From the Editor’s desk: Rumor, hearsay & character attacks drive out potential leaders

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There is something that’s been bothering me, and as a news reporter, I am not alone in feeling the frustration. 

On social media, you will see it daily: accusations of malfeasance, subversion, corruption and all types of wrongdoing by locally elected leaders. They are peppered with claims that something, “smells funny,” and implications that you’ve somehow been conned, often with little evidence. 

As a journalist, I take it as my job to investigate such claims, and when actual back-door dealings or bad actors are discovered, to expose those responsible.  

The problem is that some, on Facebook and other platforms, would have you believe that it is happening all of the time. And they seem to believe that news stories that don’t portray those in charge negatively are not journalism at all.

They are wrong on both counts. 

First, the job of news media is to inform, and not all issues are steeped in controversy. Most times, news stories should just let you know what’s happening, so you have the information needed to form an opinion later on. Other times, local news can and should be light and fun, highlighting notable achievements in the community.

Secondly, unlike national leaders, your municipal leaders here in northern Rhode Island are also your neighbors. They are mothers and fathers, accountants, business owners and soccer coaches. On town councils and school committees, they receive minimal pay – typically a few thousand a year for demanding work – and nearly all hold full time jobs. 

No, that doesn’t make them saints, or incapable of corruption – or even just general bad decision-making. But it does make them far more accessible to you, and much more likely to seek office to help solve problems and contribute to their communities, rather than for power or monetary gain. 

In turn, these individuals expose themselves to scrutiny and fairly constant criticism, often personal. I’ve heard it in anecdotes from leaders in both political factions: “I’ve known her for 30 years and now we don’t talk since she attacked me publicly,” or, “He accused me of lying and cheating on Facebook, and now I have to sit next to him at our sons’ basketball game.”

Are we surprised that more and more often, no one wants the jobs? In recent years, we’ve seen a notable decline in local candidates for political office, and those who do run – often unopposed – express great hesitation. Fired-up mobs may chant, “vote them out,” but that means little when Election Day comes and there are no choices on the ballot.   

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with taking a critical and vocal look at the actions of elected leaders. The citizen watchdogs in our society often work hand-in-hand with journalists, passing along information and drawing attention to important issues. But the value of those watchdogs is greatly diminished when their public commentary becomes politically-driven, or amounts to character assassination, as is too often the case. 

There have been times in my career where I have, indeed, found those stories: misuse of public funds, dishonesty and bad character, and I have reported on them. There have also been many times when I’ve seen community leaders who seem to be decent people make bad decisions, through everything from actual crimes, to neglect of duties. I’ve reported those too. 

But what I won’t do is imply wrongdoing without evidence. I try to ensure that anything published here meets a standard of proof.  

And so, while yes, salacious headlines and corrupt politicians certainly get people’s attention, I am asking you, the reader, to hold yourself to a higher standard, both here and in discourse elsewhere. When you see off-handed comments that imply secrecy, corruption and misdealing, ask for the proof. Try not assume that all of our community leaders are inherently bad, or that they are not at least trying to work in your best interest. In my experience, most are actually decent people who try their best, even when their actions aren’t particularly popular. 

This brings me to the alternative to the vitriol that far too often dominates both local and national discourse: informed discussion. It may sound cliche, but it’s true: reasonable people can, and will, disagree. I’d like to call on everyone to put that reason first, dismiss claims from those who imply something is wrong without explaining exactly what, and to focus on the issues. Think and talk about policy  – not individuals. And when you think about local issues, view with skepticism those who only go after certain individual targets.   

In turn, I promise that at NRI NOW, we will always do our best to investigate those claims of wrongdoing, and will only publish the stories with merit. 

Together, maybe we can drown out some of the noise that is scaring so many away from political office and help to move things forward, at least in northern Rhode Island.  

Sandy Hall

Sandy Hall is a North Smithfield resident, and the founder and publisher of NRI NOW.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Same goes for being misquoted, or not enough of what was said gets printed, so it looks out of context. A very good friend is upset at me for what was printed, and not the whole story. So I can see where people are afraid to talk to any news outlets. The nature of the beast?
    History always repeats itself. Volunteers and elected officials get passionate about their views and it becomes “the Wild Wild West”. Glad guns aren’t allowed anymore.
    Can’t we all play nice in the sandbox? Just because the volume of your voice gets louder, doesn’t mean it will be heard.

    • I hope you weren’t misquoted here, Gabby. One positive thing about the nature of online news is that we can correct the record, and so I always want to know if something has been portrayed less than accurately.
      To some extent, it is the nature of the beast, because the job of news media in many cases is to take complex issues and make them understandable to a much wider audience. Inevitably, sometimes we must paraphrase, and not everything will make it into print.

  2. John & BM: You two are fun. I suppose the passive aggressive “read between the lines” business is an improvement from the previous verbal warfare, so I’ll take it. Problem solved, political divide healed….. right? Ha!

  3. It is very easy to pick sides, it is very difficult to stay within and not form an opinion, especially when the world of information is at your fingertips almost at all times. With the evolution of technology and the spread of internet, in especially rural areas, more people have instant access to everything. Some people are misguided and follow misinformation to its fullest, and voice their opinion on social media. It’s growing increasingly difficult to fight against misinformation as well, especially when people believe this is their hill to die on.

    Overall a great job and lots of hard work has been done by Sandy, to filter out the noise and to find the truths. Do I wish she would take sides and commit to saying what a person has done is wrong? Yes. I wish there was more harsh reactions to certain articles, but I completely understand that it would show biases and get ridiculed by certain people.

    The political divide has been in this country since it was founded. Some may forget, choose to forget history, as it may be too harsh for them. The two party system is a curse, as Washington wanted just the opposite of what has happened. Which is probably one of the reasons why the town should stay on morals and not republican or democrat or other political affiliation.

    Politics tend to bring out the worst in people, sometimes the candidates themselves, sometimes the voters. That’s especially true, and makes it even harder to not form an opinion, when they’re your neighbor or a friend. Some candidates choose to character assassinate themselves, this much is true, especially when they believe they are in the right, when they get blinded by their beliefs. This is unfortunately true when you disagree with them as well.

    Some people choose to view their local meetings online, as it fits their schedule, but get made fun of. Some people choose to be vocal about the wrongdoings of the candidates that are in charge, but get attacked by angry pitbullish mobs. Some people choose to be silent and hopefully have the storm pass over, but get made fun of for not taking a side/showing care. Some people avoid it all together for the discourse that some people show during the meetings.

    It grows ever frustrating when some candidates show their true colors and try to get people fired from their job, interrupting their peace of mind/livelihood, treating their family’s livelihood, like I have had to deal with. Or when a former candidate tried to abuse their power and throw around their political position, to get their way at a different committee meeting.

    I would also like to point to a reply in here already, that spews with hatred, lies, and insults all for just simple disagreements with them. They ask us to do our own research and people have, yet since the research doesn’t agree with their own, so they lash out instead. Or when they arent getting their way during meetings, they throw tantrums. All of which have been previously documented, and provided as truth, but is blinded by their ways. What once was a great institution for this town has turned sour by some people as of recently. It’s sad really, that it has come to this, especially in this great town. Sad.

    • You realize you are proving Sandy’s point. You are also proving JB’s point about making accusations without any proof. Please tell all of us since all the council meetings are on YouTube where we can find JB throwing a temper tantrum. Just give the approximate date and I’ll look for it. He just does not come across like the type to do that. Maybe this is like your memory of coming out of Li’ General on Election Day and seeing JB getting removed from the polling place at the fire station when in fact the polling place that year was at Halliwell. That must have been very awkward for you.

      • I have already provided the proof, but if you want, for research purposes of your own, March 20th is one that speaks volumes. It’s the one where I call him out for trying to get me fired, and using terrible intimidation tactics that have backfired. The second half of that meeting after the executive session, is when it shows the worst.

        It’s also one of the stories where I wish Sandy would’ve taken a side, or did an article about it, other than letting my side be filed under letter to the editor as many had already weighed in for comments that night. I also wish there was more civility during committee and council meetings, as too much over the past few years, definitely at the national level, it’s the louder voice that tends to “win”.

        Now I’m not one for starting rumors or anything, especially since it goes against my core belief of integrity first. So the only awkward part is finding nice words to describe terrible situations. I’ve got nothing to hide, as I have once again provided the proof, others will attack me even more than you have even with facts in front of them.

        • BM – you must be extremely sensitive!! The only person throwing a temper tantrum at the 3-20 meeting was Douglas Osier about the grant writer, protocols and procedures. It was clear that he wanted the town, and everyone to know how “powerful” he was in de-railing the grant writer. Should John have used the term “spike the football” ?, probably not, however any rational human being would say that Douglas was more emotional and heated than anyone else in the room that night. What you are doing is called “Gaslighting” Douglas was the loudest, most uncivil voice in the room that evening you referenced for “proof”

          Was John wrong for calling your employer, most likely as it has/had an impact on your relationship with your employer, yes as I’m sure most people would agree.

          However, did you ever stop to think that all the slander, character assaults, insinuations of shady back room deals and impropriety with ZERO evidence of proof of anything that you and your comrades spew all over social media is in turn the same thing? You don’t think that baseless, no proof founded rhetoric on the “Notes” page has any impact on John’s employment, business and relationships? Past, present or future? That’s ok to do?? But it’s not ok for someone to stand up for themselves? Freedom of speech and expression works both ways.

          How the two of you got here is exactly what Sandy outlined in this great article. I hope the both of you can do better, for yourselves, if not for anyone else.

          • I’m sorry that you feel that way about rules, processes, procedures, and trying to make sure nothing can hurt the town by doing it the proper way. In my line of work, if things get done out of order, or skipping steps, it can result in serious bodily injury. So I might lean heavily towards doing things the correct way. You may say that none of those things would result in serious bodily injury, but the town would suffer a serious injury, whether it be through lawsuits, overpayment, or other such items. That’s money we now can’t spend on basic needs, such as roads, clean water, and the children of the town.

            As for the no proof of the insinuations of shady back room deals, slander, character assaults, is all his own doing. For example, being voted out for the Nike ban, then going behind the council’s back for green development tying their hands on what they could do, getting attacked by the self proclaimed pitbulls, the whole grant writer debacle, are all very well known to the public. All of those items have been written about as well, so it’s documented in local papers, as some even made national headlines and made the town a laughing stock.

            Freedom of speech has a fine line, as some of the things he has said/done could be considered a hate crime/hate speech against myself and others. I’m just pointing out factual evidence, and some people don’t enjoy it. Like I have said before, I live by a core value of integrity first, there’s no reason for me to lie if the facts are there, yet people turn a blind eye to.

            • There you go again. Please tell us all what things JB has said and done that could be considered hate speech against you and others. Saying it with no proof could be considered slander on your part. If I were JB I’d sue you and that other guy. Also, I know others have told you this in the past but usually people who live by the core value of integrity first don’t feel the need to tell everyone they live by the core value of integrity first. That’s a red flag if you ask me.

              • Just go back to his previous comments to myself and others, as that is all publicly available for your viewing pleasure. I have once again provided you with the means of proof, thus preventing it from going into slander territory. I have to keep reminding people, especially yourself and other fellow pitbullish people, as you try to push an untrue narrative about myself. You defending bad behavior is more of a concerning red flag, others should take note about that. It’s in fact not rewarding, as some might believe it will be.

  4. Let’s remember that all Americans have a first amendment right to a freedom of expression.

    FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IS ESSENTIAL TO A FREE SOCIETY
    It’s the foundation of self-fulfillment. The right to express one’s thoughts and to communicate freely with others affirms the dignity and worth of each and every member of society, and allows each individual to realize his or her full human potential. Thus, freedom of expression is an end in itself — and as such, deserves society’s greatest protection.

    It’s vital to the attainment and advancement of knowledge, and the search for the truth. The eminent 19th-century writer and civil libertarian, John Stuart Mill, contended that enlightened judgment is possible only if one considers all facts and ideas, from whatever source, and tests one’s own conclusions against opposing views. Therefore, all points of view — even those that are “bad” or socially harmful — should be represented in society’s “marketplace of ideas.”

    It’s necessary to our system of self-government and gives the American people a “checking function” against government excess and corruption. If the American people are to be the masters of their fate and of their elected government, they must be well-informed and have access to all information, ideas and points of view. Mass ignorance is a breeding ground for oppression and tyranny.

    Just my 2 cents

    • You are a wildflower in a weed patch. Use that ferocity at a state level & I see you pulling votes. Or being the zombie king in the apocalypse.

      • That’s true Dave W., However that was written in a time when you had to show up, in person, and speak your mind publicly; in front of others. Everyone knew who you were. There was most likely a harsh consequence for blatant lies. Your reputation was on the line.

        Nowadays, everyone is a key board warrior with fake names and profiles etc. There are no consequences!!

        This isn’t a left or right issue. This is a good vs evil.

        50 years ago our political adversaries would still help one another in times of crisis and need. They were cordial to each other. Had mutual respect. Now I think if one was laying on the side of the road bleeding, the other would put a pillow over his or her face without hesitation.

        Good or evil – the choice of yours.

  5. This is a very good article and on point. What is it about North Smithfield that encourages this environment? (We actually all know that answer) I am not saying things do not get ugly in other towns because they definitely do. But not even close to the degree that takes place in North Smithfield. I served on the state police for 25 years and in all the time not once was my character called into question, by the good guys or the bad guys. Since I have been involved in politics it is almost a daily occurrence. But never to my face, only on social media and never followed up with proof. As soon as my name is mentioned a tsunami of misspelled comments written at the third grade level comes flooding my way.

    The way to fight this is for one, do a little of your own research. Don’t trust anything you are getting on social media, especially if it comes from a page that is boosted. Also do not respond pro or con. These people are seeking validation and by replying you are giving them that validation and telling them they have something important to say when they don’t, they feel relevant. Not to mention if you disagree in your comment you cannot win anyway. The more replies they get the more often they post. So ignore and do your own research. Social media can be a great thing but in some ways it has also become the Devils Workshop.

    John A. Beauregard

    • When I left Lincoln in 2001 I said “good riddance to bad politics” but then I arrived here. Though I don’t think any town is different. It’s the same everywhere. I think the difference is to have an open mind and make your own opinion which I think I do.

  6. Excellent letter. Thank you for being level-headed and fair. Unfortunately, the behavior we are witnessing in our small community is a reflection of the current state of affairs in our country as a whole. It’s very sad to see how things have turned in just the past 10 years, and I’m losing hope for a return to civility and common courtesy.

    • I’d also like to see Fairness Doctrine employed more often, and I feel Sandy does a great job reporting our local news without adding her two cents. She is trying to moderate the vitriolic opinions on here because this isn’t the craigslist rants & raves section. NRI now is a great source of info for people who maybe want a condensed version of their local news. Hopefully it inspires locals to attend TC or SC meetings, or at least watch on YouTube.. maybe then there’ll be smarter commentary..

    • You’d have to cancel the licenses of FOX and half the news outlets out there! I stick with BBC, APnews, and Reuters. I lean left but want the center for reporting purposes.

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