Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Akron's cell phone paparazzi has been active for some time

A dirty secret that's now going public in the developing story of Mayor Plusquellic's drive home early Sunday morning has been going on for quite some time.

Trust me folks . I've known about it for months .. and so have others in the media and at city hall.

Here's what I know about Akron's "cell phone paparazzi":

A growing group of local citizens who are upset with Plusquellic and other leaders have begun their own underground movement to do what they believe the media hasn't or won't do -- catch local leaders breaking the law. They've been at it for months.

I spoke at length with one of the "cell phone paparazzi" last month about what their intentions were, and he was open about their disdain for city hall and other Akron leaders. He never mentioned the $1,000 bounty that Mayor Plusquellic spoke of Wednesday, but he did say that he was so frustrated with city hall that it was open season to see who could record a "gotcha" moment.

The man I spoke with is not a city employee.

The man told me that he and others didn't follow or stalk local leaders ... but rather just made it a point to always have their cell phone with them so they could record video if they happened to run into Plusquellic and/or others while out on the town.

I watched one of the cell phone videos last month, and I felt there was nothing on it that was newsworthy. The one-minute video showed Plusquellic at a local bar speaking with a woman, probably a waitress. The man who sent me the tape said he believes the video showed the mayor saying inappropriate things to the woman, but the audio wasn't clear enough to discern anything, let alone an inappropriate comment.

Certainly, there's no way I'm just going to "take someone's word for it" when it comes to accusations like this .. so that's where our conversation ended. I don't know if that particular video was peddled to other news organizations when I passed on it, but I believe it probably was.

In the big picture .. some TV journalists would salivate at the opportunity to have vigilante photographers out there every night trying to get our daily exclusives. Not me. The longer this has gone on in Akron, the more I fear it's becoming dangerous and reckless.

How would you feel if you were eating dinner and someone began shooting video of you and your family with their cell phone? Regardless of whether it's legal because you're in a public place, the idea of cell phone stalking doesn't lead to anything positive .. nor do I begin my news day hoping to catch a leader doing something wrong.

Expose journalism needs to be specifically targeted and with probable cause. Following someone just to follow them isn't journalism .. it's stalking.

I've had discussions with other Akron journalists about the cell phone tapes they've received and what they planned to do with them. To date, none have been broacast or generated stories -- not because journalists are hiding anything, but because the "cell phone paparazzi" tapes were each evaluated for what they really area .. and haven't been newsworthy. (If that TV station-that-shall-rename-nameless, the one that started this latest story, hasn't aired any of the cell phone tapes, what does that tell you about whether or not they're newsworthy?)

I also made it very clear that we won't pay for video from someone who is purposely following someone just hoping to catch them in the act .. so just know that going forward. With rare exception, we don't pay for home video period. Also, I don't offer anyone incentive or guidance to go out and get this type of video or information. I can do my own work .. again, when the story truly warrants it.

Personally, I always want to know what someone's motives are when they come to me with dirt -- a rumor, an email, a taped phone call, or a cell phone video - because it can skew the validity of the information. I need to know what the real story is ... and what information was left out of what someone is slipping my way.

Recently, a viewer brought me personal information about LeBron James that seemed to warrant a big exclusive, but when I was unable to validate the sources, the story didn't go to air.

Likewise, the reason none of these cell phone tapes has to date seen the light of day isn't because of some media conspiracy .. rather it's media responsibility.

I don't yet have enough information on this weekend's story to say that it's all tied in with the existing paparazzi, but the scenario does fit what I've seen and heard about around town. Seems all the CPP folks have my direct line every time they get a new tape.

Those who are upset with the mayor and others .. need to find civil ways to deal with their issues .. because even valid arguments (and the group does have some solid points of contention) get lost in translation when cell phone stalking is at play.

Just know this .. if there's video of someone's hand in the cookie jar, I'll be the first to tackle the story .. but when the person is only walking past the cookie jar, don't try to tell me he's guilty of anything.

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