Reporter blames Hawaiian governor for lost job
Much of Malia Zimmerman's three-year stint with Pacific Business News was spent in hot water.
As the government reporter for the Hawaiian weekly, Zimmerman broke stories about voter fraud, claims that Gov. Benjamin Cayetano engaged in political backlash against his opponents and various incidents of business improprieties across the islands.
Because of these stories, Zimmerman says she was often blackballed from press conferences. She was offered sweetheart deals for jobs on the mainland to get her out of Hawaii. She even claims she received death threats.
And then came the complaint from the governor to the Honolulu Community Media Council, which is made up of 50-plus members of the media, government and community and is designed to hear grievances about the islands' news outlets.
A month after a media council hearing last April, Zimmerman found herself unemployed and, she says, unemployable. No other newspaper in Hawaii would hire her in the wake of the governor's complaint.
And now she's building a First Amendment claim against the governor, accusing him of trying to silence her reporting and causing her to lose her job.
The governor's aides, on the other hand, say the complaint only concerned accountability, bringing to the council's attention concerns about negligent reporting.
“This isn't a First Amendment case,” says Jackie Kido, Cayetano's director of communications. “Malia just keeps going down that road.”
Supporters call Zimmerman's reporting among the most compelling and best researched on the islands. But critics fault her for what they describe as reporting based on hearsay, misquotes and personal prejudices.
Regardless, the articles on voter fraud and government impropriety for the Pacific Business News brought considerable attention to the weekly, which saw its letters-to-the-editor page and its circulation swell as a result. Some articles caught the attention of The Wall Street Journal, which wrote a blistering editorial about Hawaii's business scene earlier this year.
But the final straw for the governor apparently came after a Pacific Business News article last year about a government report prepared by the Small Business Task Force. The governor said the report was privileged information because it hadn't been approved by the task force nor seen by him.
Kido filed a formal complaint with the media council charging the weekly with ignoring “journalistic ethics by willfully engaging in the practice of manipulating information and knowingly reporting inaccurate, unbalanced and unsubstantiated stories.”
Kido, in the complaint, suggested that the council order the weekly to issue a public statement of wrongdoing and an apology through both of the two major dailies as well as on its own pages. She also suggested that the weekly newspaper staff take journalism ethics training.
Zimmerman said that soon after the filing of the complaint in October 1999, the governor's office stopped talking to the weekly's reporters, particularly her. Press releases and news tips from state agencies also stopped coming.
Three members of the media council held a six-hour hearing last April, deciding that the governor should seek mediation with the newspaper before asking for action from the council.
Zimmerman said the weekly's editor and publisher told her to take a break from reporting.
“They said, 'You're tired, and this governor thing is getting hot,'” Zimmerman said. “And I said, 'I'm not tired. Are you backing down?'”
She said she did take five days off and returned ready to work. But when she refused to back off from her government reporting, Zimmerman said she was offered a severance package to resign and keep her mouth shut. She declined and said she was subsequently fired on May 25.
“They said it had nothing to do with the governor's case,” she said. “They had investigated and said they found that I had used my computer for personal use, and they said that I had been writing editorials for The Wall Street Journal, which was not true.”
Two weeks later, Kido faxed a letter to the council saying the governor understood that the weekly had terminated Zimmerman.
“Therefore, we are hereby withdrawing our complaint,” Kido wrote. “It is understood that should Ms. Zimmerman regain employment with PBN within the next 12-month period, the case may be reopened at our discretion.”
That letter from Kido, Zimmerman said, essentially nixed all chances for getting another reporting job anywhere on the islands.
Gina Mangieri, editor of Pacific Business News, declined to offer details of Zimmerman's departure, citing a company policy that forbids disclosure of whether or why employees quit or are fired. But Mangieri said she could say the matter had nothing to do with the governor's complaint.
“It's completely false,” she said. “Put a timeline on this: Malia left in the summer of 2000. The governor's complaint was filed in October 1999. Any attempt to connect the two seems to be grasping.”
Mangieri said the complaint was filed against the newspaper itself for an article written by another reporter. Zimmerman, she said, wasn't a part of the governor's complaint and that the complaint itself had no basis.
“We had every right under fair-reporting privilege, and so there was no reason for the governor's office to report the case to the media council,” she said. “The council came up with no conclusion. And there was no retribution against us or the gentleman or against Malia.”
The editorial staff of the Star-Bulletin, the state's second largest newspaper, was not so convinced.
In a June 30 editorial, it wrote: “Given the known facts, it is difficult to believe that Zimmerman's firing had nothing to do with Cayetano's complaint, as the newspaper claims. In any event, the administration's intention is clear. The governor's aide publicly threatened to revive the complaint if PBN rehired her. What clearer message could be sent?”
None, says state Sen. Sam Slom, a frequent critic of the governor and editor of Small Business Hawaii.
“She was beating the boys who had been in the media and drinking beer and waiting for press releases and waiting for handouts,” Slom said. “It's real simple. If she's not qualified in her reporting, then show where it's not true. Call her bluff and show it.”
The Star-Bulletin editorial aside, Slom said most Hawaiian news reporters community took shots at Zimmerman. A recent media gridiron show included a skit making fun of the reporter.
But Slom says he understands why many reporters and citizens do not speak out. The Hawaiian Islands, he says, are quite isolated from the mainland and so it's not easy to find a job after losing another.
“You're either here or not here, and if you're here, you put up with a lot of folks,” Slom said. “As a consequence, (Hawaii residents) are not only not critical, they will turn a blind eye, they will stumble over stuff and they keep going.”
But Kido says that's not true in Zimmerman's case. She says other media haven't touched the stories Zimmerman has uncovered because there are inherent problems with them. She noted that Robert Rees, a columnist for the Honolulu Weekly, examined the case extensively and determined that Zimmerman based stories on weak sources, hearsay and her own biases.
Zimmerman denounces such claims, saying that she interviewed hundreds upon hundreds of people for her stories and has extensive documentation to back up everything she's written.
But for now, she's focusing on two things: Her lawsuit against the governor and launching a new online news service called HawaiiReporter.com.
“I could have given up,” Zimmerman said. “I had a lot of job offers on the mainland. I thought, 'Wow. Did this really happen to me? Did I live through this?' But I ended up realizing that this was my sign from God. I'm smarter and tougher for it.”