Michael Miner's attack on the Chicago Ink article by Chris Geovanis (Hot Type, April 4) is an example of what's wrong with the style of journalism practiced by "alternative" newspapers like the Reader. Miner is mad at Geovanis for printing the comments of Charles Kyle, a consultant to the Chicago Public Schools who called the local school council at Clemente high school "worthless." Miner objects because Geovanis quoted a word Kyle said "socially to someone he believed to be a friend."
As one of the people involved in starting Chicago Ink, I feel it's important to stand up for telling the truth. Geovanis may not be sure that she was "playing by the rules," but I am. Reporting what someone actually said may not improve Geovanis's social life, it may ruin a friendship, it may make important people cautious of speaking openly in her presence, it may even threaten her city job (the reason why she wanted to use a pseudonym), but it's the ethical duty of any true journalist.
However, Miner thinks Geovanis made a "huge mistake" by not giving Kyle the opportunity to withdraw his inopportune moment of excessive honesty. Miner writes, "It would have been honorable, and it might also have turned out to be useful: indiscreet sources protected out of the goodness of a reporter's heart often show their gratitude by saying a great deal more on background."
Let me get this straight: it's "honorable" to help cover up an "astonishing" admission by a public figure and use this to blackmail him into providing useful background information. But telling people the truth about the biases of a key figure evaluating Clemente high school is not honorable, not ethical, and bad journalism as well.
I can only imagine the kind of publication that would result from Miner's views. It wouldn't challenge the powers that be. It wouldn't print the truth, only the press releases and pre-approved statements of politicians. Why, it would probably look a lot like the Reader.
John K. Wilson
Michael Miner replies:
Perhaps unreasonably, readers make assumptions about reporters. They assume that unless the reporter mentions it, she isn't sleeping with one of the partisans she quotes sympathetically. They assume that unless the reporter mentions it, she didn't allow the partisan she's "outing" to think he was speaking socially to a friend when in fact he was speaking to a journalist for publication. And why not mention it? When only a bold stroke of guile allows the truth to emerge, the reporter shouldn't hide her light under a bushel as though it embarrassed her.
But then, this reporter may have reason to feel embarrassed. I suspect that John Wilson, as the primary financial backer of Chicago Ink, is more concerned with Chris Geovanis's tactics than he lets on. In a letter to Wilson, Charles Kyle called Geovanis's article libelous. What if Kyle ever said the same thing to a jury? In her own defense, Geovanis--right or wrong--would cut a less than impressive figure. She'd have to testify that she based her reporting on a conversation in a restaurant with someone who had no idea he was being interviewed. Asked to produce the notes she took during that conversation, she would--I suspect--have to admit there were none. Asked why she didn't talk to Kyle again before she "outed" him, she'd have to say the idea occurred to her but she didn't see any point in it. As a witness to the conversation there'd be the lover she didn't identify as such in her article, and as further evidence of her professional integrity the pseudonym she published it under. Does this add up to reckless disregard for the truth? In the eyes of a jury it very well might.
David Peterson correctly observes that Charles Kyle was central to my column but a very small part of Geovanis's article. He was such a small part of her article that she could easily have left him out of it entirely. I have no idea whether Geovanis represented Kyle's remarks to her accurately; I do know that she did not represent herself to him truthfully. I suppose there are times when reporters simply have no choice but to deceive and then live with their deceit; to deceive for the sake of "only one word" is a waste of moral capital.