An interview with Criminal District Court candidate Marie Williams has raised questions about how news station WDSU-TV reported a major investigative story, and whether it crossed an ethical line and made the reporter part of the story.
Williams told The Lens that the television station provided equipment for the sting-like operation and that she made phone calls from the station’s newsroom so the calls could be more easily recorded.
Two weeks ago, the station aired a story by reporter Travers Mackel on a secretly recorded lunch meeting between Williams and incumbent Judge Frank Marullo. During the meeting, Marullo is alleged to have asked Williams to drop out of the race. In exchange, Marullo would offer to vote for Williams’ appointment as a magistrate commissioner, a part-time job that pays $75,000 per year.
If Marullo in fact made the offer, it appears to violate state law, though Marullo later said that he attended the lunch meeting with the understanding that Williams was already planning on dropping out. Marullo’s campaign manager Bill Allerton told The Advocate that the tape was incomplete.
Williams has not dropped out of the race, and voters will choose among her, Marullo and Graham Bosworth on Nov. 4.
Mackel’s original story included the line, “Undercover recordings of this meeting were captured by the WDSU I-Team.” Mackel has since declined to offer details to other reporters on how the story was reported, even whether the recording equipment and hidden camera were provided and set up by the station. Mackel did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
In an interview with The Lens, Williams said the station provided the equipment.
“Yeah, yeah because I didn’t have any of that,” she said.
She also described working closely with the station to set up the meeting with Marullo.
Listen to Williams’ interview with The Lens
Williams said she approached Mackel with a conversation she taped with her daughter’s cell phone in which a political operative who said she was representing Marullo, Sonja Dedais, mentioned a possible agreement.
“I said, ‘I’m going to put a stop to this.’ So I went to Travers. I let him hear it. He said, ‘You know we have to do something about this. This is ridiculous,’ ” Williams said.
She said she then began calling Dedais from the station “so they could record it.” She described working with the station to set up the meeting with Marullo, at one point even putting off a meeting until everything was ready.
“The judge got mad because I couldn’t, because we hadn’t really had anything set up yet. But we had put the plans together. We put everything in action,” she said. “I was going to wear a wire so I could meet with him and … record him offer me these things, because she [Dedais] was doing all the talking.”
Mackel’s story does not say how involved he or other WDSU employees were in setting up the sting, nor does it mention Williams calling Dedais from the station.
In a phone interview, Allerton told The Lens he spoke on the phone with Mackel and WDSU news director Jonathan Shelley after the story aired, and he questioned the station’s methods.
“I said, ‘Gentleman, let me ask you this: Are you reporting the news or are you making news?’ ” Allerton said. Though he could not recall exactly what they said, he added, “Their response left me with more of a question than an answer.”
Citing the ongoing FBI investigation, Shelley declined to answer questions about Williams’ account of the reporting process, except to say, “We were present at the [lunch] meeting.”
He said he did not know if Williams made any phone calls from the station or if Mackel said, “we have to do something about this” when approached by Williams.
“We’re comfortable that we’ve met the highest ethical and journalistic standards,” he said.
In response to questions from The Lens, Andrew Seaman, ethics committee chairman for the Society of Professional Journalists, said in an email that the organization’s ethics code advises reporters to “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”
“Essentially, those methods should be last resorts and only used in very, very, very rare circumstances,” Seaman wrote.
“After watching the online video of the news report, I would say that WDSU has an obligation to the public to explain its role in the creation of these recordings. The explanation should be detailed and describe its interactions with the political candidate and what they provided – if anything – in the form of recording equipment and staff. Also, if they did set up the video and audio recordings of the lunch meeting, I hope they can fully explain why they chose such an approach.”
The Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride, a leading expert on journalistic ethics, said she could not easily call the reporting an ethical breach.
“It’s not like ethical breaches are yes or no. It’s not like there’s a bright white line in journalism, and you cross it, and you’re in bad territory,” she said.
However, she added that she thinks the report was executed more for theatrics than for news.
“If the woman wanted to record the judge, they should have let her do it on her own,” she said. “They shouldn’t have been a partner to her actions.”