For the past six years, talk radio host Garland Robinette lectured local public figures about the importance of perception. Many would appear on Robinette’s “Think Tank” program after a news report linked them to controversy, in order to “clear the air” and tell “their side of the story.”
They’d use the forum to convince Robinette’s listeners that the whole matter had been blown out of proportion. Any fair-minded person could see that they were just victims of circumstance and coincidence — honest.
Robinette would usually pepper them with skeptical questions, but if they were well-prepared for his interrogations and offered plausible (if not convincing) explanations, Robinette still had an ace up his sleeve: he could always play the perception card. If his controversial guests gave as good as they got, Robinette could always say, “Hey, even if your motives were pure, and even if all your excuses are valid, you still have to admit that the public perception of the situation is awful. Why didn’t you anticipate how bad this would look before you did what you did?”
Now the worm has turned most uncomfortably for the talk jock. Ole “Mr. Perception” is in the throes of a pretty dreadful set of appearances, after Saturday’s Times-Picayune ran a front page story which began:
WWL talk radio host Garland Robinette received $250,000 from [Fred Heebe] the owner of the River Birch Landfillin October 2007, after Robinette routinely used his show to criticize the reopening of the rival Old Gentilly Landfill to dispose of Hurricane Katrina debris, his attorney confirmed.
The disclosure involving one of New Orleans’ most prominent media figures is the latest development in the 20-month investigation of River Birch, which allegedly paid $460,000 in bribes to a former state official to lobby for closing Old Gentilly.
Now, with the public craving an explanation, Robinette says he’s in a bind. He says that in light of an investigation ongoing, he’s been “asked” not to talk about the controversy. And so he hasn’t explained why Heebe granted him a $250k loan with such generous terms (apparently no interest or required payments for 4 years). Can’t say why he didn’t disclose his relationship with Heebe when he was railing against the Old Gentilly Landfill. Most of all, listeners want to ask Robinette: “You of all people should’ve known how bad this would look. How could you let us down like that?”
A quote in Tuesday’s follow up story in The Times- Picayune reads as if it were a transcript of one of Robinette’s radio lectures:
Fred Brown, vice chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee, said journalists, including talk radio hosts like Robinette, should never accept money from people or businesses they cover.
“This has every appearance of a conflict of interest, and appearance is just as important as an actual conflict when it comes to public perception,” Brown said. “You’ve got to be very clean, and this isn’t clean at all.”
Unfortunately, when Robinette’s listeners try to ask the host about the ethical issues raised in these news stories, WWL’s call screeners won’t let them on the air. And if they do get past the screeners, the station cuts them off as soon as they broach the loan topic with Robinette.
The overwhelmingly vehement reaction to this story has surprised me. Though I didn’t expect much sympathy for Robinette in the online comment forums, I’m shocked by how few are defending him.
Seriously, I’d guesstimate that Robinette’s online critics outnumber his supporters by around 50 to 1. Even Robinette’s regular listeners say they feel betrayed and won’t listen to him again. It’s like the story has tapped into a deep vein of public frustration. And now with today’s disclosures about River Birch’s lobbyist list, I’m wondering whether this public anger will be sated with only Robinette’s scalp. Perhaps the rage will surge (or get cleverly channeled) towards other members of the Fourth Estate. I suspected that the T-P foresaw this potential backlash, since it admitted in the Saturday piece that some of their own reporters had received a helicopter ride or a free lunch, courtesy of Heebe.
The boiling commentary at the nola.com web site juxtaposed with the initial absence of editorializing by the paper amused me. I figured the T-P opinion-writers were going to soft-pedal the story. Boy did James Gill prove me wrong yesterday (and Stephanie Grace today). Gill’s column utterly dismantled Robinette. He called him a “geezer” and a “sellout,” and then he removed the boxing mitts and said Robinette’s loan shenanigans were “contemptible” and “disgusting.”
I basically agree. Even if Robinette never took the loan, he should have informed his audience that Heebe was a close friend, before he repeatedly bashed the rival Gentilly landfill site. When you add a generous $250k interest-free loan on top of that, you get a conflict of interest that even many of Robinette’s fans deem inexcusable.
There’s perhaps another angle to this mess that’s been overlooked. Everyone is connecting Robinette’s negative comments about the Gentilly landfill to the loan from Heebe. Many are viewing that as a payoff. However, let’s not forget what happened after Robinette got the loan. Robinette’s lawyer said he “is certain that [Robinette] never spoke about River Birch at any time after receiving the loan from Mr. Heebe.”
I think that’s rather interesting. River Birch Inc. has been a prominent news topic in recent years. And Robinette, in his attorney words, “never spoke… at any time” about the investigation into the company? So, an interesting corollary to the payoff scenario might be to ask: What has Robinette’s silence over the past four years been worth to River Birch? The biggest local talk radio name, with three-hour weekday shows about all manner of current events, has apparently never discussed the FBI’s investigation of River Birch, nor River Birch’s massive trash contract with Jefferson Parish?
Robinette’s frequent criticisms of Old Gentilly Landfill, PRIOR to the loan with Heebe, were no doubt appreciated by River Birch. But I wonder whether Robinette’s four-year silence AFTER he got the loan, wasn’t even more valuable to the company.
Anyway, that’s my perception of the matter.