Joel Phelan, husband of Columbia Elementary School District Board President Laura Phelan, at a trustees’ meeting last Tuesday described our school reporter Lacey Peterson as “an unethical tabloid reporter, who continues to falsify information.”
This and Mr. Phelan’s remaining rant — claiming that Peterson has a “conflict of interest” — was allowed to stand unchallenged at the meeting. It would have been inappropriate for Peterson to say anything.
But he brought up a few ethical issues in his brief tirade that are worth addressing. This is especially true in the context of the ethical breaches at Columbia Elementary School over the past two years involving the unfolding story of Superintendent John Pendley and his son.
Pendley, you’ll remember, hired as an after-school aide his unqualified son Brennan, who subsequently had illegal sex with a schoolgirl in a classroom. Pendley allowed said son to move to another school after cops began investigating, directed a hokey internal investigation, and helped orchestrate a smear campaign against the victim, who was 14 at the time most of the crimes occurred.
Some background on Peterson.
She is a Tuolumne County native, Sonora High grad of 2002 (current Columbia Principal Ed Pelfrey was, in fact, her U.S. history teacher). She’s also a 2006 graduate of the University of the Pacific and has covered schools as a reporter for five years, winning praise from many school officials for her comprehensive and unbiased work.
In 2009, she was given an “Excellence in Media” award by the Tuolumne County Chapter of the Association of California School Administrators. John Pendley was incoming association director at the time.
She’s smart, funny, self-deprecating and her community and reporting credentials are sound.
Based on his rant Tuesday, Phelan seems well versed in a prevailing Columbia delusion: If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.
He may have been unaware of a critical irony. His wife and other critics have been asked several times to show us claimed inaccuracies in our stories so that, if they exist, we could correct them. However, Laura Phelan and the others, while big on bluster, have yet to point out anything specifically wrong with our two years’ worth of reporting.
After attacking her reporting Tuesday, Mr. Phelan also complained that Peterson has a “conflict of interest” because her nephew attends Columbia School and the boy’s mother recently joined the chorus of citizens attending a public meeting (she’s concerned about what’s happening at her school).
The accusation is patently false. A conflict of interest exists when a public official, or one acting on the public’s behalf, exploits his or her position for personal gain, usually financial gain. (That would be the case if, say, a school official gave his son a job he was unqualified for.)
Is there a moral, non-financial conflict?
No. Neither Peterson nor her nephew has a personal stake in the story. They have gained nothing (Peterson’s actually lost a lot of sleep and endured numerous personal and professional attacks).
They have no motive for bias. Peterson just happens to cover schools in a small county, and has a nephew who just happens to attend one of those schools where an important story occurred. She also has a sister-in-law who recently showed up at a public meeting — like dozens of other people — because she is unhappy about the way the school is handling the sex-abuse issue on her son’s campus.
If such narrow degrees of separation are to be construed as conflicts, small-town journalists couldn’t exist. Reporters anywhere wouldn’t be able to report on tax hikes that could tangentially affect them, or write about a City Council election their cousin may go to the polls and vote on.
I checked this with an expert in the field of journalistic ethics, Professor Richard Wald at Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.
You could almost hear the former NBC News president shaking his head over the phone, befuddled.
“An interest implies that there is something coming back of value,” Wald said. “If the nephew is not enriched by this and the reporter is not enriched by this, no. Unless there is some benefit to the person being accused, it’s hard to see what the conflict is.”
What about having a sister-in-law who got interested in the issue after reading about it?
“Nobody on your newspaper could cover educational affairs if one of their children was in the schools,” he said, sizing up Phelan’s logic.
So the only “conflict of interest” here is our reporting’s apparent conflict with Joel and Laura Phelan’s interests.
There are other types of ethical conflicts Joel Phelan and other Columbia officials should concern themselves with.
One is the conflict that occurs when school officials or their spouses pull innocent students into what, at least nominally, are disputes between adults.
Who knows how Joel Phelan, a fire captain in San Jose, learned that some Columbia Elementary school boy happens to be Peterson’s nephew, or why people affiliated with the school would think it’s OK to use Peterson’s nephew in a broadside against her?
Sadly, it’s not the first time Columbia’s leaders have attempted to pull children into their grownup fights.
Not long after our bringing facts about the Pendley sex case to light, the school adopted an “inappropriate touching” policy for children. It was an obvious and embarrassing failure to acknowledge that the problem was not about children. It was about an adult — nay, a school employee — exchanging sexual text messages and having intercourse with a child on campus.
There were also the letters sent by staffers to a judge throwing the sex-abuse victim under the proverbial bus — accusing her of lying and promiscuity.
Not only do they use Columbia kids as pawns in battle, district hardliners have also been very adept at hiding behind them when the shrapnel flies.
A favorite maneuver has been claiming that public records can’t be released because it would violate children’s privacy. This is an oft-repeated fiction, especially when you consider we’ve never considered printing the name of the victim or other juveniles sucked into this morass, and invited the district to redact names, while district employees had been gossiping and name-dropping about them for months.
So, going back to Joel Phelan’s rant Tuesday night. ... Who’s unethical?
Craig Cassidy is editor of The Union Democrat.