No winners in spat between Gov. Deal, Atlanta TV station

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal

 

Gov. Nathan Deal’s staff and Fox 5 Atlanta may have ended a spat that made both sides look bad — or at least should have.

It began when Fox 5 aired a half-baked account of payments Deal’s campaign made last year to his daughter-in-law.

It escalated when his aides had state troopers single out Fox 5 for exclusion from Deal’s office when he signed a bill.

Fox 5’s report, which implied that the campaign tried to hide $90,000 it paid a fund-raising company co-owned by Denise Deal, was a doozie.

It cited payments to Southern Magnolia Capital LLC, listed in the candidate’s campaign finance disclosures.

The closest it came to making a case was noting that neither the disclosures nor other state records listed Denise Deal as a partner.

Of course, no such listing was required on the disclosures, which did, by the way, log $38,092 in direct payments to her.

Indeed, her fundraising role is no secret; she was listed as the contact on an invitation to a recent $1,000-per-person luncheon for the governor.

Maybe it didn’t occur to Fox 5 to call Deal’s people and ask. In any case, it lamented that it couldn’t find any mention linking her to the company “in any of the company records available to the public.”

That was true only as an assessment of its sleuthing skills. At the time, Google listed the company with its address and her name and phone number.

Next the station used a clerical error by another candidate to suggest that the company was using a bogus address. Denise Deal says Fox 5 was told of the mistake before the broadcast.

And it let a source who claimed no knowledge of the matter speculate about whether she earned the $90,000. Fox 5 presented no evidence that she didn’t.

The unrebutted Deal campaign response: Her work was a major reason why Deal — who raised almost $9 million — won.

Fox 5 stood by its story, but also changed it.

A day later, it noted that the Google item reflects Southern Magnolia’s membership in a group it joined barely two weeks before the broadcast.

Though something less than a gotcha, it’s an interesting point, which more reporting might have produced for the broadcast.

Fox 5 might also have probed the critical scrutiny that hiring relatives to work in a campaign has attracted.

In 2007, the U.S. House, where Deal served 17 years, passed a bill — which stalled in the Senate — to bar campaigns from hiring spouses. Anyway, following a meeting with Fox 5 while Deal was on a trade trip to Europe, his staff lifted the embargo.

Spokesman Brian Robinson said he still thinks the broadcast was, among other things, “intentionally misleading.”

Maybe, but is he entitled to use that verdict to award himself a license to blackball a news organization?

Not surprisingly, the Atlanta Press Club doesn’t think so.

“Selective exclusion from a public press event, and enforcing that exclusion using taxpayer-funded state law enforcement,” it wrote to Deal, “sets a dangerous precedent. It is unacceptable in a free and open society.”

Amen; I would add that such ploys also invite suspicion — even when, as it seems in this case — the grounds are weak.

Robinson says Deal’s is “one of the most accessible and open administrations in the state’s history.”

Things might turn out that way; just now, the Fox 5 flap stands out because it’s an exception.

But it must remain one for things to turn out that way.

 

 

Senior reporter Larry Peterson covers politics for the Savannah Morning News. He can be reached at 912-652-0367 or at larry.peterson@savannahnow.com.

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