Paul Rilling: Following the money
Aug 03, 2012 | 1736 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In July, The Star published two investigative articles about campaign finances, one on Calhoun County mayoral races, the other a review of the records of political spending on Birmingham-area TV stations during the primary election.

The table on “Fundraising in Local Mayoral Races” and the accompanying article provided useful information on the sources of money raised by the candidates (July 26, Page 1A). It would have been even more useful if more details had been given.

The data came from reports candidates were required to file by July 30. However, The Star provided the names of only the top one or two contributors to each candidate. Oxford mayoral candidate Christy Humphries reported $27,463 raised. Two $5,000 givers were named, the CDGPAC, a Montgomery-based political-action committee, and Mike Burford; $17,463 came from unnamed sources.

The purpose of requiring campaign-finance reports is to let voters know where the candidates are getting their money. Reporting only a few high contributors doesn’t meet that purpose. Why doesn’t The Star name all who gave $100 or more? The information for voters would be much more complete. (Editor’s note: Complete financial data from mayoral races are online at:

The six graduate journalism students working at The Star this summer contributed four articles about candidate spending on political advertisements in the Birmingham TV market. Their reports required considerable time and effort in reviewing records at the five Birmingham area stations. The information will be interesting to anyone who follows the mechanics of politics (July 21, 22, Page 1A).

Races reviewed were for the Alabama Supreme Court and the Republican presidential primary. They show the dominance of out-of-state super-PACs in the presidential race. In both elections they show little correlation between the amounts spent and the election results.

One of the stories, “Trend reversal,” refered to Charlie Graddick as a “newly minted Republican.” Graddick may be a former Democrat, but he was elected to the circuit court in Mobile as a Republican in 2004 and re-elected as a Republican in 2010. And why would The Star run a picture of Roy Moore that dates back to when he was a student at West Point?

A story’s fairness

On July 28, The Star’s lead front-page story was about the arrest of a local businessman who was accused by the police of a series of frauds. The person arrested is not a public figure. The evidence against him was provided in some detail. The Star had every legal right to report this case.

My question is: Was it necessary? Was it fair? Should The Star report an arrest and the details of the case against him before there is an indictment or a decision by a judge to set the case for trial? The impression left on the reader by this story was one of obvious guilt, but the businessman has not been found guilty or even indicted. Is this kind of press treatment consistent with our legal premise that a person is innocent until found guilty?

I asked Star Editor Bob Davis about The Star’s policy on such cases. He said it depends. “The arrest and charging of someone who is not a public figure often does not rise to the level of newsworthiness. Of course, high-stakes charges will compel us to report them.

“In this case, the number of consumer complaints leveled at the suspect led us to conclude the story was worthy of examination. That stipulated, I believe that the story was overplayed in Saturday’s edition. It deserved more modest treatment. If Mr. Steward is exonerated, we will be obliged to give similar front-page real estate in displaying that story,” Davis wrote in an email.

Election information

Anniston subscribers to The Star have been receiving material about candidates for local offices. The information, including answers to questions posed to candidates, is folded into your newspapers. The material was not prepared by The Star, but by the civic organizations listed on the broadsheets. It is delivered with your papers as a community service.

Briefs from July’s Stars:

• Several readers have asked me why The Star never runs any follow-up on the Sunday feature, “ Do you have any information about this photograph?” The point is raised in a letter to Speak Out from Patricia Vanderpol of Anniston (July 27, 12A). People are interested in these historic photos. Are they ever identified?

• The Star has been running an ad for new home-delivery subscribers, offering a flag kit, complete with a flag, metal pole and hardware to mount it. The ad encourages customers to “show your patriotism on Independence Day” (July 22, 4C). This is a nice premium, but July 4 was 18 days from that date.

• On July 3, The Star did not carry its usual TV best bets. That may have deprived some viewers of seeing a program of special interest to this area, a documentary about the life of Asa Carter, that was on public TV that night.

Paul Rilling is a retired former editor at The Star.
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