We knew we had a problem here at Xpress when readers across town started calling Thursday morning, the day after the paper came out, saying our boxes were empty and asking where they could get a copy of the new issue.
Could these readers’ dilemma have anything to do with the fact that this was our final election issue, with comprehensive coverage of the candidates for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners? Somehow, we doubted that our readers were so eager for election news that every copy had already been snatched up.
And then came calls from two people in different parts of town — one in Fairview, the other in West Asheville — saying that, on Wednesday evening, they had each seen Mike Morgan, a Republican candidate for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, drive up in a truck with his name emblazoned on its side, get out, and remove all the copies of Xpress from the distribution box, in plain view, and haul the papers away. Further inquiries turned up another witness, in south Asheville, who also alleged that he’d seen Morgan pulling papers that evening.
“He was a-grinnin’,” noted one witness, describing the alleged political prankster as he carried off the papers.
I called Morgan to confront him with the claims. He denied having emptied Mountain Xpress‘ boxes — but when pressed, he allowed that perhaps one of his workers had become upset about what we had reported in the paper about Morgan, saying they might have taken the papers.
“If this is your idea of how we elect people, by squelching the dialogue, then we’ve got the wrong man,” I told Morgan.
Peggy Bennett — the treasurer for Citizens for Change, the group that backed the candidate — expressed dismay at the allegations. But at least she didn’t try to attribute the papers’ disappearance to dirty tricks by the Democrats, as Citizens for Change member Don Yelton did when I spoke to him.
What might have motivated someone to deprive members of the public of their chance to read that particular issue of Mountain Xpress? According to Morgan, “Somebody got upset” that we’d printed that he had been charged, back in the ’80s, with a first-degree sex offense involving his daughter. [We also reported that the district attorney’s office had agreed to drop the charges, in exchange for Morgan’s agreeing to terminate his parental rights to the girl; and we gave Morgan more than equal space to deny any wrongdoing and give his side of the story.]
“That doesn’t say much about the paper,” was Morgan’s evaluation of our decision to publish the information (which, incidentally, the Asheville Citizen-Times had already printed). But aren’t voters entitled to know this about a man seeking to represent them? And could we, as journalists, have withheld the information in good faith?
After that conversation, I decided to press charges, in order to call attention to the incident. I called the police and the district attorney’s office — only to discover that no one seemed to know what law had been broken. Further investigation revealed that there doesn’t seem to be a law prohibiting the intentional removal of large quantities of “free” newspapers, even if it’s done to keep readers in the dark. (We are, however, continuing to look into this matter and are considering civil action against Mr. Morgan.)
Well, I thought, even if no law has been broken, considering what the witnesses had described and what Morgan had told me himself, this incident is eminently newsworthy. So on the Friday afternoon before the election, I called WWNC, WLOS-TV and the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Both the daily and Channel 13 said they were interested. I was relieved, because I didn’t want to see it just get swept under the rug.
But by Monday, nothing had been reported. Time was running short.
Then the daily called again, still interested, still sniffing around the story. And WLOS reporter Emily Lopez came by and videotaped my story. She’d already gotten Morgan’s comments and was planning to get the testimony of one witness. It seemed fairly certain that a story would be broadcast at 6 p.m. on the eve of the election.
Good, I thought; the voters need to know about this.
In the end, however, nothing was broadcast or published. Presumably, both media outlets balked when they learned that no warrant had been sworn out against Morgan.
The election is over now, and Mr. Morgan lost. But I still think this is a newsworthy story — and an instructive tale for all of us, including Mr. Morgan, about the public’s right to know.