Ted Vaden, the public editor of the News and Observer, has a tough job. He's supposed to represent the interests of readers by reporting on the newspaper's reporting. In my view, there's so much to criticize about the News and Observer that it's hard to understand this puff piece on Andy Curliss.
Had it not been for the so-called "booze cruise" hosted by the state for bigwigs at public expense over the Fourth of July weekend, what would The N&O have to write about in the news doldrums of summer?
A lot actually. War in the Middle East and legislative deadlock in Raleigh come to mind. But the talkabout story of the summer so far is the saga of public officials swilling beer and gobbling canapes aboard a state ferry cruising the Beaufort Tall Ship festival while untitled mortals sweltered ashore in long lines to see the boats. The story was an eyeball-yanker.
In fact, N&O staff writer J. Andrew Curliss so cleanly nailed the state officials responsible for the trip that everyone came out with their hands up. The chairman of the State Ports Authority said the $30,000 state-paid trip was wrong, the ports director accepted blame for bad judgment and the governor (heaving a sigh of relief that he hadn't accepted his ferry invitation) demanded an accounting. Legislators unlucky enough to have been tagged as passengers scrambled to repay their share of the bash.
In fact, the condemnation was so universal that I wondered: is there anything wrong with this picture? Might the ferry cruise have had some merit?
At least one knowledgeable commentator thinks so. D.G. Martin, former chief lobbyist for the University of North Carolina system, said in a newspaper column that it's appropriate for state government to support events like the Tall Ships festival: "One reasonable way to support a gathering of ships would be for the state to send one of its own big ships to make an appearance. Since the state does not have a Navy, sending one of the largest ferryboats was a good way to boost the event and show state support."
Though I admit to seeing Ferrygate as a tempest in a teapot, I'll also grant that the N&O covered part of the story well.
The N&O's coverage stretched over a week, with three front-page stories and embarrassing pictures of officials munching shrimp. To the charge that the volume of stories is excessive, Capitol Editor Bill Krueger points out that The N&O wasn't able to get from the state all the information it needed at once, such as expense breakdowns: "If we could have told the entire story the first day, we would have done so."
There were some details I'd like to have seen. Judging from readers' complaints about wasting taxpayer money, the stories didn't make clear enough that most of the $30,000 expense came not from taxes but from revenues of the Ports Authority, a quasi-autonomous agency funded from fees paid by commercial vessels using the ports. More explanation of that was needed.
There were some details I'd like to have seen too. For example, which countries DIDN'T send their tall ships to the big splash because of their disgust with US foreign policy?
But my bigger question is this: At at time when Ted is gushing over Andy Curliss for breaking Ferrygate, why does he give Curliss a pass on Hayesgate? Because on that story, Mr. Curliss faithfully reported lies from the Hayes campaign about the Congressman's alleged participation in Bush's visit to Fort Bragg on July 4th. And then Curliss had the gumption to insist that he "got the story right."
Should a lying Congressman trump a fumbled PR event when it comes to the public editor's attention? Nah. There's nothing newsworthy about Republican Congressmen telling lies to reporters who swallow them.