Two former Maui News employees, Brian Perry and Chris Sugidono, have recently been hired to work within Mayor Mike Victorino’s Communications Office. Former Maui News City Editor Brian Perry now serves as Victorino’s communications director, and former staff writer Chris Sugidono as an assistant communications director alongside Arakawa Administration holdover Ryan Piros. Both Perry and Sugidono covered the 2018 election for the The Maui News, raising questions about potential conflicts of interest if the journalists were eyeing positions within a future administration while responsible for reporting on election campaigns.
“It is quite common for former journalists to work in government or for politicians,” said Ann Auman, a professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa School of Communications when I told her about the former journalists’ new jobs. “You cannot assume that just because these reporters/city editor covered a candidate, that they were involved in the newspaper endorsing that candidate unless you can show that their coverage wasn’t fair and balanced, or they wrote editorials or columns endorsing a candidate… Do you know whether they were ever promised jobs in government?”
In looking at election coverage written by both Perry and Sugidono, I couldn’t find an obvious pattern of unfair reporting (though I would question the headline for Perry’s Sunday, Aug. 18 article, “Not ready for prime time: ‘Ohana candidates unlikely to gain council majority, pundits say”).
“Let me state for the record that there was no collusion between The Maui News and the Victorino administration regarding the hires of Brian and Chris,” Maui News Managing Editor Lee Imada wrote me in an email. Neither Perry nor Sugidono contributed to the Maui News’ endorsement of Mike Victorino for mayor, Imada added, explaining that “Editorials and endorsements of the candidates are the sole purview of Publisher Joe Bradley.”
Likewise, “Perry and Sugidono did not discuss the possibility of employment within the Victorino Administration with anyone prior to the public posting of job applications within the new administration after the General Election,” county spokesperson Ryan Piros said. According to Piros, Perry and Sugidono’s “applications were submitted after the public posting of the then Mayor-elect’s Selection Committee seeking applications within the new administration.”
Still, “This is an eyebrow-raising scenario you outline, for sure,” Brett Oppegaard, an associate professor at University of Hawai‘i at Manoa School of Communications and former Honolulu Civil Beat columnist on media ethics, said. But he added, “this type of shifting is becoming a norm. I would love it if the journalism industry was the most competitive employer in the community, offering high pay and bountiful resources for the reporters to do the stories that a community needs to be done.
“When it’s not, and people can get substantial raises and less stress by switching jobs, then these kinds of job switches will happen, whether we like it or not. I don’t think anybody in the journalism business likes the best people leaving, especially not for the opposite camp, but the economics of such a decision are difficult to argue against.”
With the migration of journalists to better-paid jobs within government and the private sector becoming a norm, however, “It certainly could be a problem in the future for truth seekers in the community, not so much for anyone in particular, but because these journalists know how the local reporters work, and what their strengths and weaknesses are, they easily could develop strategies for handling each publication in ways that benefit the new mayor and not the local readers of news,” Oppegaard said.
“I don’t like that it happens. I don’t think it’s good for journalism, by any means. In fact, I think it’s terrible for the pursuit of truth in our society, because you have one great performer basically switching teams (like LeBron James switching jerseys at halftime), from aggressively shining light on truth to instead becoming a master shadow puppeteer. But I don’t think this is just a Maui problem. It’s a journalism problem.”