The False Narrative

Friday, the Lake Sun published an article that relayed the results of a DESE report, addressing allegations of testing irregularities and breaches of security in the Camdenton Middle School. The article became subject of a public debate on social media, prompting Lake Sun content manager Eric Dundon to comment on the Facebook page ‘Mr. Sean Kirksey for Camdenton Middle School Principal’. He attempted to defend the Lake Sun’s article and their reporting of Mr. Kirksey and the district’s MAPP testing violations. His comment came after several citizens pointed out a lack of pertinent facts in the article and complained about bias against Mr. Kirksey.

Unfortunately for Gatehouse and the Lake Sun, they have made a deliberate choice in creating a false narrative in support of the current school board, its policies and administration. The Lake Sun, during school board elections earlier this year, reported on the resignation of Brian Henry and packaged the blame and laid it at the feet of three-then school board members, Laura Martin, Jim Besancenez and John Beckett.

Their reporting of the resignation of Henry, and later of Ms. Kindwall, was a carefully crafted public relations campaign. The paper’s characterization, when compared to the facts, appears to be pure propaganda designed to damage the reputation of three board members in the public eye. This smear campaign has its roots in the Lake Sun ‘article’ from December 19, 2012, ‘Details behind resignation emerge’.

In this article, the Lake Sun functions more like a tabloid than a news organization. It is void of fact and full of conjecture, speculation and rumor-mongering. The smear piece was the first to reflect publisher John Tucker’s admitted bias and does not carry a byline. After reading it, the reason for anonymity is obvious. It is not reporting, nor is it informing. This false narrative only shares a vague dirty, second-cousin relationship to journalism.

It begins by referencing anonymous sources ”close to the situation” of the resignation of Dr. Brian Henry. The piece goes on to say that Henry’s may be the first resignation of teachers and administrators who were “exasperated” and claims that the district may be “at risk for losing other talented educators”. The Lake Sun defines the “root of the problem”. They clearly attempt to make the case that the actions of then-board members Laura Martin, John Beckett and Jim Besancenez were responsible for Henry’s resignation.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Lake Sun claimed this “alliance” of board members “micro-managed” administrators by asking and emailing them questions. This, according to the Lake Sun, was “interfering with the day-to-day operations of running the district”. The Lake Sun then went on to claim that “Martin, Beckett and Besancenez voted against renewing Henry’s contract earlier this year”.

This would be one of the central premises of the Lake Sun’s smear campaign against these board members. Unfortunately, while it is long on speculation and allegations, it is short on facts.

In a December 18 interview with the Lake Sun, Henry asserts that there had been a “struggle with the administration and a few members of the board. He made claims that, for these board members, “politics…have overtaken some of the discussions” and that he “wanted to get to a spot where education is first”.

While Henry and the Lake Sun conspired to make a compelling case, neither the administrator nor the newspaper bothered to report or discuss the facts that led to Henry’s resignation. Instead, they focused on the creation of an utterly false narrative that would determine the future of the Camdenton School District by misleading voters through the suppression of the facts.

Dr. Brian Henry, along with Superintendent Tim Hadfield had sought contract extensions from the school district prior to Henry’s resignation. The extension Henry and Hadfield sought would have given them effective ‘tenure’ by adding another two years onto their current contracts with the district. At the time of his resignation, Dr. Henry’s contract that still had two years left. Both Henry and Dr. Tim Hadfield, district superintendent, sought contract extensions that would ensure their job security through approximately 2016. The three board members in question, voted against offering any such extension for the administrators. They were guided, in part, by the belief that it wasn’t fair to the public or future boards to extend these contracts beyond their current length. Additionally, this type of extension is not typically offered to other employees throughout the district. This vote, taken against these contract extensions, is what the Lake Sun crafted their smear campaign around.

The Lake Sun, in their Dec. 19 article, falsifies and conceals these facts: “Martin, Beckett and Besancenez voted against renewing Henry’s contract earlier this year.”

Indeed, the three board members mentioned, DID vote against these contract extensions, while the rest of the school board voted in favor.

Henry was already under contract. He, in fact had two years left on that contract. This vote had nothing to do with a contract renewal, it had to do with offering an extension that would keep Henry beyond his current contract. This one simple, undeniable fact was buried by the Lake Sun. It didn’t fit the narrative they and their publisher wanted to construct in order to attack the reputations of sitting board members while simultaneously undermining chances for their re-election.

This is not the first time the Lake Sun has deceived their subscribers and the voters of our district. According a source intimately familiar with the newsroom, this has been an ongoing practice at the paper. According to a former Lake Sun/Gatehouse employee, the manipulation of the news is commonplace:

“It wasn’t uncommon for one of us to go to a meeting, tell Joyce (Miller, editor-in-chief of the Lake Sun) what happened briefly and she would write the story making it sound more controversial than it was. More and more of her stories are written this way than not.”

“If a story was assigned to us, it was our own personal duty and ethic to write it as fair and balanced as possible. Once that story left our hands, it wasn’t uncommon for it to be changed and edited.”

“Through him (John Tucker), decisions were even made based on advertisers and ad sales. Everything was done to please advertisers, yet still get web clicks.”

This type of pseudo-journalism is better suited for gossip columns than for news organizations, yet it is part of the daily routine at the Lake Sun. Their ‘coverage’ of the district, as seen in the case of Mr. Kirksey, continues to present a one-sided, biased account of goings-on in our school system. It is not fulfilling a public service or need, it instead has endeavoured in staining the reputation of a popular, well-respected administrator.

The Lake Sun has continued their legacy of manipulating truth. They have presented an abbreviated retelling of allegations made against Mr. Kirksey while refusing to investigate the very nature of the charges. They have continued on a campaign that will satisfy their advertisers, many of whom have ties to the current board. By doing so, they can follow their own self-styled business model, they can satisfy advertisers while increasing web traffic.

It doesn’t seem to matter that, along with Mr. Kirksey, the public are victims of this unethical arrangement. It does not seem to matter that the truth must be sacrificed in the scramble to satisfy this tabloid business philosophy. It doesn’t seem to matter that integrity is the cost of doing this kind of business and that credibility is the trade-off for more controversial stories and larger profits.

One thing is undeniably clear in final analysis: The Lake Sun cannot be counted on for accurate reporting. That isn’t the business they are in. The paper has been reduced to acting as public relations for local business leaders and the political elite. Their brand of ‘truth’ only extends as far as the checks they cash.

Everything else is up for bid.

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