How far our county leadership has fallen when an elected county official, unhappy with media coverage, publicly makes dishonest and unfounded accusations singling out a specific reporter by name to state falsely that an improper personal relationship exists between that reporter and other elected officials.
These types of accusations go further than just challenging the journalistic integrity and personal or professional reputation of longtime Trumbull County reporter Renee Fox. It also damages the value of her work and that of this newspaper by calling into question unbiased reporting here.
After streaming via Facebook Live a Nov. 10 Trumbull County commissioners meeting, Commissioner Niki Frenchko posted false written comments, including stating, “Fox protects them (fellow commissioners), Mauro especially — she gets free drinks at Enzos (restaurant). Her loyalty is not to the public by reporting news, but to who picks up the tab.”
This is not a one-time incident. In fact, these attacks on our reporter have been ongoing and devoid of both truth and professionalism. Frenchko repeatedly, inaccurately and improperly has described via multiple social media posts Fox’s relationship with the “Cantalamessa brothers,” using intentionally misleading adjectives such as “cozy,” and inaccurately has alleged “free drinks” are provided by the Cantalamessas to the reporter.
Both Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa and Renee Fox have denied the claims, and we have found no evidence to the contrary.
The public should view these attacks as improper attempts by an elected official to use lies to discredit the reporter and the news publication that covers her elected post. Frenchko also repeatedly and consistently has accused this newspaper, its reporters and its management of acting unethically. She has made these claims on social media and during interviews in her official elected capacity on local talk radio.
The ongoing lies and disparaging public comments came to a head recently when they spilled into the Nov. 16 public governmental meeting. From the lectern and while on the record, Frenchko asked Cantalamessa, “Is she — are you buying her (Fox) drinks or something?” Frenchko’s improper comment came during an exchange among commissioners in which Cantalamessa said he intended to address a public matter with the media.
Later in the meeting, when Frenchko again broached the matter, Fox, who was attending the meeting in her official capacity as a reporter, stood and publicly defended herself on the record.
A heated exchange between Fox and Frenchko ensued, in which Frenchko referred to Fox as Cantalamessa’s “personal columnist,” and, while on the record, called Fox a “filthy liar.”
Fox publicly denied the claims, accused Frenchko of lying and stated she believes it is Frenchko’s goal to discredit our coverage and her as a journalist.
Let us be clear. We do not encourage nor endorse public comments from our reporters during an event they are assigned to cover. Indeed, we understand the role of a journalist is to report professionally without bias, opinion or involvement. We are disappointed that we fell short in that regard.
By the end of the day on Nov. 16, Fox had requested to be removed from the beat and editors had made the decision that, indeed, she no longer could be considered unbiased in her coverage of commissioners. She was reassigned, not as a punishment, but rather to ensure fair coverage continues, as is our duty to our readership.
For several months Frenchko, in her first year as an elected official, repeatedly has objected to reports published by this newspaper. Frenchko frequently seeks corrections or changes to verbiage in stories or headlines, often arguing over wording and semantics. At times we have agreed with Frenchko’s objections and have corrected the stories online and in print. Other times, we have disputed her requests and declined to make any adjustments.
During her time in office, Frenchko also frequently has attempted to dictate to our reporter what should be included in a story or how a story should be written. Of course, it would violate our journalistic integrity to adhere to those requests, and we do not. The decision to ignore Frenchko’s direction sometimes is followed by phone calls or emails from Frenchko to the newsroom when she raises complaints well after midnight and as soon as stories first are posted to the newspaper’s website in advance of the print edition’s release. On some occasions, she has screamed angrily and cussed at night editors.
In the true spirit of journalism, this newspaper has and will continue to remain fair and balanced in our coverage of all three Trumbull County commissioners.
To that point, despite the frustrations we have faced in dealing with this situation and despite the editorial board’s displeasure with Frenchko’s disrespectful treatment of people, which we have addressed in this space, we have supported her on multiple occasions when we saw fit to agree with Frenchko’s policies or government proposals.
As part of the divided world in which we live today, our reporter has faced a constant barrage of social media posts by a very divided readership. Bold and unfair verbal assaults of the reporter by name and of this publication, childish name-calling and other derogatory statements are common occurrences. Fake memes depicting Renee Fox in disparaging roles, manufactured through the magic of digital photo editing, show up frequently on social media.
Renee has maintained professionalism through it all, refusing to be defeated by the verbal and online attacks. We have seen no evidence of her falling short in balanced reporting. Indeed, had that occurred, we would have reassigned her to a different area of coverage long before now.
We stand by our reporter and our coverage. We condemn Frenchko for these ongoing blatant lies and attacks, and we caution our readers about falsehoods that frequently are passed on social media and other mediums without the filter and balance that come with news coverage from a reputable media organization.
Indeed, fair and balanced reporting is our mantra, and, as always, we will continue to honor that.