Flagler County Commissioner Joe Mullins made a roundabout statement at the end of today’s commission meeting: “I normally wouldn’t even address something like this but I want to do it for my fellow peers and for you guys,” he said. “The chaos that came out last week, and the muckery, I had child custody hearing Friday that’s why I went back to Georgia, usually a few days before that or a week before that some really bizarre things start coming out, and you know, act crazy things. But it was a very good day, very positive day, probably one of the best ones of my life, so I just wanted to say that, without going into a lot of detail or issues or trying to explain things.”
Tawdriness shadows Mullins wherever he goes, whenever he speaks. It’s his nature. He is a base man who revels in debasing others, a middle-aged narcissist stuck with the intellect of an adolescent and the mini-Trump politics of a goon. Nobody would pay attention to his sleaze if he didn’t buy the attention the way he buys infomercials and advertisements to himself, the way he fouls donations by making them about himself or the way he photobombs every occasion where he can appropriate someone else’s credit. He made fun of poor old Nate McLaughlin for cutting too many ribbons. McLaughlin could now give a Ted Talk in humility in comparison. Public officials cringe and bear Mullins because they have no choice. Most of us can tune him out, though his rogue slanders sometimes make it difficult: his troubling clinical obsession with me and FlaglerLive, his incessant bigotry–using anti-Semitic tropes adapted to photoshopped images of me–can be hard to ignore when people keep sending them to me and saying: look what he’s done now! All of that is substantiated by the two years we’ve endured of the dishonor he’s brought to the county commission–or by any single day of effluents on his unsocial media page.
So it’s incomprehensible why, with so much reportable material out there about the guy, the News-Journal thought it fair game to go after him with an unsubstantiated, indefensible smear piece, which is what the paper published about him over the weekend. Mullins deserves plenty of criticism and a lot more critical reporting than he’s been getting, and for this all local media are to blame. But he didn’t deserve this.
FlaglerLive was among those at the receiving end of the email that went to seemingly every public official in the county and his or her siblings, a few prosecutors and who knows who else. The material enclosed was puerile, and unfortunately difficult to un-see. The allegations would amount to nothing more than a misdemeanor–and criminally speaking, to nothing more than something like smoking pot–and only because Florida is still a bit backward in those regards. They’re also the sort of allegations you could make about a fairly substantial number of public officials in every time zone in the universe if history, common sense and every religion’s compulsive admonitions are any guide.
After initial revulsion and some discussions with local colleagues, it really wasn’t a difficult choice. The story wasn’t reportable. Not at this point, not with this pathetic material.
First, however tawdry the allegations, it’s not reporters’ business to make it our business unless it intersects with an official’s behavior on the clock, or if the official is using his position to his own ends. (I wrote of this in detail a couple of years ago when a state senator was attacked over an affair.)
The activity is illegal? If that’s proven, if it follows some rigorous, documented reporting, if it follows up a police investigation’s substantiated findings, it’s a different matter.
But the News-Journal didn’t prove it. It barely did any reporting on it despite a piece that goes to deceptively huge lengths about it. You need only go by the article’s own language to get blinded by the journalistic red flags: “Joe Mullins could soon be under state investigation…” “The News-Journal was not able to ascertain the identity of the person who sent the email about Mullins…” “The News-Journal is not publishing” so-and-so’s last name because the person “could not be reached for comment.” Don’t be fooled by that deception: when we don’t publish someone’s name, it’s because we may have reason to protect the person’s identity. But we know who it is, we have substantiated it for our sake. We never run an unidentified person’s allegations whose name and identity could not be substantiated. The News-Journal did–not because the person couldn’t be reached for comment, but because the News-Journal has no clue who it is. That’s not reporting. It’s sleaze.
The News-Journal got in touch with one of the individuals who may have tied Mullins to an allegation, but the individual denied knowing him. Maybe the individual made that up. Maybe Mullins’s defense in the article is all made up. That’s not justification for running with vague, shadowy smears based on a cobble of pdfs and digital images that could target anyone in any public position, so long as the material is blasted to every public official within sight. The News-Journal may have used that opening to justify an article: if it went to every official, then it’s news. I doubt they’d apply the same standard if they were cc’d on a document that smeared an official they’re cozier with, or an advertiser with a public role in the community.
The article even quotes one of the email’s more absurd claims, which should have been a red flag about the sender’s motives and disconnect from reality: “If these messages are proven to be authentic, his (Mullins’) behavior is dangerous to the health and safety of his family and also puts him in a position that might force him to make decisions and endorse policies and legislation that are not in the best interest of his constituents.”
Knowing what the allegations are, that statement is sheer bunk, another way to imply something out of nothing. If a police investigation finds against Mullins, it won’t be because his alleged behavior is “dangerous” to anyone, or because it might force him to make questionable policy decisions, but because the state police agency will have found a way to charge him for something to which the local sheriff’s office or any other local agency have paid almost zero attention over the past 10 years.
Joe Mullins is a distasteful man whose behavior as an elected official is dangerous and should be held to account. But not by reporting as unsubstantiated as the allegations it’s based on. These are the kinds of allegations that can be spliced and blasted about anyone. To play into them without strict and uncompromising authentication legitimizes them and gives journalism a bad name.
I can feel the frozen-over icicles of hell pricking my soles, if not my soul. But I’m with Joe on this one.