Daily Times Admits Reporters Involvement in Political “Phone Prank”

The Daily Times has acknowledged that one of its reporters was indirectly involved in a “phone prank” perpetrated on local blogger and possible mayoral candidate Joe Albero.  Greg Bassett, Executive Editor of the Daily Times, writes in an editorial in today’s edition that the paper has accepted the reporter’s resignation.

On Saturday, June 2nd, Albero received a phone call showing Salisbury mayor Jim Ireton’s phone on the Caller ID.  The caller identified himself as Ireton.  Witnesses who heard the phone call state that the caller sounded like Ireton and that he appeared to be intoxicated.  The caller asked Albero to meet him on Sunday.  Ireton denies making the call and asked Salisbury police chief Barbara Duncan to investigate.

According to Bassett’s editorial (the editorial has since been stripped from the paper’s online edition), the unnamed reporter was present when the call was made by an unnamed “associate of the reporter”.  The reporter then failed to disclose his or her involvement in the “prank”.

The Daily Times has a history of using its news and editorial pages to promote, or attack, the actions of local elected officials.  This includes allowing its reporters to participate in political strategy sessions with the paper’s political allies.

Here is the text of Bassett’s editorial:

As editor of The Daily Times, I take my role in the community seriously, and part of that role is training reporters to always do what is right in covering the news.

On the editorial pages of this newspaper, we have continually asked public officials and citizens to maintain civility, show respect and play fair when taking part in issues and matters that affect Salisbury.

Today, I am writing to disclose that one of my reporters strayed from the best course of what’s right. The reporter had knowledge of a phone prank that escalated into a political firebomb. The reporter’s failure to reveal knowledge of the prank caused the city to waste time and energy investigating something that was — in reality — of no merit. Ethically, the reporter had an obligation to reveal the circumstances of her knowledge in the matter before it reached a heightened stage.

During the weekend of June 2, someone posing as Mayor Jim Ireton telephoned blogger Joe Albero. The late-evening phone call triggered a police report and prompted Albero to publish a blog post criticizing the mayor. The call was a prank witnessed by our reporter.

The mayor, understandably upset by the blog post, cooperated with a city police investigation in hopes of proving that he didn’t phone the blogger. The mayor and I discussed the situation personally on June 4; I assured the mayor that I didn’t find merit in the blog post and the newspaper had no intent to develop the matter as a story.

Once the police became more fully involved in seeking a source to the call — prank or not — the trail of public records being accumulated gave rise to a whodunit mystery, however, it was clear that readers would soon expect to know what occurred.

Eventually, the police investigation would lead back to an associate of my reporter. The reporter wasn’t directly involved, but the reporter’s involvement merited full and quick disclosure.

What was ostensibly a prank, especially when inserted in the hard context of the blogosphere and Salisbury politics, became an irresponsible act that violates the principles that we in the First Amendment business are sworn to uphold.

At this stage no charges have been filed and it’s doubtful that any are forthcoming. What is certain, however, is our reporter could have done better in service to our readers and citizens. Therefore, we have accepted the reporter’s resignation from the newspaper.

Our company’s Principles of Ethical Conduct promises specific behaviors, six of which were not properly followed in this matter:

  • We will strive to include all sides relevant to a story and not take sides in news coverage.
  • We will remain free of outside interests that may compromise the credibility of our news reporting.
  • We will maintain an impartial, arm’s length relationship with anyone seeking to influence the news.
  • We will act honorably and ethically in dealing with news sources, the public and our colleagues.
  • We will observe common standards of decency.
  • We will always try to do the right thing.

As the newspaper’s top editor — in making this full disclosure to our readers — I am seeking to do the right thing at once: announcing and correcting our errors promptly, explaining to readers any journalistic missteps and reassuring our readers and customers that we will always do our best to rise above the schoolyard antics that consume so much of our city’s energy.

The city and our readers deserve better from us.

Greg Bassett is executive editor of The Daily Times.

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