DEEP LACK OF BACKGROUND: We've learned through painful experience that rock bottom is a place that doesn't exist- there's always a longer and sharper drill bit in the pit.
So it's really no surprise that after more than a dozen regimes at the local newspaper over the past three decades- each, with brief respites of competency, worse than the last- the level of professionalism has plumbed new depths.
The general slipshod nature of the news-less wonder has irritated and generally disgusted residents island-wide. But many- notably us- have saved their ultimate wrath for the alleged skills of alleged reporter Leo Azambuja, whose biggest point of confusion is apparently whether he should bend over or get down on his knees in his dealings with elected officials.
But until now we never had any unpublished insight into what kind of warped thinking goes into the utter lack of accountability that Leo has made his hallmark.
Now, in a series of emails between Azambuja and Prosecuting Attorney Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho obtained by reporter Joan Conrow, Azambuja demonstrates his main concern- not informing the public but kissing up to those he covers.
Through a process she describes as tantamount to "pulling impacted wisdom teeth", Conrow requested and finally recently received some heavily redacted emails she had requested from Iseri's office regarding the testimony before the county council of former Victim-Witness counselor Erin Wilson who, according to Conrow, has won an EEOC case after being fired by Iseri.
But the Azambuja emails were not among those released and rather were obtained by Conrow through a "leak" after Iseri refused to include them in a packet.
Conrow's work on the various and sundry scandals in Iseri's office during our recent health challenges has been nothing short of essential to a community in which Azambuja's reporting has been all but non-existent.
We aren't going to go into the whole sordid tale of "Victim-Witness-Gate" here today. You can read some of our earlier coverage here
Our tale today goes back to January 10, 2012, when Wilson brought a series of charges against Iseri to the attention of the Kaua`i County Council in a letter that is part of the packet released by Iseri's office (last document in pdf).
Azambuja, and therefore the local paper, had been silent on most of Iseri's alleged misdeeds in the matter until January 14, 2012, when an article finally appeared under the headline of "Former Victim counselor fires at OPA."
Azambuja's article essentially briefly quotes Wilson's charges one by one and then quotes Iseri's extensive and detailed answers. But instead of informing readers that Iseri's response was in an email, Azambuja referred to Iseri's responses using the term "she said" over and over, never even mentioning the fact that the responses had been in writing.
That type of thing is considered a major ethical violation these days by the top news outlets like Associated Press and the NY Times. Readers should be informed and certainly should not be lied to as to the form of a response from a news subject.
But content of the leaked email shows even bigger lapses of ethical judgment on Azambuja's part.
It was apparent that Iseri's responses had been in writing and so, apparently, Wilson asked Azambuja for Iseri's full letter.
What Azambuja did next perhaps explains why no one would mistake Azambuja for a trained professional journalist.
Here's the bizarre exchange between Azambuja and Iseri. Astoundingly Azambuja tells Iseri that rather than being considered the subject of his article he was treating her as a "source" and that as such, Iseri's letter is "protected" material... and then he actually asks her if it is okay to give the letter to Wilson.
1) From Azambuja to Iseri:
Re: response to erin wilson (sic) letter Hi Shay
I got a call from Erin Wilson today and she wanted a copy of your response. I explained to her that I'm not sure if it's a public document. Her testimony was a public document but your response is just a answer sent to me through an email. I told her I would act the same if the situation was reversed out of ethics and respect. She insisted she wanted a copy so I said I told her I would ask you for permission.
No one else has seen it and no one will without your authorization. That's how reporters should treat their sources no matter who they are.
But since I told her I would ask you here goes her request.
Do you authorize me to send Eric Wilson a copy of your email
2) From Iseri to Azambuja:
3) From Azambuja to Iseri:
Ha, not a problem Shay,
See you tomorrow at council.
4) From Iseri to Azambuja
Thanks for the sense of humor :-)
Iseri's response certainly was a pubic document. There are no exceptions for communications with reporters in HRS 92F 13-14. Emails to constituents are virtually always public.
But the real head-shaker here is that Azambuja treats her like a "source" when what she was was the "subject" of the story. This demonstrates an amazing lack of journalistic integrity showing a basic lack of understanding of the source-reporter and subject-reporter relationships.
Azambuja's contention to Iseri that "(Wilson's) testimony was a public document but your response is just a answer sent to me through an email" shows how little understanding he has, not just of journalistic ethics but of the state's open records laws.
Anything written by a government official that pertains to their work is a public document, with some exemptions for things like privacy, working drafts and personnel matters. The fact that a reporter who covers "government beat" lack that basic understanding of a law that is an integral part of his work may go a long way toward explaining the utter lack of substance of much of Azambuja's reporting.
As a matter of fact parenthetically we can't remember ever seeing Azambuja write about making an official record request whereas his predecessor in the job created a whole section at the paper's web site regarding "freedom of information" type requests. The last entry there is by that reporter, Michael Levine, who now works at CivilBeat.com
Next Azambuja wrote "I told (Wilson) I would act the same if the situation was reversed out of ethics and respect... No one else has seen it and no one will without your authorization. That's how reporters should treat their sources no matter who they are."
Ethics? Respect? Azambuja is so devoid of ethics it's hard to know where to begin. If Leo can't tell the difference between a public document and an off-the-record remark by a source he ought not be in the profession.
In asking Iseri whether it was okay to release her response- instead of just publishing it like any journalist would normally do- he has given up control of his reporting to someone who obviously has something to hide since she refused to release the rest.
Of course, many times a reporter will have a source-reporter relationship with people he or she covers. But according to well established ethical standards it must always be with the clear understanding that when asked for an on-the-record response that person is not to be treated as a source who can go back later and say "no- you can't use what I gave you 'on the record.'"
But regardless of whether Iseri occasionally acts as a source for Azambuja he is giving up his control over the news coverage he presents. A reporter should never take a written on-the-record response and then give the subject a chance to change or refuse to release it.
Given the email exchange, the "lie" to the readers as to the written nature of Iseri's response takes on an even bigger importance. It makes one wonder whether and how this chummy relationship has influenced Azambuja's coverage in the past.
Since there is no editor at the paper there is no one to take an objective look at Azambuja's relationships with those government officials he covers. That's one of the big functions of an editor- making sure that news isn't being manipulated by the source and that any source-reporter relationship primarily benefits the reporter, the paper and the reader, not the source.
Of course unpublished materials are the possession of the reporter, and under the Hawai`i "Reporters' Shield Law," for purposes of court proceeding, many reporters will withhold their unpublished notes. Reporters should not be seen as an arm of the constabulary.
But that isn't the situation here because there isn't any "source" to protect. Azambuja has lied to his readers and then, continuing the lie, withholds materials that any reporter would be more than glad to share under just about any circumstances. While in "ink and paper" news outlets space may be a factor in publishing a document such as Iseri's reply to Wilson's allegations, on-line publications routinely post full resource documents along with an article from which quotes are extracted.
It's apparent that Azambuja lied so that he wouldn't have to release Iseri's letter due to his self-delusional, mistaken impression that she was a source, not the subject of the story.
No reporter worth a damn would even consider withholding the Iseri letter. But in the schmoozy, "please like me" world of Azambuja, relationships with elected officials (especially, as we've reported in the past, with Council Chair Jay Furfaro who has all but led Leo around by a ring though his nose) is what seems to count. As a matter of fact it appears to be the determining factor in what news the island receives regarding government and politics.
This would be a fireable offense in any legitimate news organization. With the key words here being "legitimate news organization," don't expect anything to change any time soon at the local Kaua`i newspaper.