Did Andy Gammill screw up?

Dateline: Wed 31 Mar 2010

First, check out the video from YouTube.  (With thanks to blogger Abdul Hakim-Shabazz of Indiana Barrister, who broke this story, Paul Ogden of Ogden on Politics who followed, and the anonymous reader who tipped me and has played the role of providing his thoughts and some sleuthing as well).

Painful, eh? A bit embarrassing to watch this play out? Yep. Many apparently think so.

What you're viewing, for the record, is a public budget meeting of Indianapolis Public Schools, held last week. The young man you first see is reporter Andy Gammill of the Indianapolis Star, an award-winning journalist who covers IPS and other schools for the newspaper, a beat he's held several years now. The woman he's conferring with is Mary Louise Bewley, communications director for IPS.

So, apparently -- it seems -- we're watching Gammill rat out a couple guys to Bewley, who then boots the two men out. One of them is (obviously) opearating a video camera. Later, the men --  Education Action Group staffer Kyle Olson of Michigan is one -- say they followed protocol. They learned about the meeting on the IPS website, then showed up and signed in, as they and others in attendance were required to do.

The video was posted a couple days ago by the Education Action Group of Michigan, a group of "citizens and school board members" (according to its web site) that claim its mission is to ensure tax dollars directly benefit public school students rather than, say teachers' unions.  EAG specifically targets those powerful unions in an effort, says EAG,  to provide an alternative voice when it comes to holding educational debates.

But another website, "The Truth About EAG," maintains the group is made up of two men (and only two men) who are perpetuating "a fraud and a joke with an ugly tone" and whose sole mission is to destroy public education.

Obviously, based on what you saw on the video, EAG is not welcome at the IPS table. Which is why EAG has filed a formal complaint with Indiana's public access counselor, charging that their eviction was a violation of Indiana's Open Door Law.

That remains to be seen. Bewley has declined comment on the matter until the ruling; she said in an email she thought it would take about 30 days to resolve.

But plenty of others are weighing in. Ogden and Hakim-Shabazz and commenters on their blogs see the entire incident as a sign that Gammill is way too invested in IPS to provide fair coverage, that he has crossed a line with a source (Bewley) and become "part of the story." Even more appalling, critics maintain, is the behavior of Bewley: how could she be a communications director for a major school corporation and not know that it's legal to tape a public meeting in Indiana, under the Open Door Law, asks Ogden?

At least one school board member agrees. Michael Cohen, member-at-large, told a reader of this blog (who finds the story fascinating): "This should not have happened, and it won't happen again."

My undercover reader reports  that "Cohen also said he and other board members held a 'retreat' after the incident." They discussed what had happened, and the conclusion was that the men taping "should not have been evicted."

On the other side of the argument is Gammill's boss, exec editor Dennis Ryerson.

Here's what the newspaper boss said in an email Tuesday:

"1) We tried to respond to the group (EAG) yesterday; they didn't answer their phones twice and now they say we refused to respond. I don't think that's fair to us.

"2) This was not a meeting that falls under the open meetings laws. There was no deliberative body present. Was it right to have ejected the TV crew? That's another matter and frankly, it's my view that she shouldn't have kicked the crew out; no way do we defend what she did. But again, the open meetings laws do not apply.

"3) Andy asked Mary Louise for the name of somebody who was in attendance. He asked about the TV crew; she thought it was FOX; he told her it was Education Action Group from Michigan. (Have you ever chatted that way l with a source?)"

(My answer: sure. Or should I say "guilty"?).

"4) Much to Andy's surprise," continues Ryerson, "Mary Louise went up to the TV crew and asked who they were then asked them to leave. To suggest that Andy 'blew the whistle' is just plain not fair to him. In no way did Andy suggest or hint to her that the group should not have been present. Again, Andy was surprised that she escorted them out.

"By the way," he concludes, "there is plenty that IPS has objected to about our coverage in the past, and they will object in the future. That's as it should be. I don't think we can be said to be in bed with the district."

That's a spirited defense, and it's admirable that Ryerson is standing by his reporter. That's what he is supposed to do, generally.

But in fact, as was pointed out by a reader on Ogden's blog, Gammill had this Michigan group in his sights in June 2009, when he wrote on his blog that EAG had launched a new website taking on the Indiana State Teachers Union "in light of its troubled health insurance plans." Gammill must have followed the group closely enough to recognize two of its key members when they were at the meeting. I persoanlly find it hard to believe that he didn't alert Bewley when he recognized the men...but as my resourceful reader points out, we really need a lip-reader to ascertain that.

So what's the bottom line here?

I've always maintained that covering IPS was one beat I never wanted; it's a thankless job and a tetchy subject. The truth is, IPS, with all its warts and critics, has its legions of ferocious defenders. True, many of them perhaps are invested in the status quo but many also correctly equate public education with impoverished, struggling children. And to attack IPS is to attack those kids, in the minds of many IPS advocates.

Part of the problem may be historically that some reporters who did cover IPS did identify very closely with the agenda; it's no secret that former Star colleague Kim Hooper was a tireless, hard-hitting, aggressive reporter whose IPS beat often included taking many phone calls, defending not only her stories but the district to angry and sometimes racist callers. Now, Hooper, a fair reporter, works for the IPS system alongside Bewley.

Gammill, of course, is not perfect; who is? And it seems to me that in this video, he looks a little too chummy with a source. But I also agree with Ryerson -- it's an occupational hazard. Overall, he's a fair and accurate reporter, and no doubt, IPS has had its share of beefs with him.

The bigger point is how convuluted and dicey a traditional beat has become. Even though it's tiresome to say so, the Internet has opened the door to a slew of viewpoints that in the past were simply never heard from, if they even existed at all...and now, like it or not, those perspectives really must be taken into consideration -- if fairness and accuracy are the goal.

The other issue here is that public schools are in a fight for their lives, and their detractors, smelling blood, sometimes have taken the gloves off. Where you stand on the subject of public schools may well dictate your response to this entire incident. (My own perspective always has been to favor school choice, which often put me on the wrong side of IPS' core group; backing charters was seen as attacking IPS).

If anything, look for more instances like this to flare...and more reporters and school spokespeople to be under intense scrutiny.

Finally, this story may well be more interesting than what's traditionally reported in newspapers re: budget meetings, etc. If nothing else, it would be a good subject for Gammill to address on his blog. Obviously, the rest of us are doing so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

hendy [Member] said:

To a certain extent, there's nexus. Just like local campaigns shouldn't get out of district campaign contributions, out-of-town ax-grinders deserve the heave-ho.

However, erring on the side of free speech and open meetings, their eviction was uncalled for. It appeared as though they didn't disrupt the meeting, and were there only to record its proceedings. Fair and fine. But I didn't detect any disingenuousness on their part. They signed in like everyone else, and while priority to locals should be given first in crowded meetings as they have primary nexus, others shouldn't be excluded unless they're disruptive, and these guys didn't appear to be. But I wasn't there. As Ryerson states, Open Door isn't applicable here (read the law, look at the case law). Nonetheless, it was bad policy, IMHO.

Should they have desired to become part of the process, as in ask questions, they have no nexus there either as a constituent or as chronicler/journalist. They're from Michigan. As out of town news reporters, there's a plausible horse in the race, but they aren't.

2010-03-31 19:58:46

nicmart [Member] said:

Despite the shame of what Gammill did, the essential point is that no person should be prohibited from attending a public IPS meeting, whether he is supporter or critic of the school system. The Star should have reported the ejection of IPS critics, but since Gammill is a shill for the system, that wasn't going to happen. This story shows how critical blogs and YouTube have become as alternative, and often more reliable, sources of news.

2010-03-31 20:06:02

news junkie [Member] said:

If there were concerns, it seems like Bewley should have requested the guys not to record the session on video rather than asking them to leave, especially since they registered as required and it was a public meeting.

2010-03-31 20:40:33

nicmart [Member] said:

Too many people forget that free speech and press are for the benefit of consumers, not providers. What government agent will be assigned the job of determining who is an "ax-grinder"? If, for instance, 60 Minutes were to send a crew to tape an IPS meeting for the purpose of exposing corruption, is the show ax-grinding? Of course it is from the viewpoint of the government. But the government should have no say in who is a legitimate reporter, who has an axe to grind, or who should gain access to public meetings. Because local reporters are often too close to local government, it is essential that non-local reporters have access. What would have happened to southern Blacks if northern newspapers had not covered the misdeeds of racist government officials, including by attending their public meetings? We see strikingly in this video the difference in behavior of an insider journalist and outsider ax-grinders. The public is better served by the outsiders. Ax-grinding is what the First Amendment was designed to protect, not newspapers as conveyers of official opinion.

2010-03-31 21:10:52

It'sMe [unverified] said:

A little late to the dance, eh Ruth?

2010-03-31 23:53:28

nicmart [Member] said:

Ruth is considerably quicker than the Star, which has yet to acknowledge the event under discussion.

2010-04-01 01:41:58

ruthholl [Member] said:

This is more of a second-day (or second-week) analysis of this incident rather than an effort to rehash what Abdul and Paul have already reported, It'sMe. The essence of this post is in the comments, and that discussion is as fresh as today's Star, which, alas, has very little news.
Oh, yes, Butler is in the Final Four.
The outrage factor remains lively here, (even livid) because, as nicmart and Hendy and news junkie have indicated, Bewley overplayed her hand. No matter what the agenda of this group is, she -- and conceivably, Andy, if he tipped her off -- have turned this group into the latest example of free-speech martyrdom. Bewley's heavy hand backfired. As we said in the 60s, "let a million flowers grow." We take this issue seriously in this country....let the Europeans have their privacy, we'll stick to our First Amendment.
A second point: Even though I have acknowledged that all reporters will of course schmooze with sources, it's bad form. PR people are not reporters' friends; this is, by its nature, an adversarial relationship. I used to hate it when the Star, in the old days, had an open-door policy for flak -- gobs of PR guys would pour into the city room, hang out at reporters' desks, make nice, buy lunches and drinks. Bullshit.
Maybe it's not so flagrant anymore, but reporters can still get co-opted, and sometimes sympathy for a source or an agenda is the biggest corrupter. What I was trying to say before is that IPS in the past sometimes played the victim card -- "how dare you criticize those poor little children????" was implicit, even from friends whose children were in IPS -- and many reporters, all of them God-loving child-centered Americans, were naturally empathetic....
The message remains on point: keep the wall up between editorial and those with an agenda to push...
But having lost that purity, and having been exposed as being sometimes flak itself, the newspaper is now wearing a whole new target on its back.
So it goes.

2010-04-01 07:30:28

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Wow. What a tempest.

As you know, I am no fan of Mr. Mary Milz, but I gotta hand it to him on this one: his explanation makes sense, and it caused me to back-off my planned Andy critique.

To be fair: Andy is no hack. He is a solid reporter. I learned that first-hand when he covered my school board on the northside. Smart, articulate, observant...he was never "part of the story."

So, in my mind, Andy's off the hook...although, he might want to avoid the chumminess that was demonstrated. A polite distance is more professional.

There is relatively universal agreement that the villain here is Mary Louise. She was in true Cruella DeVille mode. The current probe is a sideshow--the base question remains: "Who gave her the right to eject anyone?" Follow the bouncing ball:

Local folks and media have first dibs on IPS material. No doubt. And your cogent analysis of the IPS beat coverage is helpful, Ruthie. But there's a rub:

IPS has flowing through its veins, about 19-24% federal money via grants. And about 60% or more state money, via the new funding formula.

So, in that funding tier, all Americans have a one-fifth $$ stake in IPS, and all Hoosiers have a larger stake.

To be blunt: IPS taxpayers are in the distinct minority here. We can argue about why that's true, but it's a fact. (STRICTLY IPS taxpayers...it's a fine line, because the IPS homeowner also pays state and federal tax, but you get my drift)

So, using that formula...all Americans have a right to ask. Or attend. Peacefully, and observant of the meeting's ground rules.

Not that I want to rush into a Detroit or San Antonio school meeting using that logic.

But the Michiganders had every right to be there. There is no evidence that they were disruptive in the slightest.

If it's an official meeting of the governing body (school board), the Open Door Law applies. Recognized news organizations have to register to get agendas, meeting notices, etc.

But this was a public forum. Gene loves those forums. He gets to hold court with a mike and wax poetic about his philosophy for public education. They're always "The Gene White Show." I am weary of Gene's PR antics that produce precious little positive results for kids.

Wrapup: Andy is off the hook with me, as if he cares. But he'd best be diligent on public schmooze appearances. Mary Lousie oughta be fired. Period. And Gene...

Well, Gene will be Gene.

By the by...lost in all this kerfuffle--what was the topic of the meeting? And how did the "regular" attendees view the meeting, its agenda, the answers given, and the "disruption" ?

2010-04-01 07:50:55

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

One more Open Door reference:

Any task force, committee, ad hoc group, etc., constituted by the governing body, is covered under the ODL.

I don't know the convening group at the forum. If it was just the Super, sadly, no ODL provisions likely apply.

Which does not relieve the Super, and his designees (Mary Louise) from bending voer backward to facilitate public participation.

Back off, Cruella.

In the real world, Over/Under on ML keeping her job: 14 days. I'll take under.

In Gene's world, she'll probably get a promotion and a raise.

2010-04-01 09:00:52

Ms. Cynical [unverified] said:

TTT nailed it. Showmanship has trumped substance once again. (Perhaps this is all a ruse to get us to ignore the topic of the meeting?)

Once upon a time I served on a public board subject to the Open Door Law. The govt types were ALWAYS in coverup mode. I was ALWAYS in their face about transparency. (I, personally, posted meeting notices in public places when the govt "forgot".)

Bewley is govt (as in, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you"). She should be fired.

Gammill doesn't come off looking good either. Chumminess with a source indeed! If there's a public sign-in sheet, he could LOOK AT THE SIGN INS to see who the attendees are. Not ask the govt enforcer.

2010-04-01 09:07:42

hendy [Member] said:

Spanked, yes. Fired, no. She was punished enough by the bad camera angle.

2010-04-01 09:37:08

varangianguard [unverified] said:

On further reflection, I kind of wonder now that the camera "caught" Andy Gammill chatting to Ms. Bewley when the Superintendent was clearly speaking. Weren't they there for the Superintendent, the subject matter or the audience?

Plus, is Ms. Bewley that self-involved that she wouldn't notice the camera still rolling?

This, plus the Ryerson take on ODL makes me wrinkle my nose because it smells odd to me now.

2010-04-01 09:52:35

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Varan, I'm typically very skeptical of Dennis. But this time, I think his explanation makes some sense.

Trouble is, he whines at the drop of a hat, so he's guilty of crying wolf too often. It's hard to give one of his arguments credibility while so many are, well...flat (at best). My difference in this case is, I know Andy, and Dennis's argument fits Andy's style and the way I have seen Andy operate, which is usually top-flight.

And yeah, the camera angle is unflattering. But Hendy, the only things that schools, as an institution, understand are:

1. Writing a check
2. Not getting a check

Seriously. It's that basic. I'm as sympathetic as anyone. But her job is far from essential anyway, and she's got like 2-3 assistants.

Nope. This was aggregious enough that she should go. Yesterday. Look at that tape again. Almost $70 large a year, for this kind of behavior? Disgusting.

But she won't be fired. So it's an academic argument. In GeneWorld, nobody at the central office gets fired. Ever. Reassigned? Yeah. But never fired.

2010-04-01 11:07:20

whitebeard [unverified] said:

I agree completely with Ruth's response to ItsMe.

I also agree with what was written regarding "GeneWorld" (I am assuming this is in reference to the current IPS superintendent).

The thing that puts Gammill's actions in question to many is that his coverage of IPS has seemed pretty milquetoast most of the time.

There are legions of middle-level administrators in IPS making $90,00 to $150,000. This, when many superintendents of small school districts in Indiana make less than $100,000 a year. This, when major budget cuts are being made and when bunches of classroom teachers are likely to lose their jobs.

Gammill did a story about superintendent pay throughout the area. But I have seen nothing in The Star reporting-wise or commentary-wise that makes any issue of the extravagant paychecks earned off the taxpayers' collective backs by those minions in the IPS downtown fortress.

So, I personally view Gammill's coziness with the IPS administrator in question - Bewley, who I am told makes $120,000 a year in salary and various benefits - against his lack of aggressiveness in getting to some of the beneath-the-surface stories of IPS.

We have to rely on blogs to get information beyond whatever press releases IPS is doling out to the print and (most of) the broadcast media. Thank God for blogs.

2010-04-01 13:18:00

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

whitebeard: average Indiana supt. salary is $121K. I don't know of a single super anywhere making less than 100K.

That said, if (s)he is doing the job properly, they're worth much more.

But that's not a bet I'm afraid of losing with an overwhelming majority of school admins.

2010-04-01 13:38:18

Whitebeard [unverified] said:


My mention of supt. salaries were based on The Star's Data Central listing of Indiana supt. salaries for 2009.

It lists four Indiana supts. as having a base salary of less than $100,000 and 10 with a base salary of less than $110,000.

Yes, we can get into a big, long analysis of base salary relative to the added perks, etc. But that would accomplish nothing relative to the substance of my previous post. What I said in my original post about supt. salaries was extremely peripheral to the major points I made.

My main point was not about what superintendents are paid, but about the extravagant salaries that scores of lesser administrators make in the IPS downtown fortress.

2010-04-01 14:11:31

VladTheImpaler [unverified] said:

As Nicmart once noted, reporters are unskilled workers. Why should we be surprised?

2010-04-01 16:47:47

nicmart [Member] said:

Vlad,
Upon reflection, I realize that I neglected the skill of mendacity. Mea culpa.

2010-04-01 21:28:53

Marycatherine Barton [unverified] said:

Thanks to Ruth for contributing your welcome viewpoint on this topic, "Did Andy Gammill Screw Up?", and for all the replies. I am in agreement with the comment above, from Ms. Cynical (unverified).

2010-04-01 22:38:37

nicmart [Member] said:

Ms Cynical,
Gammill wasn't inquiring; he knew who the tapers were.

2010-04-01 22:54:50

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Whitebeard, you could blow up the downtown IPS office, and school would continue tomorrow. Supers who earn their salary, whatever it is, are worth their weight in gold. Alas, they're too few.
Eugene loves lots of expensive staff surrounding him. He alone evaluates their performance.
Why does he even need Mary Louise and three persons in her office? That office costs $300K a year. Ridiculous.
If that school board grew a set, they'd evaluate the evalutor a little more effectively.
After all, the scenery only changes for the lead dog.
This administrative attitude of Eugene is akin to a star athlete's swagger. It is too-often one-dimensional. And lo the taxpayer who asks questions. Or the citizen who dares to tape someone at a meeting.
Mary Louise was merely reflecting her boss's administrative swagger. No one should be surprised. After all, this is a man who sat in a meeting with a Star columnist, on the record, and the state school superintendent, and threw his teachers under the bus with "60% are incompetent" malaise.
True or not, it was a disgusting display of misplaced fawning. If it's true, he is responsible. Talk about a buzz-kill (if IPS had any buzz left to kill)

2010-04-02 08:04:07

Ms. Cynical [unverified] said:

So, Nicmart, if Gammill knew who the videorecorders were, seems to me that (maybe?) he was worried that their taped coverage would differ from his newspaper reporting -- and that's why he ratted them out?

2010-04-02 10:47:16

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Look, folks, that's just not the way Andy operates. Seriously.

2010-04-02 11:03:52

Paul K. Ogden [unverified] said:

First, I disagree with the person who says this meeting would not be covered under the ODL.

Second, I'm actually more concerned about Gammill than I am Bewley. Bewley is just your typical administrative type - more worried about coverying stuff up than doing a good job.

Gammill though is supposed to be independent and objective reporter. The videotape clearly showed him (at best) ratting out the videotapers from the education reform group while trying to curry favor with Bewley. And we're supposed to take Gammill seriously in the future when he reports on IPS or education reform groups?

I can understand Ryerson wanting to defend his reporters. But at the very least Gammill should be suspended and reassigned to a non-education beat. He has shot his credibility to hell on educational issues. For Ryerson to do absolutely nothing at this point would be condoning Gammill's misconduct.

2010-04-02 20:58:40

nicmart [Member] said:

If newspapers begin to suspend and reassign reporters who are too close to government officials, who the hell is going to write the copy?

2010-04-02 21:15:30

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Paul, I kind of understand your re-directed focus. But here's the rub:

The ODL applies to meetings of the governing body and their sanctioned-sponsored sub-groups. Gene is a champ at this, and he knows how to manipulate the system.

If it was a Superintendent's Forum, ODL does not apply. If it was a Board Committee or forum, ODL applies.

If it was a Superintendent's Forum, I think the IPS Building Use Policies apply, and those clearly give the sponsoring organization some leeway at inclusion/expulsion, except if the expulsion occurs due to the race, gender, religion, etc, of the offending participant.

Nicmart, I think Paul's point is, there's "observant" and then there's "chummy." Surely you know the difference. Look up "smarmy" or "clubby" and see how they're defined.

I was early to point a finger at Andy, and I don't care for Dennis's style at all...but I think his explanation makes sense. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, huh?

And if we're going to get all huffy about reportorial style and such, who the hell is policing Tully, who attended a roundtable with the late great Julia Carson in 2005, which was taped...and the tape clearly shows she's hallucinating about a little girl taking her lunch. Julia was dazed and incoherent.

Not a single damned reporter sitting there--including Tully--asked one freaking question on the record about Julia's mental lapse. Not one. During or after. Sio Tuly had his own mental lapse...or, more likely, he wasn't willing to do the legwork required for full reporting on such a story, because it was delicate and tough. His editors, after seeing the tape on Ch. 13, should've insisted that Tully or another reporter follow-up.

And Tully's columns routinely are lazily-written wanderings that involve little journalistic legwork.

His Manual series was brilliant, but hell...his job is to be the political columnist at the state's largest newspaper. The Manual thing was great but off his regular beat.

So, overall, Paul, it looks as if the oversight and management style over on N. Penn is, at best, lacking. Across the board. But here's the main difference between that and Mary Louise:

We all value the press but private dollars pay for it. ML is a taxpayer-funded employee who owes it to us to have a higher standard than she demonstrated on tape. There is no excuse for her attitude or behavior.



2010-04-03 07:29:27

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