Defending the right to report the news

News is fact-based, but the reactions to it can be subjective. Such is the case with The Inter-Mountain’s coverage of Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong of the 20th Judicial Circuit Court and the news that formal charges have been filed against her by the state Judicial Investigation Commission.

The lengthy JIC filing details 34 points it believes illustrate how Judge Wilfong violated the cannons of her elected position. The JIC’s investigation stemmed from five complaints, including a self-report by Judge Wilfong in fall 2013, about an intimate relationship she had with Travis Carter while he was the director of the North Central Community Corrections program. Carter has since resigned from that post.

Judge Wilfong filed a lengthy 27-page response to the state Supreme Court. In that official document, she acknowledged much of what was cited by the JIC. Wilfong’s language was very explicit, using wording such as “oral sex,” an act she admitted to performing on Carter in her chambers three or fewer times.

To say the statements – her formal admissions -are polarizing is correct. Apparently The Inter-Mountain’s coverage of this issue also was polarizing for some readers. Tuesday’s edition featured a full front-page package about the JIC’s findings and Judge Wilfong’s response. The judge had been less than forthcoming leading up to her formal filing, despite previous statements to the paper. Thus the accompanying headline “Chamber of Secrets” appeared with the story.

The Inter-Mountain broke this story of an alleged inappropriate relationship between Wilfong and Carter in October 2013. We were the first to do so after weeks of speculation and innuendo. However, the paper did not report suspicions or anonymous sources. We were able to secure a statement from Wilfong on multiple occasions, just as she also provided one to the state’s High Court. Additionally, Wilfong’s attorneys supplied The Inter-Mountain with a copy of her formal statement.

Our coverage, touted by some as unfair and tabloid-esque, was solely based upon fact. “Why the headline?” I’ve been asked. Because it was an accurate reflection of the information – at least for some time – that was being hidden from the voting public about the judge’s conduct in her chambers and beyond.

“Why did the story take up the entire front page?” was another question. Quite simply, other high-profile cases involving a public figure were handled in the same manner, and the magnitude of Judge Wilfong’s admissions were extremely serious. They deserved the time, attention and space devoted to the news story in Tuesday’s paper.

The coverage was very graphic with explicit language being used. However, as I have told a few callers to my office this week, those were Judge Wilfong’s words, not ours. We were reporting statements she entered to the court as matters of fact, not creating a script made of fiction. If you don’t like the content, don’t get angry at the messenger. Remember the source: Judge Wilfong.

It’s interesting that the fact this story dominated the entire front page caused the ire of some. I’ve never received complaints when the positive press about the Mountain State Forest Festival has taken the same spot and been treated with the same level of impact.

Whether one perceives a story to be good news or bad, the magnitude of its potentially far-reaching implications determines where and how it is packaged in The Inter-Mountain, not some personal agenda as others have alleged. The only thing personal here was the relationship Judge Wilfong admits she had with a public employee on whose board she sat as an ex officio member and about whose salary she advocated for higher pay.

Let me be clear. This is difficult subject matter. For that reason, I made the decision to move the distribution of our free Newspapers in Education delivery from the schools on Tuesday to Thursday instead. This ensured the adult content wasn’t thrust upon students in the classrooms. No one asked us to do this; we make an ethical judgment call. Sure, other children could have read the newspaper, but it would have been unethical for The Inter-Mountain to water down a story or report only part of this issue. To do so would be as negligent as Judge Wilfong in her failure to fully disclose this relationship in a timely, complete manner.

I also want to address another issue and that is the opinion this is a private matter between Judge Wilfong and another adult. The affair itself, while it may make some people uncomfortable, isn’t a main concern. The fact she is a public official who is sworn to protect and serve the justice system in this state elevates her level of responsibility to match the oath of office she took upon her election as circuit judge. Further, the fact Carter was an employee who was paid – just like the judge – with taxpayer money, makes this a matter of the public interest. And so does the fact Judge Wilfong failed to make proper decisions as a result of this and while in a position of authority, according to the JIC. We agree. That is why The Inter-Mountain has asked Judge Wilfong to make the appropriate decision now and to step down before further damage is done as the result of the fallout from the situation her behavior has created.

Instead, what has happened is a campaign to silence the paper, its staff and me as its publisher. I’ve been told we shouldn’t write about these things, because it’s not proper. Well, years ago it wasn’t considered proper to discuss incest or child sexual abuse either, but that didn’t mean the horrible transgressions didn’t occur. I am not comparing what Judge Wilfong did to that heinous act. Rather, I want to show that while it once was as taboo as discussing sex crimes to call out public corruption, misdeeds and unethical conduct by our elected officials, I refuse to be afraid to do just that. Neither I nor The Inter-Mountain will cower in fear as the result of pressure from bullies who are threatened by truths being reported as news.

The paper’s coverage wasn’t distasteful. If anything was hard to stomach, perhaps it was the tainted stench of what is left of Wilfong’s legacy on the bench. Sadly, I had the utmost respect for her work. That alone, though, isn’t enough to allow her to retain her position, one that requires her to be the keeper of the public’s trust and a watchdog for the public’s best interest.

If anyone wants to vilify this newspaper or any other media for taking on those roles in the absence of elected officials doing so, then so be it. In America, we are able to do so without the fear of oppression, retaliation or harm. One can’t pick and choose which laws or codes of conduct to follow – not a judge, not a public employee, not a private citizen, not a reporter and certainly not a newspaper.

In this case, we proudly stand up for our right to truthfully report the news in accordance with the First Amendment. And that is our promise, our canon, to which we hold ourselves accountable to our readers and for the betterment of the communities we serve.