News & Opinion » Editor's Notebook

Why we pulled the Kali Watkins piece


In its latest edition, CITY published incisive commentary about the recent trial of Kali Watkins, a former Webster teacher and coach who was acquitted on a charge of raping a teenage girl.

The piece was written by Christopher Thomas, a highly-regarded local lawyer whose work includes civil and criminal litigation and touches on constitutional law and social justice issues.

The thrust of his piece was that the case against Watkins perpetuated the well-founded perception held by many that the criminal justice system is rigged against people of color. Watkins is African American.

As Thomas pointed out, the evidence against Watkins was underwhelming and raised serious questions about whether Watkins should have been prosecuted at all.

Much of the criticism in his commentary was directed at the prosecutor, Meredith Vacca, whom he noted is a Democratic candidate for one of two open state Supreme Court seats.

What Thomas said needed to be said. As the editor of CITY, I was pleased to offer his commentary a forum as a way of broadening the public discourse in our community on the topic of people of color and the criminal justice system.

Whether Thomas was the best person to say it, however, has come into question.

Subsequent to publication of his piece, it was brought to my attention that Thomas is an active supporter of another state Supreme Court candidate, Justice Matthew Rosenbaum, who is running as a Republican.

Thomas has walked with Rosenbaum on the campaign trail. A lawn sign endorsing Rosenbaum stands at his home.

Why those facts are troubling should be obvious to any discerning CITY reader.

News outlets providing a space for informed opinions on matters of importance is integral to a healthy media landscape. CITY is committed to making room for those voices.

In exchange for that space, news outlets vet contributing writers. That process includes asking contributors to disclose any outside interests with the subjects on which they report and opine. It also involves the news outlets unearthing any conflicts, real or perceived, to the extent it can.

If a serious conflict arises, the piece goes unpublished. If the disclosures don’t impinge upon the integrity of the commentary, the commentary is published with the disclosures appended.

A tagline to the commentary in this case, for instance, noted Thomas had ties to the local Democratic party. In the interest of full disclosure, the tagline also noted that he was a member of the board of trustees at WXXI Public Broadcasting, of which CITY is a subsidiary.

The vetting process included asking Thomas about his prior work as legal counsel to the Monroe County Democratic Committee and prior work on its Judicial Selection Committee. The responses led me to believe his commentary was beyond reproach.

Had I known the extent of his support for a political opponent of the target of much of his criticism, I would have never published his commentary. Doing so leaves too much room for readers to wonder about ulterior motives of the author – and, by extension, CITY.

That is why the piece has been removed from CITY’s website.

In the news business, all we have is our credibility. If our readers don’t view us as forthright and transparent, we have nothing. Incidents like this undermine our credibility and erode trust.

It is absolutely crucial to the integrity of CITY that its writers – those on staff and those contributing – disclose any ties they may have to the subjects on which they are reporting or opining.

Ties don’t necessarily disqualify a piece from publication. Indeed, some ties can bolster the strength of a piece. But the merits of a piece must be evaluated for publication with all the author’s ties in mind.

An unfortunate casualty here are the important issues raised by Thomas in his commentary.

In his introduction, Thomas wrote that the Watkins case “should spark a critical conversation in our community.” The aim of publishing his commentary was to enable that conversation.

The ways in which the criminal justice system operates to the disadvantage of people of color are systemic and often subtle. That’s something worth talking about and something CITY will revisit.

CITY welcomes scrutiny that can help us facilitate important conversations in our community. Thank you for reading and being part of the conversation.

David Andreatta is CITY’s editor. He can be reached at [email protected].