Blogging Bayport Alameda

March 3, 2014

Black hole Sun

Filed under: Alameda, School — Lauren Do @ 6:03 am

It’s interesting because in the comment section of my post about the Alameda Sun’s response to the Encinal High gas leak, someone suggested that the op-ed by “Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov” was “satire” and that we all should have recognized it as such. But another commenter made a good point about the response the Alameda Sun’s editors made to a Letter to the Editor in last week’s Sun which implied that the Alameda Sun’s editors weren’t running the Chichikov piece as satire at all, but as a true piece of fact-ish information that contained some information that was not necessarily independently verifiable, but that they wanted to be sure that their readers picked up as a key part to the whole gas leak saga.

Here’s the Letter:

Editor:

Let me ask editor Dennis Evanosky (“School District Under Fire,” Feb. 20) and Paul Ivanovich Chichikov (“District Issues Worrisome Directive,” Feb. 20) a question. Assume you are employed by a company. Assume that something that your company has done is a matter of public concern. And let’s say you walk out the door of your workplace one evening after work, and a journalist with a notebook or a reporter with a microphone asks you for your opinion on this company matter. What are you, as an employee of the company, allowed to say? The answer is nothing. Legally, ethically and as a matter of loyalty and common sense, you are allowed to say nothing.

Everyone who has a real job knows this. It is common knowledge in the real working world. Every organization has an information officer, a public relations person or spokesperson who makes approved public statements on behalf of the company. No one else is legally allowed to do so. This is not controversial and has nothing to do with free speech. In addition to this legal restriction, an employee is not allowed to voluntarily admit to outsiders that the company is at fault in any company activity. That is also common sense and a legal necessity. There are certainly exceptions for whistleblowing, and employees have an obligation to speak up about illegal conduct. But something like that is rightly reserved for serious law breaking or negligence. And of course, as a citizen, you can make statements outside the venue of your workplace about almost anything but your company’s business without any fear of retribution. Jeffrey Smith, for example, has no problem addressing the general state of public education in the pages of the Alameda Sun. And I thought the story of Mr. Dynamic was hilarious. I bet the Lincoln Middle School kids cracked up. The school’s principal, Michael Hans, seems to have handled it quite correctly.

— James Reichert

To which the Alameda Sun added this “Editor’s Note”:

Reichert’s premise about the employees not having the right to speak out on the gas-leak issue falls apart when one recalls that school district administrators allegedly took the broken device to a bar on Webster Street and openly discussed the leak. In other words, teachers can’t talk to reporters about the same incident that the administrators were allegedly free to openly discuss while bellying up to the bar. Chichikov felt that the warning to the teachers not to speak to the press did not jive with the behavior of the administrators at the 1400 Bar and Grill. The Alameda Sun relegated this part of the story to the op-ed page because no one other than the teachers who approached Chichikov were willing to comment on the alleged behavior at the 1400 Bar and Grill, and none of those wanted their names used for fear of losing their jobs. Tip of the iceberg?

So the Alameda Sun editors are assuming that the anecdote relayed in the Chichikov piece actually happened as they refer  to the existence of that occurring as administrators freely discussing the issue in a public setting, with props apparently.   Naturally the word “allegedly” and “alleged” is tossed around pretty liberally in the Editor’s Note since I guess the only one who witnessed the incident was Chichikov.  Or people who told Chichikov and then Chichikov relayed the information to the Alameda Sun since those witnesses, I guess, didn’t feel comfortable talking directly to the Alameda Sun.  Perhaps because the Alameda Sun keeps doubling down on the narrative that the District forbids teachers from speaking to media, even though that is untrue.

Of course, I will point out that the teachers in Alameda have a very strong union and it is virtually impossible to get fired for speaking out about something that may be too political.  I mean, my goodness, this is the same union that meanly presented the Superintendent with a stockingful of coal one Christmas, I’m pretty sure that a tale about Encinal High School administrators bringing tubing to a local bar and speaking about the topic in public earshot is waaayyy below stockingful of coal if you want to talk about retaliation worthy episodes.   And if a teacher gets fired for talking about administrators doing something as stupid as chatting about a gas leak in a public bar and bringing the tubing — particularly after those same school administrators emailed out a pretty dumb notice about not speaking with the press — then I’m pretty sure that would be grievance material that the District could not sweep under the rug.   Given how absolutely empowered the teacher’s union is in Alameda, the notion that someone feared for their job by talking to media about some really juicy gossip is ridiculous.

But the most troubling fact is that the Sun continues to conflate an overreaction by Encinal High School’s administration telling their teachers not to talk to the press as some dictatorial policy by the Alameda Unified School District as a whole that teachers are not allowed to talk to the press.   This is, verbatim, what the Alameda Sun received in response to their questions about the gas leak and the whole no one can talk to the media, thing:

Yes, a memo was sent by EHS administrators to EHS staff, asking that they not speak to the press. As a general rule, we do ask that teachers let district administrators talk to the media about an urgent matter such as this one, because it concerns public safety and we want to make sure that reporters (and by extension community members) get the most up-to-date and accurate information. In addition, the District has to ensure that its staff comply with federal laws protecting the privacy of student, employee, and health-related information. So if teachers would like to talk to the media, we ask that they check in with the district first so that everyone’s privacy is protected.  [emphasis added]

See, I read this sentence quite literally:

So if teachers would like to talk to the media, we ask that they check in with the district first so that everyone’s privacy is protected.

Meaning, if teachers want to talk to members of the press, check in first so that the district can remind you not to share student names or other teachers’ names for privacy reasons.  I imagine that the teacher’s union would agree that a teachers’ name should not be released in connection to an incident such as a gas leak in the case that some dumbass automatically assumes that the gas leak is then the fault of that particular teacher.  Yes?  And the student name thing, well that’s just obvious right?   So talk to the media all you want, but if the District wants to cover their ass in the case that some AUSD employee doesn’t have common sense to omit out names of people who were involved, that is totally understandable.

But of course maybe the Alameda Sun is interpreting that fairly plain language sentence as something more nefarious.  I seriously cannot figure it out.

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6 Comments

  1. I wouldn’t characterize the email that was sent out by EHS staff as “dumb.” It read to me as if it was written under the influence of adrenaline. To be fair, in that moment, there were firefighters and paramedics on the campus, helicopters circling overhead, and TV crews pulling up across the street. I think the staff member was feeling some stress.

    We sent a letter to the Sun editors clarifying our media policy last week. They did not run it this week, citing lack of space, but promised to run it this coming Thursday. To paraphrase what we said in that letter, it is not unusual for school districts (and other public agencies) to have spokespeople. Having one or two designated media contacts helps to a) ensure the information getting out to the community is accurate (because we can get up-to-date information from the site administrators, law enforcement personnel, MOF, etc) and legally permissible (e.g., it is illegal to release information about student or teacher health). Having a spokesperson also takes the task of talking to the media off the people directly involved (e.g., the site administrators) who have a million and one other (really important) responsibilities during incidents like this.

    Again, it’s not about preventing employees from talking to the press. It’s about making sure the community gets the information it needs to stay safe and calm.

    Comment by Susan Davis (senior manager, community affairs, AUSD) — March 3, 2014 @ 8:40 am

  2. If my memory serves me correctly, it was not the teachers ‘a union that gifted the Supe with her lump of coal, but the non certificated union. Just to be clear

    Comment by Not A Alamedan — March 3, 2014 @ 9:27 am

  3. NAA: There are photos here of the stocking preparation and presentation here on AEA’s facebook page, just scroll down to 2011.

    Comment by Lauren Do — March 3, 2014 @ 9:53 am

  4. “It’s about making sure the community gets the information it needs to stay safe and calm.” Yeah. Just like Chevron, when it issues a press release. Gee, I’m sure glad you know what’s best for the rest of us, Susan. Wouldn’t want anyone out in the public to think for themselves.
    The difference is: Chevron is a private company, but my property taxes involuntarily support the school district.
    It’s ridiculously easy to give an account of a gas leak, without mentioning any names. Unless, of course, the gas came out of a person-then that might be tricky…

    Comment by vigi — March 3, 2014 @ 11:29 am

  5. Vigi. There are two separate issues here. One is about policy regarding notifications in general and emergencies specifically, as regards personal. The other is with regard to the specificity and thoroughness of statements from the district on the hard facts about an incident, and whether they are adequate to clarify how? what? where? when? and why?, without regard for who?. I have not seen any LTE complaining about the latter in this incident.

    Comment by MI — March 3, 2014 @ 1:08 pm

  6. so the statement Susan Davis refers to above was printed today. Nothing new for blog readers, but the Sun took almost equal space to that used for district statement to make excuses concerning it’s rights to edit, including claiming that the original misleading truncation of full district statement was due to limited space. Right. It had nothing to do with the Sun’s biased habit of crafting a specific interpretation of the facts with such edits. At least the “Editor’s note” didn’t appear on the front page above the fold as “news”.

    Comment by MI — March 6, 2014 @ 9:36 am


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