Vermont Newspaper Defends Hiring Reporter with Sex Offense Conviction
by Matt Clarke
The publisher of a Vermont newspaper and its sister publication defended the hiring of a registered sex offender as a reporter covering the police and court beats after facing criticism from a rival paper and national media watchdog group. That criticism included whether the newspaper was transparent in hiring Eric Blaisdell and whether he could be impartial when covering stories involving sex crimes or minors.
“The implication that we have been less than transparent is ridiculous and downright wrong,” insisted R. John Mitchell, publisher of the Vermont-based Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald. “We have acted and will continue to act in the best interests of our community, our integrity and the rights of our employees.”
The story first came to light when Times Argus competitor Seven Days, a free, independent weekly based in Burlington, Vermont, published a story in late November 2012 calling the Times Argus to task for not disclosing to readers that Blaisdell had been arrested in 2007, when he was 21 years old, “for soliciting sex with a 13-year-old girl” in an online chat room during “an Internet sex sting.” Seven Days also criticized the Times Argus management for failing to respond to its inquiries about Blaisdell.
Times Argus editor Steven Pappas admitted to media watchdog group iMediaEthics that even though Seven Days had “tried several times” to get a comment from the Times Argus, “we maintained a ‘no comment’ policy.”
Mitchell, whose family has owned the Times Argus since 1964 and the Rutland Herald since 1948, said the newspapers’ policy was to not comment “about the details of our individual hiring practices, other than to say generally we adhere to the highest professional standards.”
Blaisdell was a student at the New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord when he was arrested in February 2007 for soliciting sex online with a 13-year-old girl who was really a police officer. Blaisdell pleaded guilty to three felony counts and served over eight months at the Grafton County Jail in New Hampshire; he remained on probation until November 2013.
Blaisdell said there was never any physical contact and he had never met anyone from online chat rooms in person.
“It was never my intention of following through,” he stated. “There was a lot of talk, a lot of talk, but I would come up with some excuse, and say, ‘Oh, my car broke down,’ or ‘My grandmother died.’”
Mitchell said that Blaisdell had revealed his conviction when he applied for the reporter’s job. “I applaud the efforts of the criminal justice system in fairly administering punishment to those who have broken the law and also offering an opportunity for rehabilitation,” Mitchell stated. “This is an incredibly well supervised and restricted situation by the judge, the probation officer and a therapist, I am not going to second guess that process, am willing to participate in it and give it a chance.”
Kelly McBride, a specialist in media ethics and senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a media think tank in St. Petersburg, Florida, said the revelation of Blaisdell’s criminal history would cause the newspapers’ readers to look at his articles in a different way.
“Once people know he’s a convicted sex offender, you will read his stories differently,” McBride opined. “Maybe it’s just the perception, but the effect on the audience is the same.”
McBride, who has taught media ethics for more than a decade, said Blaisdell’s beat at the newspaper needed to be carefully managed and that he should not be assigned to cover stories involving sex offenders or sex crimes, though she allowed that being a registered sex offender did not automatically disqualify him from being a reporter.
“Conflict of interest? It comes down to perception and there comes a point when you just have to let your audience judge for themselves,” observed Fred Brown, vice-chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists and a professor of communication ethics at the University of Denver. Brown also thought that Blaisdell should not cover sex offender stories. “It’s an issue of fairness,” he said. “You try to avoid it, but when you can’t avoid it, you explain it.”
The Seven Days reporter who broke the story about Blaisdell’s sex offense conviction, Paul Heintz, said he discovered it by accident.
“Though I mostly cover Vermont politics, I also cover the media in our state,” Heintz told iMediaEthics, “and I often write about personnel changes at Vermont news organizations. For some reason, I hadn’t noticed Mr. Blaisdell’s byline before, so I Googled him. One of the top search results was his listing in a sex offender registry.”
Heintz’s story also questioned Blaisdell’s reporting: “A review of his work during his five months on the job indicates he’s written at least 17 stories about sex offenses – many of which involved minors.”
The Seven Days article pointed out that “Blaisdell has every right to work in journalism” and noted he had served his time and “kept a clean record since,” but contended that Times Argus readers “have a right to know of any real or perceived conflicts of interest.”
Blaisdell currently remains employed as a reporter for the Times Argus.
PLN’s editor served 17 years for murder, our managing editor served 10 years for armed robbery, assault with attempt to commit murder and attempted aggravated robbery, and most of PLN’s contributing writers are currently or were previously incarcerated. We believe that those who have experienced the criminal justice system firsthand are best qualified to write about it.
Sources: www.foxnews.com, www.timesargus.com, www.imediaethics.org
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