Kosmicki: BenitoLink, and why bylines do matter

Todd Dearden

There are still basic standards in journalism, and our counterparts at BenitoLink clearly don’t understand this.
Most glaring among the serious ethical stumbles during the first few years of BenitoLink—the Community Foundation’s answer to some of the organization’s power-hungry, royalty-level objections over Free Lance Opinion pages from the late 2000s—the website that covers government meetings already handled by the Free Lance and profiles nonprofit press releases (also in the Free Lance if we get them) as if they’re all Pulitzer nominations has failed to disclose when the guy who runs it, Adam Breen, writes tamely toned stories on controversial matters about his other employer, San Benito High School.
This is unacceptable and dangerous from political and journalistic points of view, and it is no laughing matter.
Putting San Benito High’s importance into context from a political and community perspective, the district serves the vast majority of county families and it is an academically failing, 3,000-student school with about $30 million in annual general fund spending of taxpayers’ money and another $42.5 million filtering in from narrowly approved capital bond funds awarded after a June 2014 ballot passage. On the most recent state standardized tests released last fall, the school had 45 percent of students meeting standards in English and just 18 percent in math. These and similarly dismal figures in previous years’ testing reflect a challenging road ahead for a true turnaround, and the community’s residents who vote and pay taxes have every right to closely watch the process and feel confident about the level of transparency involved.
For high school leadership sometimes pressed by us when we’ve found it necessary to ask difficult questions, and under a superintendent who has shut off all communication with the newspaper at times over petty complaints on stories, having BenitoLink accessible with a Baler employee at the helm has offered the district’s top officials a real propaganda arm to spread its news with a heavy coat of hometown baloney.
For Breen, from a journalism perspective, there is no way around the clear-cut conflict of interest involved with his part-time, longtime employment as the journalism instructor at San Benito High School and his coinciding oversight and direct involvement with a continual turnstile of happy coverage about his employer, San Benito High School, on BenitoLink.
There isn’t a credible newspaper in America that would allow this. So why should we accept it here in San Benito County where we have limited media sources—basically the newspaper and BenitoLink—and where government players and public employees wield a relatively massive level of influence over the political scene?
We shouldn’t.
Allowing such blatant misconduct—by any high school administrators who are taking advantage of Breen’s standing on the nonprofit website’s staff, by Breen himself as a seasoned journalist trained on the concept of conflicts of interest or by BenitoLink’s leadership for promoting such a bias-friendly dynamic—is just as wrong as participating.
That is why, despite how uncomfortable it may be, I’m speaking out on this matter. If I don’t, I’m doubtful anyone else will care enough to say something or explain the significance of spreading propaganda in a small, democratic community.
BenitoLink certainly has covered other routine San Benito High School stories since the website’s founding after a Community Foundation “Vision San Benito” workshop, and its participants, concluded the county needed a better information source than the current offerings—AKA, the Free Lance.
It’s not the competition that bothers me. I embrace competition. It drives me. My aching problem is that this ongoing give and take between the high school district and its favorite son disregards a responsibility for BenitoLink, when proclaiming itself as a legitimate news source that the public should trust, for truth at all costs.
As we’ve seen through the years in news-rich San Benito County, there is a wide range of potential issues, positive and negative, which can and will arise at every public institution in the community. The case involving recently departed, former Principal Todd Dearden underscores why this is such a big problem and why Breen has no business participating in coverage of his other job’s supervisors. If he steps aside from it, the website should make that clear, too, because otherwise there’s an assumption he’s involved. It’s simply impossible, after all, to remain objective when writing and publishing stories about a supervisor at another job. It’s cringe-worthy for me but most readers won’t notice, which makes it all the more inappropriate on a transparency level.
To understand the basic issue at hand: On the principal departure matter, along with others on the high school, BenitoLink has published stories using a generic byline of “BenitoLink Staff”. It’s akin to “Staff Report” or “Staff” bylines often traditionally used by newspapers like ours but under guidelines—for us, it has been used in recent years mostly for press release re-writes—and when initial, breaking reporting has been involved a team of staff members whose names would be disclosed with updates.
It is not meant to cloud the public’s understanding on the identity of a story author, like BenitoLink does. On the contrary, newspaper bylines are meant to make writers accountable for their words and they allow the public to make contact with reporters if desired.
With the Breen-BenitoLink-SBHS dynamic, the argument against “BenitoLink Staff” as a byline—or any involvement from the content director on those stories—takes a giant leap forward because he’s reporting on the political actions of his employer, too. If he’s somehow capable of balancing interests of his two employers, there remains an inherent, potential, real perception that he’s favoring the high school compared with other local entities.
Multiple BenitoLink stories on the saga—about Dearden’s departure and now about a new leader’s hiring Wednesday—have included the ambiguous “BenitoLink Staff” bylines attached to them. Especially considering Breen’s occupational connection to the website and high school, it’s particularly important that he disclose, one way or the other, whether he wrote or edited any stories on his employer.
Kollin Kosmicki is editor of the Free Lance. He previously worked with Breen at the local newspapers.

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