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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Al.com reporter Charles J. Dean manages to merge the Robert Bentley and Ashley Madison sex scandals

Gov. Robert Bentley and
Rebekah Caldwell Mason
Al.com reporter Charles J. Dean last Friday wrote perhaps the most peculiar article yet about the sex scandal enveloping Alabama Governor Robert Bentley and trusted aide Rebekah Caldwell Mason--and that's saying something because al.com alone has written one peculiar story after another since First Lady Dianne Bentley filed for divorce on August 28.

The Dean story stands out because it merges, in a roundabout way, the Bentley scandal with the Ashley Madison marital-cheating Web site scandal. It also provides a classic example of social media's potential for bringing a journalist's credibility into question.

How did Chuck Dean land at the crossroads of the Robert Bentley and Ashley Madison stories? Well, the list of paid Ashley Madison users in Alabama, released in the aftermath of a highly-publicized hack at the Web site, includes one Charles J. Dean. Here is how the official entry on the al.com reporter reads--providing name, amount spent, e-mail address, and physical address:

CHARLES J. DEAN, 1661, CJPDEAN@GMAIL.COM, 328 Lathrop Avenue, Birmingham, 35209

A check of Jefferson County property records shows that the owners of a home at 328 Lathrop Avenue (in the municipality of Homewood) are Charles J. and Laurie O. Dean. The property is valued at $284,600.

 I recently sent Chuck Dean an e-mail query, seeking comment--and offering to conduct an interview--about his inclusion on the Ashley Madison list. He did not respond.

Has Chuck Dean been trying to cheat on his wife--and perhaps succeeding--via an account at Ashley Madison? Publicly available documents suggest the answer is yes. Does that help explain Dean's preposterously softball treatment of the Bentley scandal? A reasonable person could conclude the answer is yes.

But our query does not end there. A check of Chuck Dean's Facebook page reveals that one of his "friends" is Rebekah Caldwell Mason. Does that help explain a passage such as this from Dean's report on the Bentley scandal? (Dean introduces it by describing Mason's role in helping Bentley handle two traumatic events--a tornado in their shared home base of Tuscaloosa and the execution of a prisoner.):

Those are just two events and times that Mason and Bentley have shared over the past four-plus years. It is a time that has seen the now 43-year-old Mason ascend in Bentley's political life from campaign spokesperson to administration communications director to now Bentley's senior political adviser.
And now they are sharing something else, something totally unwanted. A rumor about the two has been circulating in mostly political circles for many months. It exploded across the Internet and blogger world Friday when Bentley's wife of 50 years, Dianne, filed for divorce from her 72-year-old husband. Despite no claim of infidelity in the divorce papers, the rumor traveled across platforms such as talk radio, Facebook, Twitter and in some blogs of dubious credibility purporting the unsubstantial rumor as fact.

Let's address a few points from the highlighted section of Dean's article above:

* A reporter who has spent any time covering courts should know that many divorce complaints say nothing about infidelity, abuse or any other actual causes of marital discord. Most complaints that I've seen contain boilerplate language about "incompatibility of temperament" and such, designed simply to start the divorce process. I'm aware of multiple divorce cases where infidelity or abuse (or both) were present, but the court complaints mentioned neither.

* Dean states that a number of social-media sites and blogs are "purporting the unsubstantial rumor as fact." Dean seems to have his grammar all messed up here, and al.com apparently can no longer afford copy editors to fix such sloppy sentences. We can only assume Dean means to say the sites are "reporting" not "purporting"; the latter doesn't quite fit in these circumstances. We also assume Dean means the rumor is "unsubstantiated," not "unsubstantial." Dean surely is aware that the story has gone well beyond "rumor" stage. I broke the story here at Legal Schnauzer last Monday, citing multiple anonymous sources, and by the end of the week, even Dean's own news organization was making references to the Bentley-Mason affair. Dean, of course, is free to criticize my reporting--or the reporting of his colleagues--but to refer to this story as a "rumor" is disingenuous, at best.

Charles J. Dean
* Finally, Dean refers to "some blogs of dubious credibility." Since Legal Schnauzer broke the Bentley-Mason story, it seems clear he is referring mainly to my blog. Dean apparently considers my credibility "dubious" because I've been the target of two defamation lawsuits in my 36-year journalism career--both filed by GOP political operatives, within roughly a month of each other, in fall 2013. Has my reporting in either case been found at trial to be false or defamatory? Dean easily could check the public record and find that the answer is no. In fact, he would find that both plaintiffs--Rob Riley and Jessica Medeiros Garrison--did not seek jury trials in their original filings. Riley never sought a jury trial and never filed any sworn statement, such as an affidavit, claiming my reporting was false. Garrison only sought a jury trial after I sought a jury trial in my answer. Her original complaint, like Riley's, did not want her case heard by a jury.

Enough about my credibility, what about Chuck Dean's? Let's consider more from his Bentley-Mason article:

I personally first heard the rumor in late January. I got a phone call from a person who would not identify herself. Her phone number was blocked also. Then another call some days later came in claiming the same thing. I also found out that other reporters and media people were getting calls apparently all from unnamed people.
My gut told me the rumor was untrue, as are most such rumors I've heard in over 35 years of reporting. But, the rumor was persistent and so sudden and was coming to so many in an effort to push it I began to wonder two things: could it be true? And if not, why was somebody trying to damage Bentley or Mason?
Those two questions started me on a journey where I asked many people many questions, turned over many rocks and met sources in many bars.
Months later I still can't say with proof why that rumor began, who is behind it or for what purpose.
I have watched. I have listened. I have asked questions. I've heard many things. None of them convince me that this rumor is true. And many of them convince me it is not true.

Let's examine the three passages highlighted above, in order:

* This is the classic lament of the reporter who has been beaten on a story--especially when said reporter has reason to know the story is true. "Well, I heard this way back in ________ (fill in the month or year), way before ____________ (fill in the name of reporter who broke the story) ever heard about it," the reporter is saying. "I'm much more careful than the reckless guy (or gal) who broke the story, and that's the only reason I didn't get it first. I knew about it, but I just chose not to let my readers (or listeners) know about it." Somehow, this always makes the beaten reporter feel better.

* Dean could only find unnamed people to discuss this subject? I had to almost fight off people, with names, who provided all sorts of details about the Bentley-Mason affair. My primary sources are all long-time, knowledgeable insiders in the world of Alabama politics and journalism. They gave me their names, and I have no reason to believe they are rumormongers or enemies of Bentley. In fact, one has been a long-time Bentley supporter.

* Why did Dean conclude that the reports of an affair aren't true? That's hard to say, but his story hints at a chummy relationship with Mason, and in fact, she shows up as a friend on his Facebook page. Does Dean disclose that to his readers? Nope.

That takes us to something else Chuck Dean does not disclose to his readers--his presence on the Ashley Madison list of marital cheaters (or attempted marital cheaters). Does Dean's own experience in the world of extramarital affairs (or attempted affairs) color his reporting on the Bentley-Mason story? It's hard to see any way that it wouldn't.

Dean's own employer doesn't seem to put much stock in his reporting. In a Sunday editorial, al.com called on Bentley to talk publicly about the affair and related issues. It also called on Tuscaloosa County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hamner, a Bentley appointee, to reconsider her decision to seal the divorce file. All of which leads to this conclusion: If Chuck Dean wants to question someone's credibility, maybe he should look in the mirror.

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