In an era when large acts in violation of law and integrity assail us every day, should we still be bothered by small items that may not be what they seem? Yes.
Last January, the Richmond Times-Dispatch (RTD) published an opinion column endorsing a development proposal by the private NH District Corp. According to public records, it was actually written by the NH District Corp. itself, although signed by Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) president as the sole author. VCU’s president is a member of a citizens’ commission to evaluate the project. To further muddy the waters, the NH District Corp. is headed by the CEO of Dominion Energy. The failure of the editorial’s author to disclose his web of interests is even more appalling when one realizes that this $1.5-billion project will involve some $165 million in property tax exemptions. VCU, does this call to you?
According to records obtained from VCU under the Freedom of Information Act, employees of the university relations division communicated with a public relations consultant working for NH District Corp. about Rao doing a column in support of the plan. A reporter asked RTD’s leadership last week whether the it would have published the column had it known it was ghost-written by NH District Corp. The executive editor said, “No, we would not have published it.” Surely, VCU does not condone plagiarism among its students or faculty.
A Richmond native and author of books about Virginia’s power structure made the FOIA request to VCU and shared the results with the newspaper, which then filed its own FOIA request. He also questioned why VCU is involved in the project at all:
They’re a public institution. Their mission is to educate people and produce research that benefits the state and the nation. Why in the world are they getting involved in a private development project that’s not in the public interest but is in the interest of their largest donors? [Emphasis added.]
And to quote Times-Dispatch writer Michael Paul Williams: If we can’t trust the small stuff about the Coliseum plan, we can’t trust the big stuff.
A harmless journalism/public relations collaboration? Not. harmless at all when the reading public is influenced. This kind of blind authorship is well known on Capitol Hill, where large corporations that spend billions of dollars to lobby Congress actually write legislation that Congress then passes as its own.
The problem is that those with vested interests get portrayed, in the media or in law, as advancing reasoned arguments that make no mention of their own stake in what is being proposed. This is deliberate falsification by omission. And those that participate on the other side–such as the university president and the Congress–are likewise tarnished by their complicity. Another Good Old Boys network.
This abridged letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch makes the point:
As a reader, I expect truth in advertising. . . . When I read an article in The Times-Dispatch, I assume that the person credited with writing it actually did the work, not some hired gun employed by an entity with much skin in the game, in this case, the developer. I am well aware that op-ed pieces often are ghostwritten. . . . In this case, Rao appears to be carrying water, surreptitiously, for the developer. As a reader, I feel misled…. And as a VCU alumnus, I feel that the academic integrity of the school has been damaged. What happens when a student turns in someone else’s work and gets caught? The next time it happens, maybe the offending student should point out that the school’s president has no problem appending his name to another person’s words. Integrity starts at the top. Leaders should set an example, and this is not a good one.
Something is lost when society is assaulted with small untruths presented as fact or professional opinion, and all are expected to accept without question the actual point of view. When people collude to keep the public in the dark, it is a slippery slope down which the public and the media will slide. The absence of full disclosure or the presence of duplicity creates skepticism for all.