Saturday, January 9, 2010

Mark Barrett Doesn't Get to Go to Hawaii to Interview Susan Fisher

The Citizen-Times calls Mark Barrett its "Growth and Development Reporter," but he seems to be one of those old-fashioned, highly capable, highly productive general assignment reporters who covers whatever his editors throw at him.  Recently he's handled bridge closings in bad weather, county commission meetings and a N.C. Department of Transportation press release about roadside wildflower displays. 

On January 7, he came up with a top notch "watchdog" story that caught local airport board members treating themselves  to a $17,000 Hawaii trip at tax-payer expense. The story was thoroughly sourced, with quotes from three of the officials involved - Susan Fisher, David Gantt and Rhett Grotzinger - all scrambling to justify the trip.

Barrett didn't need to use the words "boondoggle" or "junket" when he was able to get such a juicy quote from Grotzinger as "A very valid question is why the heck are four members going?"

He also got intelligence from Grotzinger that "board members typically do not report back on what they learn at conferences."  Barrett's reporter's heart must have sung when he heard Grotzinger say, “When you go, bring back something of value to your fellow board member, not just a sun tan.”

Barrett filled the piece with telling detail.  He quoted the Web site of the fancy hotel where the junketeers were staying as located “along a breathtaking stretch of the gorgeous, white-sand Ka'anapali Beach where you'll find windsurfers and humpback whales frolicking in the warm Pacific Ocean.”

Three of the boondogglers were sleeping in pricey rooms in the mid-$200 per night range.  Grotzinger told Barrett that he is staying at a different hotel for about $135 a night.  “I have an issue with staying in fancy resorts," he said.  Could it have been Grotzinger who tipped Barrett off about this story?

Barrett's "kicker" quote at the end was from Susan Fisher.  Fisher had already arrived in Maui with her husband and daughter, Barrett told us (presumably he was interviewing her by telephone).  She handed him another quote to make a reporter's heart sing: “It makes me feel for people who have to deal with 17-degree weather,” she said.

Barrett signed off with the dry statement, "The temperature just before 1 p.m. local time Wednesday on the western end of Maui, where the conference is being held, was 81 degrees."

If David Gantt and Susan Fisher haven't already scheduled statements to announce they are reimbursing the taxpayers for the complete cost of their trips, their ears are even more tin than this article shows.

Barrett's article received 63 comments from outraged taxpayers, not quite as many as the 90 outraged taxpray-ers who commented on the story about the Buncombe County Commissioners debating whether to begin their meetings with a prayer.

Barrett followed up the next day with two more stories on the airport board junket ("Asheville Regional Airport Board eyes travel limits" and "Asheville Regional Airport Board sends the largest contingent among area airports to Hawaii conference").  Both made the airport board look even more inept and tone-deaf, especially when Barrett called around to other airports and reported that Greenville-Spartanburg International  was sending only one representative and Charlotte Douglas International Airport was sending none.

All three stories could probably have been collapsed into one big "exposing government ineptitude" story for the Sunday edition, but spreading it over two weekdays gave Barrett maximum mileage and might have sold more papers.  Even John Boyle got to join in with one of his  "politicians and bureaucrats do the darndest things" columns. 

One letter writer complained, "If the AC-T keeps churning the Airport Board trip to Hawaii, we may have a real brouhaha on our hands." Did the Citizen-Times milk the story for more than the $17,000 it was worth?  Should we expect an editorial next, "Susan and David, Give the Taxpayers Their Money Back, Go to Hawaii on Your Own Dime?"

Was Barrett's Mini-Hawaiigate a sign that the Citizen-Times might be trying to become relevant again?  Did "corporate" send out the word to do some reporting that doesn't come from government press releases?

1 comment:

  1. I wouldn't call this a real watchdog moment, and I'm not sure why you are either. The paper was scooped by WLOS. They aired the story 3 times before the paper even reported it once. Give WLOS the credit they're due. No, I don't work for WLOS. Barrett wasn't uncovering anything. He got his ass handed to him and made do with some decent, though late, reporting.