Among journalists one school of thought has it that there's no such thing as an inappropriate source. Your source might be embarrassed--or worse--to be found talking to you, but you were just doing your job.
But it's not that simple. Consider the matter of Justin Kmitch and Jen Engel, two kids in love. Until the other day, Kmitch covered the village of Bensenville for the Daily Herald. He worked the beat aggressively. One ongoing story was the village's implacable opposition to the expansion of O'Hare Airport next door. Another centered on allegations that Bensenville had mishandled millions of dollars that belonged in the firemen's pension fund.
The coverage smarted. Gerald Gorski, the village attorney, tells me, "The subject of the fairness of Mr. Kmitch's coverage of the village was a widely discussed issue, and the fact he enjoyed sources in the village hall was widely discussed. We'd have executive [closed] sessions of the village board and we'd read about them 48 hours later."
No one knew how Kmitch was getting his information. But feelings were running high, and Kmitch's secret source, whoever it was, could expect no mercy if the truth came out. Last May the village did a Google search of "Justin Kmitch." (Village officials say they were merely looking for news stories on Bensenville that might have gotten past them.) They came across a 2005 newsletter for journalism alumni of Eastern Illinois University, and in the notes for the class of 1999, they read this:
"Justin Kmitch is engaged to be married. Justin reports he proposed to Jen Engel Aug. 17 on the peak of Mt. Haleakala, the highest peak in Maui, and she accepted. No date has been set yet. Jen is a legal assistant at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange."
She hadn't been for long. When she said yes to Kmitch, Engel was still the executive secretary to James Johnson, the village manager of Bensenville.
"You could have knocked me over with a feather," says Johnson. "It seemed so incongruous to me to be impossible. I was incredulous. And quite disappointed." Johnson had liked Engel when she worked for him and he liked her still. He considered her a friend.
Maybe she'd been afraid to say whom she was seeing, I offered. "I think she would have known it would jeopardize her employment if she did. That's a fair statement," Johnson mused. Feelings were running that high? I asked. "Yes," he said.
Engel was long gone from the village hall by the time the relationship was discovered, but Kmitch was still the Daily Herald's man in Bensenville. Village officials protested to the paper and he was reassigned. That might have been that, but the September 6 Herald visited upon Bensenville what officials there considered one indignity too many.
"Bensenville pension funding fight over" was the headline, and the story said a negotiated settlement between the village and state regulators "stipulated that Bensenville officials didn't violate any state law or department regulation."
By the village's count (you bet it was counting), the Herald had already published 21 stories on the pension fight, 7 of them on the front page. This story, exonerating town officials, ran on page four.
When John Geils, president of the village board, has something to say to the 20,000 residents of Bensenville, he likes to write them directly. He guesses he's written about 100 letters just on the subject of O'Hare, which can only expand by annexing a piece of Bensenville. Geils thinks the airport's champions, primarily Mayor Daley, want to destroy him politically because he stands in their way. "They dug hard and deep to find some way to discredit us," he says, and the firemen's pension fund was an "end run" they came up with.
On September 14, Geils wrote a three-page letter to his constituents, saying he and the village trustees have long believed that Daily Herald coverage "has not been fair or balanced." "In recent years" that coverage was provided by Kmitch, whose reporting on the pension fund, O'Hare expansion, and other matters "has been extremely biased against the Village." Now, "by accident," his "romantic relationship" with a woman who "daily dealt with the most sensitive matters of Bensenville governance" has come to light. Jen Engel "clearly violated our trust and confidence." And on the "numerous occasions" when "village representatives" met with Daily Herald editors to protest Kmitch's coverage, "at no time" did the editors "disclose any knowledge" of the relationship.
Geils then cited the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, its injunctions against unnamed sources and conflicts of interest. Just as Engel failed "to observe any loyalty or fidelity" to her employers, so Kmitch "paid no attention to the Code of Ethics." Geils reviewed the coverage of the pension fund issue, asserted in bold, underlined type that "in sum, the Village and its elected officials have been totally vindicated," and continued, "Where do you think they reported our vindication? You might have missed it. It appeared on page 4."
Called out like that, the Herald had no choice but to respond. On September 22, a Saturday, the paper carried on its front page an insouciant account that admitted Kmitch's relationship with Engel but denied that she'd been his source.
The article, headlined "Geils' ink fights ink / Mayor's letter accuses Daily Herald of bias," began, "It's not uncommon for government leaders to complain about how reporters cover them." So this was more of the same old same old, except this time Geils decided to write a letter that "cost taxpayers about $2,348 for printing and postage."
As for Kmitch and Engel, the story said, they started dating in the spring of 2003. "Kmitch's supervisor learned of the relationship in early 2004" but was told they'd broken up. However, "unbeknownst to either employer, the two later rekindled their relationship."
The article quoted editor James Lampinen calling Kmitch a "fair, aggressive and hard-working reporter." Lampinen allowed that Kmitch should have been reassigned when his relationship with Engel came to light at the Herald, but he said Kmitch never used Engel as a source, and therefore the relationship didn't compromise coverage.
Yes, he said, the September 6 story belonged on the front page, but "it's an imperfect business and we weren't perfect that day."
Kmitch and Engel wouldn't talk to me, but Lampinen returned my call. He said Kmitch was a "fundamentally honest and straightforward person" who'd made a "significant mistake" and was being disciplined in ways that went beyond reassignment. Lampinen said Kmitch and Engel had met socially through mutual friends before he bumped into her in Bensenville, and apparently he thought of her as someone he saw on his beat, not as part of the beat itself. He said the paper found out about their relationship when Kmitch's supervisor heard rumors in 2004 and asked Kmitch about them.
According to the village's time line, Kmitch and Engel dated, broke up, and got back together again while she was working for the village manager and he was covering the village for the Herald, and village officials loudly damned his coverage. It's hard for those officials to believe that the paper didn't know. (I'm puzzled myself how the paper, which knew Kmitch and Engel had been dating, never found out that they'd resumed dating, not even after they got engaged.)
Do you believe she wasn't a source? I asked Lampinen. "Yes I do," he said. Village officials certainly believe she was. "I can understand why they perceive things as they do," Lampinen said. "That's one of the reasons why this was inappropriate. From my standpoint it's less an issue of conflict of interest or inappropriate technique than that it raises all sorts of perception issues."
Do you know who Kmitch's sources in Bensenville were? I asked Lampinen. He didn't, but he told me the editors Kmitch reported to did. He said reporters at the Herald aren't allowed to keep unnamed sources to themselves; editors must know whom they're talking to.
Lampinen said Kmitch wasn't the first Herald reporter that Bensenville had complained about, nor was the Herald the only paper. "They object to any kind of critical reporting," he said. But Kmitch could have written a profile calling Geils a statesman for the ages and his romance with Engel would have tainted it.
For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Ben Claussen III.