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From Behind the Iron Curtain

Charlotte's latest media pissing contest

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It's hard to say exactly who started it, but in the end, everyone got burned. In the process, one heck of a media pissing contest broke out. In fact, it appears that it's still going on, and we wouldn't want you to miss it. The whole thing centers around the Charlotte Observer's favorite whipping boy, school board member Larry Gauvreau. The Observer has been taking the school board member to the woodshed for years now, but if you're particularly perceptive, you may have noticed that Gauvreau's been coming back a bit more bruised than usual lately, that the venom seems to jump right off the Observer's pages.

There are many reasons for this, but most recently it involved tip Gauvreau gave to the Rhinoceros Times, the weekly paper he publishes. When outgoing school superintendent Jim Pughsley tried to extort a $25,000 bonus from the school system in a closed-session school board meeting three weeks ago, Gauvreau spilled the beans to his own paper. Bad move.

The last time a departing school superintendent tried to shake down the school system in a closed-door meeting, in 2002, Gauvreau gave the Observer the story. At the time, the only person who was pissed at him for blabbing was outgoing superintendent Eric Smith.

This time, when the paper didn't get the scoop on details that happened in a nearly identical closed-door meeting, the Observer blistered Gauvreau.

The editorial, titled "Gauvreau's Judgment: Erratic Board Member May Hamper Superintendent Search," bashed Gauvreau for raising "potential conflicts" between the competitive interests of his day job and his duties as a public official.

The problem here is that there was a critical omission in the Observer's original story. It turns out Gauvreau's paper didn't break the story — WSOC-TV reporter Steve Litz did. Litz's story disclosed the details of what happened in that closed-session meeting two days before the Rhino Times did and four days before the Observer reported it.

Litz's source? That would be Gauvreau, who gave the scoop to WSOC before he did his own paper. Gauvreau said he'll give closed-session details to any reporter who asks, if he thinks the public has a right to know about them, just as he always has. The Observer didn't ask, he said, so it didn't get the story. Creative Loafing didn't ask, so we didn't get it, either. Litz did, so he earned the break he got.

Still, given the amount of space the daily has given to Gauvreau, is it our imagination, or does the paper have a grudge against him? We're not the only ones wondering about this. A few media insiders who know the whole story of Gauvreau's calamitous behind-the-scenes relationship with the Observer have also wondered aloud about it in recent months. Meanwhile, The Rhinoceros Times and WBT 1110 radio are investing increasing amounts of time pummeling the paper back for its "unfair" Gauvreau coverage.

Observer editor Rick Thames says that there is no grudge. He sees no conspiracies here and no intentional connection between the events described below.

Maybe there isn't, but given what has transpired between Gauvreau and the paper since this fall, I can't entirely say I'd blame them if some animosity slipped into a piece or two.

I'd want to throttle Gauvreau too if he and County Commissioner Bill James personally went out of their way to point out to my editor, or, God forbid, the owner of this paper that I had been scooped on one of the biggest stories of the year. It would further compound matters if it turned out that the reason I got scooped was that Gauvreau gave that really important story to my competition before he finked me out to the higher-ups for missing it.

By the time Gauvreau sent Observer publisher Peter Ridder an email on Nov. 28 that started with, "Have you folks seen the November 10 letter from Judge Manning?" and ended with "The Rhino and WBT 1110 have already done reports ... but nothing from the Observer," the hosts at WBT radio had already spent over a week trashing the paper for "covering up" the Manning memo, which essentially lambasted Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' leadership for managerial incompetence.

Since few people at the Observer seem to listen to WBT, they apparently had no idea that by then end of that week, half of Charlotte was wondering why the paper was blacking out news of the memo. In fact, the hosts at WBT still talk about it.

Gauvreau says he gave the Rhino and WBT the memo because he knew the Observer got a copy of the school board members' information packet every week and that the other two media outlets didn't, so he assumed that the Observer got the memo but buried the story. The problem is that the memo was somehow inadvertently — yeah, right — left out of the Observer's packet by the school system, which later apologized to the paper. By the time the story finally ran, it included an explanation of why the paper was so late in reporting it.

Emails between the Observer and Gauvreau — which I was able to obtain thanks to the Observer's fight to make emails from public officials public — show the paper's frustration with him.

"Wish you'd forwarded the Manning memo while we were corresponding last week," an irritated Observer reporter wrote to Gauvreau in an email. "But I have to say, your approach was very effective at stirring up folks, and it made for a great little liberal-media-conspiracy pitch. Just wish I could convince folks in (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools) central offices that you and Bill (James) are the ones who benefit when they fail to consistently provide public documents in a timely manner."

(I'd be remiss if I didn't stop here to disclose that like the Observer reporter, I too contacted Gauvreau and reamed him out for not giving us a copy of the memo.)

So what does Gauvreau do next? He takes that job as publisher of the Rhino Times, in the process making himself not only the Observer's favorite whipping boy but now its competition, too. If you read the daily's editorial page from that period, you could see that this turn of events really freaked them out. The Rhino and WBT retaliated to the Observer's coverage by blasting back at the paper for slapping Gauvreau around. (It's worth noting that all these folks compete for a limited number of advertising dollars, as does Creative Loafing.)

Then Gauvreau did what he always does when the Observer is riding him hard. He went and stepped in it again by giving his paper that tip on the closed-door meeting.

It was a pretty big scoop, and the rest of the media didn't think it was fair that the Rhino got it, either. Warren Smith, publisher of the Christian conservative weekly The Charlotte World, piled on too, forwarding an email about the Rhino story to the Observer.

"Are you saying that closed-door meetings of the school board are closed-door to everyone EXCEPT Rhino Times?" Smith wrote. "Are you and the Rhino now the "pool" for the rest of Charlotte's media when it comes to school board issues?"

Of course, like the Observer, Smith just assumed Gauvreau had given the scoop to the Rhino Times, not WSOC's Litz.

For the record, it doesn't appear that the Observer intentionally left out the fact that Litz broke the story. The reporter who initially wrote it told us last week that she was unaware that WSOC did the story first. Thames said he didn't know about it, either.

For what it's worth, Thames took over as editor this fall, so he wasn't around for the coverage of the last closed door meeting in 2002. And, as Thames emphasizes, the news and editorial sections of the paper operate separately.

Still, I think the paper owes Gauvreau some clarification. Gauvreau should consider an apology to them as well. Since hell will probably freeze over before any of that happens, I'm sure this column will have a "part two.".

Given all this, I think the Observer editorial board got it wrong when they wrote that Gauvreau's influence in school board matters is "close to zero." With no less than five media outlets brawling over whatever crumbs Gauvreau drops, I'd say he's one the most influential politicians around these parts.

TARA.SERVATIUS@CREATIVELOAFING.COM

CORRECTION
Last week’s Citizen Servatius column, “Bob’s Boys in Blue,” contained two factual inaccuracies that resulted when we inadvertently printed the rough draft of the column rather than the final version. The city will spend $1 million on police services to direct traffic at the new arena next year, not $800,000, as was stated in the column. Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Sergeant Ozzie Holshouser initially gave us the $800,000 figure, then called back with the accurate figure. The column also stated that City Budget Director Ruffin Hall didn’t know where that money came from. Hall actually called back with the answer on Monday, saying that it came from cuts to city services.

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