Liking the people you cover can be dangerous for a reporter

Jeff “Podunk” Pelline took some victory laps recently because he was invited to a luncheon celebrating the reelection of county Clerk-Recorder Gregory Diaz, giving Jeffie an excuse to (again) drop a name and (again) infer that he’s an important fellow.

Pelline has been a reliable foot soldier for Diaz over the years, contributing money to past campaigns, running Diaz’s press releases on his blog unedited and with no critical comment, and taking regular shots at anybody who dares to run against him.

When Diaz misinterpreted the statute regarding how many signatures of registered voters you need to qualify a measure for the ballot, Podunk brushed it off as no big deal.

Jeffie has been in Diaz’s camp since he was editor of The Union, when he ran against incumbent Kathleen Smith in 2006 for the clerk-recorder’s job. She was appointed to the job when Lorraine Jewett-Burdick resigned, and was seeking election to a full term.

Smith was a real piece of work. She managed to screw up a couple of elections and didn’t think it was necessary to apologize. She spent no money on advertising, and did little campaigning when she ran for election. The Union endorsed Diaz, but she won anyway. (The paper hasn’t endorsed a candidate since then.)

The luncheon is the latest episode of Pelline’s ongoing campaign to impress the local yokels with how many important people he has met over the years, presumably making him superior to the rest of us.

He has certainly reminded me on several occasions, informing me that Larry Ellison and other corporate titans have praised his work in the past. (That would raise a red flag with most reporters I know, but I digress.)

Then there’s the recent email regarding Larry Baer, president of the San Francisco Giants. I mentioned Baer in my commentary on the death of long-time Giants broadcaster Hank Greenwald, suggesting he was less than sincere in his praise of Hank. That prompted the following from Podunk:

“Baer couldn’t pick ‘Bored Georgeman’ out of a lineup! I ran into him at the Arizona Biltmore at Spring Training in March, however, and he said, ‘Hi Jeff.’ Need an introduction? Let me know. Ha!”

So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that the recent death of Herb Kelleher, long-time head of Southwest Airlines, prompted Jeffie to write that it was a “privilege” to interview Kelleher during his big-time reporting days. (Privilege? You would think Pelline was granted an audience with a potentate.)

Pelline writes fondly of a “fun night” he had with Kelleher at a business editors and writers convention in Phoenix. “He had a great sense of humor,” we’re told.

Kelleher was certainly an unorthodox CEO, eschewing the stiff formality of most corporate heads to come across as one of the guys, a hail fellow well met. Just listen to Terry Maxon, who covered the airline industry for 25 years at the Dallas Morning News.

“For the time you spent with Herb, you were the only one who existed,” Maxon wrote in a blog post. “You were his best friend, the person he’d rather be talking to than anyone else in the world. You were awash in the glow of his admiration.”

This can be quite intoxicating for reporters, who are usually greeted with grudging acceptance at best or outright hostility at worst when interviewing corporate heavyweights. Imagine that, a friendly CEO!

“For a reporter, of course, this is dangerous,” Maxon continues. “At the core, we are not the friends of the people we cover. We are not their enemies. We are recorders of what they do, with an effort to put it into an accurate, balanced context that informs our readers. We are not cynics, but we are skeptics.”

So for all his conviviality, how informative was Kelleher? “From time to time, I would have sit down interviews with Kelleher, ” Maxon wrote. “I can’t remember any newsworthy secrets, any news he ever told me–ever.”

There are a lot of reporters who are susceptible to a kind gesture or compliment that colors their work, a phenomenon I witnessed many times during my years in corporate PR. They yearn for acceptance–or at least acknowledgment–from people in positions of power, and mute criticism to maintain access.

Of course, none of them would ever admit to such a weakness.

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11 Responses to Liking the people you cover can be dangerous for a reporter

  1. jeffpelline says:

    Nice try but you didn’t really connect the dots and you made three big mistakes.
    1. First off, this is false and provable: “Jeffie has been in Diaz’s camp since he was editor of The Union.”
    2. “The Union endorsed Diaz.” This is false and provable. The Union didn’t even endorse candidates.
    3. And this is false and provable: ” informing me that Larry Ellison … have praised his work in the past.”
    Please retract these thee false and defamatory statements from your post.

    Your own conflicts are glaring. Your career mixed p.r. and journalism (most journalists avoid that for obvious reasons), and your wife owned the Stone House when you were named a business writer for The Union (which covered local businesses).

    • It’s provable that The Union published an editorial May 20, 2006, endorsing Diaz over Smith:

      Pelline says he wasn’t a supporter of Diaz as early as 2006. Okay, how about 2010, when he contributed to Diaz’s campaign?

      Pelline says he never told me Larry Ellison praised his work. The comment was prompted by an email that is long gone, so I will concede the point and retract the statement.

      As for my supposed conflict of interest (which has nothing to do with the subject at hand): I never wrote about The Stonehouse when I was the business writer for The Union. In the few instances when I wrote about other restaurants, I disclosed my conflict upfront.

  2. jeffpelline says:

    Please run this clarification:
    1. I did not write that editorial, as I told before.
    2. In 2010, I did not work at The Union or as a news journalist, as I told you before.
    Please publish this statement ASAP.

    • I’m in real trouble now. With nothing better to do, Pelline has been digging through the files and unearthed an article I wrote when I was business writer at The Union about local restaurants featuring local wines. The article quoted the bar manager at The Stonehouse, where my wife was a partner at the time, but a note at the end of the article acknowledging my conflict never made it into the paper.

      I’m surprised Jeffie hasn’t found an article I wrote about a restaurant that generated so much controversy and criticism that the editor of The Union felt compelled to defend me in his weekly column. Since Pelline has a lot of time on his hands, I’m sure he’ll eventually find it.

  3. fish says:

    Sounds like the crime of the century George!

  4. fish says:

    Jeffie’s supposed to be in Hawaii watching whales.

    I have no comment regarding your last statement.


  5. Hey Jeffie, ask Larry Baer how his wife is getting along if you run into him at the Biltmore in Arizona this year,

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