Too Much Information (Gwen Moritz Editor's Note)

by Gwen Moritz  on Monday, Feb. 11, 2013 12:00 am  

Journalism is not an art, which is in the eye of the beholder, nor a science, in which the same results should be replicated by any practitioner. It is best described as a craft in which practitioners take raw materials (facts, interviews, language) and combine them into something useful.

While there are some standard techniques that help journalists get started on any given assignment, every journalist — like every craftsman — will produce something unique from the same raw materials. Some information is vital for the reader; some is optional. Sources are often disappointed because points they thought were vital are left in the journalist’s notebook.

And then there’s the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s determination that absolutely everything knowable about former University of Central Arkansas President Allen Meadors, including his specific sexual proclivities, needed to be in a front-page story.

I didn’t think it was possible, but the D-G actually made me feel sorry for a guy whose short tenure seemed to be spent obsessing over the inadequacy of the home provided to him and his wife — to the point that he attempted to circumvent bidding requirements in order to get the money to bring the house up to his standards.

He left a good job in North Carolina, then lost his job at UCA (with a nice parting gift) and ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor associated with his attempt to cover up the vendor kickback. Meadors’ career — which had been impressive enough to land the job as president of his alma mater — is in ruins, and he has a well-documented criminal record.

With the investigation closed, the police files then became public record, which the Democrat-Gazette smartly and appropriately explored for previously unreported information. Parts of it were, in my editorial opinion, newsworthy — especially the fact that the vendor that tried to buy its way out of competitive bidding, Aramark, was given immunity from prosecution. I also thought the prosecutors’ attempts to use embarrassing personal information to squeeze a guilty plea out of Meadors was newsworthy because of the insight it gives the rest of us into the official handling of the case.

And yes, even though he’s been off the payroll for a year and a half, the fact that Meadors wasted a few hundred dollars of the public’s money on (breathtakingly expensive) Internet data charges because he used his university-owned iPad to watch (apparently legal) pornographic films while traveling abroad also falls within the public’s right to know.

But unless the Democrat-Gazette intends to root out governmental waste by devoting a front-page story of 30 inches or more to every case of a public official wasting something less than $1,000, the Meadors story appeared to be crafted specifically to humiliate and destroy the personal life of someone who had already been humiliated and destroyed professionally. In football, this is called piling on and it’s against the rules.

Look, I’m not naïve: I know that sex sells. We recently illustrated a Whispers item about plans for a new “breastaurant” in Little Rock with a company-provided photo of buxom servers. And I know that sex can be big news, as Attorney General Dustin McDaniel learned the stupid way.

I also know that Arkansas Business has reported embarrassing things about individuals, and I’m fully prepared to do so in the future. But I hope we have and will consider the public’s right and need to know rather than engage in a search-and-destroy mission.

The public has a right to know that Allen Meadors wasted public money and misused public equipment. But I don’t think taxpayers have a right to speculation on what kind of women Meadors finds most attractive or a need to know exactly which websites he visited. And reading his half of a telephone conversation with his wife felt far more voyeuristic than journalistic.

The Meadors story serves as a reminder of the “Jurassic Park” dilemma: Just because we can do something, does that mean we should?

***

While long on prurient detail, the Democrat-Gazette’s story was short on helpful context. AT&T was charging $199 for a 200-megabyte data usage plan. Wow. Maybe that made some kind of sense for travel abroad during Meadors’ time at UCA (2009-11), but that much data service back home currently has a sticker price of $15. AT&T now charges $60 for 300 MB of overseas data use and $120 for 800 MB.

And Meadors used “four or five” of those 200 MB data plans in one week, so maybe as much as 1 gigabyte. Is that a lot? AT&T thinks it’s very possible that you might routinely want to use 5 GB per month on your tiny little cellphone and will be happy to sell it to you for $50.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.

 

 

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