Squid Speaks

Quad Formula…Maybe it’s because Squid is a translucent cephalopod and it’s pure narcissism. Squid likes to think it’s because of something bigger—a belief that democracy dies in darkness, that the great Constitution of the United States enshrines the power of a free press, that newspapers help our society and governments function in an inclusive manner—but Squid loves newspapers.

Even so, Squid was admittedly surprised to see the flurry of headlines about a trial in Iowa that starts today, one in which current Seaside City Manager Craig Malin is suing the Davenport-based Quad-City Times, alleging the paper undertook a deliberate effort to publish false information about him and failed to correct it, ultimately leading him to lose his job in Davenport after 14 years. (On that last point: Davenport’s loss is Seaside’s gain, and Malin has spearheaded some effective efforts to revitalize Seaside.)

Per outlets that picked up an Associated Press story: “Former Public Official in Iowa, Now a City Manager in NorCal, Sues Newspaper in Suit Alarming Free Press Advocates.” “Press Freedom Advocates Troubled by Suit Against Iowa Paper.” 

Squid is also a press freedom advocate and also believes in running accurate stories. And when they’re not accurate, Squid believes in correcting them. As Malin says, “I’m fighting for journalism, not against journalism.”

Here’s the gist of what went down. Things got testy between the paper and the city manager when Malin led the charge to develop a new website for the city of Davenport, with features not unlike the transparency improvements he’s implemented for Seaside’s website. (Want to see campaign contribution forms or read all of the California Public Records Act requests Seaside has received? Just go to seasidecityca.documents-on-demand.com.) Davenporttoday.com, which has since been taken down, also automatically uploaded all of Malin’s incoming and outgoing emails, for the public to read. The Quad-City Times dissed the endeavor in an editorial in 2014 as a “business” for the city, even though, um, it was never a business. 

The things really went south in 2015 as a one-mile road project moved forward that would connect a casino to the interstate. It was a $13-million project—which the paper reported, in at least four early stories. Then came the stories that appeared to be based on a misreading of the capital improvement budget, and that suggested it was just an $8-million project, and $5 million was unaccounted for. The stories came in rapid succession, with headlines like “The mile-long mess” and an editorial calling on the City Council to fire Malin: “After last week, we’ve convinced: The hired help has got to go.”

After Malin got axed from his job, the old storyline appears to have resumed in the Quad-City Times, as if nothing had ever happened: “The $13.8 million project will be funded through the issuance of bonds abated by tax increment financing…” You know, boring stuff on government and finance. 

In discovery, the paper was required to hand over some 4,000 emails that are now public as part of the court record. They show some internal exchanges that Squid expects will be part of Malin’s attorneys’ case at trial. Like the editorial page editor writing to a news reporter asking him to take a new tack on a story about the $13-million road: “Dull. News is NOT that ‘Malin cannot agree’ / News IS that City attorney and xxx aldermen believe Malin misled them.” (In Davenport, they call councilmembers “aldermen,” for reasons beyond Squid.)

As Malin puts it to Squid’s colleague, “They ran the guy out of town whose emails were totally transparent, and now their emails are coming back to haunt them.”

Malin has already lost his libel claim in court, but the claim that the newspaper’s reporting led unjustly to the termination of his contract goes to trial starting Sept. 23. And that’s despite the Quad-City Times’, and parent company Lee Enterprises’, efforts to get the Iowa Supreme Court to toss the suit. Calls to the Quad-City Times were not returned by deadline. 

Malin’s legal team will not be permitted to use the loaded term “fake news” at trial, but Squid thinks that’s for the best. They can keep it to a discussion of when and how and why the paper reported on the Elmore Road project accurately, then inaccurately—while editors were on a mission to get Malin terminated—then went back to reporting accurately. You know, basic journalistic questions. It seems like something newspaper people should be pretty good at. 

 

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