Over the past 15 years, nursing home owner Michael Morton has contributed roughly $1.2 million to political campaigns in Arkansas. Should anyone be surprised that political fundraisers might try to meet with him?
Apparently, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Debra Hale-Shelton finds this fact startling. She elaborated on this jaw-dropping event in an ADG front-page story in late March headlined “Nursing Home Owner, Fundraiser Met Twice.” If I were a political fundraiser and I knew there was a successful businessman handing out large donations to office-seekers, I’d try to meet with him as many times as I could.
Normally these types of meetings would not be newsworthy. But in this case, Gilbert Baker (a former legislator and a current fundraiser) was seeking funds for the campaign of Michael Maggio. At the time, Maggio was a judge looking to run for higher office. Over the past year, Maggio has become better known as the judge who made sexist, racist, and anti-gay comments online. He also leaked information about actress Charlize Theron’s adoption.
The primary reason the Democrat-Gazette is interested in Maggio is that he pled guilty to accepting a bribe in order to reduce the amount of a court judgment. That judgment involved a nursing home owned by Morton. So, yes, there is something newsworthy about this case. But is it necessary to run a front page story whenever a new fact on the case comes to light?
Here is what we know for sure: Baker asked Morton to contribute to Maggio’s campaign, Morton subsequently contributed to Maggio’s campaign, Morton contributed to a lot of other campaigns, Michael Maggio pled guilty to accepting a bribe, and Morton has not been charged with offering a bribe.
It’s clear that Morton contributes to a lot of campaigns — and that Baker asked him to contribute to Maggio’s. Why, then, is it newsworthy that they met twice, not once, to discuss this? If they met three or four times, does it really change the situation? I don’t see how it does. Maybe that’s why I’m not a journalist and Hale-Shelton is.
Now she’s even decided that anyone connected with Morton is fair game, too. Consider the recent story describing how a business partner of Morton missed a financial disclosure filing deadline for a seat on the Health Services Permit Commission. This year alone, 79 other people have also missed the disclosure deadline. Oddly enough, I didn’t see any stories by Hale-Shelton about them. Perhaps I missed them because I just don’t read the ADG enough. But if you have anything to do with Morton, I guess that’s a good enough reason to write an 18-paragraph story on you, no matter how pedestrian your infraction may be.
For the record, one of my colleagues checked with Norsworthy shortly after Hale-Shelton’s story ran. According to Norsworthy, he had given the completed form to a state employee some time ago, who assured him that she’d file it. Perhaps the lesson here is that if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself: Norsworthy personally filed his (admittedly late) disclosure form 24 hours after she published her story.
I’ve looked back over the Democrat-Gazette’s archives and found numerous stories on the Morton-Maggio situation. There seems to be an effort to look for any hint of smoke and then imply the presence of a raging fire. The Democrat-Gazette seems to forget that Morton has yet to be charged with offering a bribe, or indeed charged with anything at all.
Even the July 10 story that reports on a very newsworthy event – Maggio’s guilty plea – goes out of its way to slam Morton. The article describes the plea agreement this way:
The plea agreement says Individual B later texted Maggio and “reminded Maggio that he would receive campaign financial support if he made the ‘tough calls’ while on the bench.”
“Maggio understood that Individual B was advising Maggio that, in exchange for Maggio’s ruling in favor of Individual A and Company A, Individual A would provide campaign donations to Maggio,” it adds. [Individual B is Baker and Individual A is Morton]
Mysteriously absent, however, was any discussion of this part of the plea agreement: “Individual B communicated to Maggio, stating in essence, ‘Win, lose, or draw, you have Individual A’s support.”
There are no large questions of interpretive ambiguity here. Baker saying that “win, lose, or draw,” Morton will still support Maggio. Is this really so difficult to understand? It sounds to me like Baker was telling Maggio that — regardless of Maggio’s decision in this specific case — Maggio has Morton’s support. Is it really plausible that Maggio thought that these words sent exactly the opposite message?
Regardless of how you interpret such a quote, it seems a lapse in journalistic judgment not to include it in a story on the bribery case. Unless you are convinced that Morton is guilty, why would you leave out a quote like “win, lose, or draw, you have [Morton’s] support”? Bribery, after all, is a quid pro quo agreement between two individuals. If someone said “no matter what you do, I’ll still contribute to your campaign,” that seems a highly relevant detail to include in a news story. If you are going to give money to someone no matter what they do, how is that bribery?
I’m very skeptical of relying solely on the word of Michael Maggio in this case. It’s safe to assume, given Maggio’s online comments on the LSU message board, that Maggio is a bit of an idiot (if you haven’t checked out his mildly horrifying comments, please do – it’s astounding that a judge would say such things). As I’ve written in a previous blog post: “I suppose if I ask Maggio what the weather is like today, he is welcome to interpret this as an invitation to commit a criminal act, but I think it would be unfair to hold me responsible for someone else’s difficulties in hearing or reading comprehension.”
I don’t know if Morton offered a bribe. I’m not defending his actions. But I am condemning a rush to judgment. It’s not newsworthy that a fundraiser met with a big donor, no matter how many times they met. That’s especially true if we already know that Baker asked Morton to give to Maggio. It’s not news to keep reporting that fact. The Democrat-Gazette should certainly continue to pursue this story. But maybe the paper should reserve the front page for real news — rather than using it as a forum to spread innuendo about a person not even charged with a crime.