Publishing details of a mayor’s personal life
The Windsor Star’s decision: When is the mayor’s relationship with his secretary a legitimate part of a story?
By Marty Beneteau and Richard Brennan, Reporters, The Windsor Star
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 1(April 1989), p. 6.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
Windsor (Ontario) Mayor David Burr’s relationship with his secretary had been the source of persistent rumors around the city. Fuel was added to the fire when The Star learned that the mayor had separated from his wife, which was reported in a short story in the newspaper.
After a secret meeting of the city council, Burr announced he was going on a trade mission to Japan, Hong Kong and China, and that his secretary Kim Wilson was part of the delegation. That’s when Star city hall reporter Marty Beneteau started questioning why a secretary with no apparent credentials for this kind of goodwill trip was tagging along at taxpayers’ expense.
Wilson was appointed to the delegation in her capacity as twin cities coordinator, a job that involves promoting cultural and economic ties between Windsor and similar-sized communities abroad. Burr had given her the post shortly after his election in 1985, taking it out of the city administrator’s office.
Following the closed council meeting in which Burr unveiled his plans, two councillors approached Beneteau in a hallway, visibly upset, suggesting the reporter find out more about the trade mission.
Beneteau approached Burr before he lowered the gavel on the council’s weekly public meeting, and the mayor detailed his itinerary, who was going along and why. The issue of his relationship with Wilson was not raised.
Beneteau returned to the newsroom, and troubled about this missing element in the story, consulted with a fellow city hall reporter. They agreed that the relationship was now entering the spectrum of public interest, and that Burr should have a chance to answer the rumors.
Beneteau contacted the mayor by telephone at his home, explained the situation and asked: “Is Kim Wilson your girlfriend?” Burr, who was upset about the line of questioning, acknowledged that he had heard the rumor since his separation and flatly denied it. The conversation ended abruptly.
Although all his instincts as a 10-year reporter told him the alleged relationship was pertinent to the Far East mission, Beneteau realized that this was not an element to the story that could be tossed in without some serious consideration. The personal lives of two public people were about to be exposed. The credibility of the reporter and his newspaper would be called into question.
Night assistant metro editor Doug Firby immediately agreed the issue was of legitimate public interest. But since the newspaper was dealing mainly with rumor and innuendo, Firby was concerned about being fair and at the same time thorough.
Facing both a legal and ethical dilemma, the reporter and editor talked about the fine line between conveying what they knew to be true and what had in fact been substantiated. That the mayor acknowledged the rumor and its circulation around city hall effectively provided the basis upon which the information was used.
Another factor was the obvious tension it had created among city councillors, pushed to the limit by Wilson being named to the trade mission.
Beneteau and Firby discussed exactly how and where the relationship should be played, agreeing that it should not be the lead but simply a detail addressed in the body of the story. The matter was dealt with in two sentences, toward the bottom of a 21-paragraph story that constituted a straight news account of the trade mission.
On the day the story appeared Beneteau met again with the mayor in his office to pursue information on the trade mission that was to cost $20,000.
Burr’s relationship with Wilson surfaced again in the conversation. Beneteau explained at length that the rumored relationship with Wilson had been of no consequence until she received city tax dollars to go abroad.
Burr accused Beneteau of taking a “cheap shot” by using the mayor’s acknowledgment and denial of a rumor as the basis for that element of the story.
The Star made no further mention of the alleged relationship until it was raised by other media at a news conference. The mayor himself raised it in an address to the city council in which he condemned The Star and attacked Beneteau personally. And yet again on a radio talk show the following morning.
Wilson filed a complaint with the Windsor Media Council, a local media watchdog, against the newspaper and Beneteau. In it, she denied the relationship and charged that she had been wronged by the newspaper.
The complaint was withdrawn by Wilson when confronted with overwhelming evidence, including sworn statements by witnesses, that she had, in fact, been engaged in a relationship with Burr.
Despite the mayor’s continued denials that there was anything between them, on Oct. 29, 1988, after announcing he would not run for re-election, Burr and Wilson tied the knot.
On a radio program just prior to his departure from city hall Burr attempted to explain his sudden attraction to Wilson by saying The Star’s persecution, like Romeo and Juliet, had brought them together.
Star reporter Rob Ferguson monitored the program, and his curiosity was piqued when Burr suggested the newspaper hired private detectives to shadow Wilson and him. Ferguson contacted the mayor and he immediately backtracked on the allegation, calling it an “off-the-cuff remark.”
Ferguson wrote a brief story, but it never saw print. Management decided that enough had been said, let the mayor ride off into the sunset with his final slap at The Star. The scandal is dead and buried, and Burr was last seen looking for a job.