberal/feminist/lesbian. We should. But we also should be outraged when the harassment goes the other direction, even if we don't agree with the victim's ideology. None of us are safe in a diverse society if those with the sympathies of the majority can belittle those with minority viewpoints.

If you think otherwise, consider that believing Christians constitute over half of the country. You want to give Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell even more license than he already think they have to impose their ideas on the rest of us?

Posted by Walter M.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 12, 2007 at 8:36 am

Going back to the topic, I'm concerned that the Weekly was taken by its original source and now isn't even acknowledging how it was misled. Jay, you need to be more open to those who report errors in the Weekly, especially in an important matter like this. Your answer here reads like something a politician would say, but when you compare the "before" and "after" stories, it's obvious your source was misinformed. You should acknowledge that, correct the errors and ensure that they don't happen again. If you lack the objectivity to do that, you need to have a third-party look into this matter. This serioulsly impairs the Weekly's credibility.

Posted by Kathy
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 25, 2007 at 3:32 am

the weekly should stop relying upon "sources" and actually check out stories before they are printed ... this example bubbled to the surface ... there wasn't much they could do to stop the public from finding out the truth about how shoddy their reporting really is ... but my guess is that this happens all the time ... and jay just shrugs and pretends nothing happened ... no wonder people are abadoning newspapers ... and that's bad for all of us ... there once was a time when newspapers played an important role in keeping our institutions honest ...

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