The Credibility Question for The Times of Acadiana's Eric Benjamin

The Times of Acadiana's Eric Benjamin's relentless drumbeat against Lafayette Utilities System's fiber-to-the-home proposal reached new levels last week when he credited Tim Supple of anti-fiber organization Fiber 411 as a contributor to his July 6 "Commentary" column. It was a bizarre and journalistically questionable move, the equivalent of a columnist letting a Democratic candidate "contribute" to an attack column on a Republican opponent. "I can't imagine a persuasive argument for putting that, unless of course it was entirely written by Supple," says journalism ethics expert Keith Woods, dean of the faculty at the prestigious Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "Is what he did more than simply influence an opinion?"

"I wrote the column and wanted to make sure some of the content was being accurately represented, and Tim sent it back to me edited and improved, so I felt ethically bound to tag him," says Benjamin, whose primary responsibility as general manager of the paper is to increase advertising revenue.

I've followed Benjamin's lead columns in The Times since he was hired as general manager in the fall of 2003. He's written a number of columns, on subjects from his take on red state and blue state politics to Hunter S. Thompson's death, that are benign and don't address a specific local community issue.

But his anti-fiber columns are the ultimate hypocrisy ' and not because of his suspect journalism or stance on the issue. The Independent Weekly has endorsed the fiber project, and I don't begrudge Benjamin his differing opinion. What bothers me about his fiber commentaries ' or any column he writes concerning the quality of life in Lafayette ' is that Benjamin doesn't live in Acadiana, and he doesn't pay taxes here. He lives in New Orleans and commutes to work.

The Independent competes with The Times for readers and advertisers, but my feelings about Benjamin's editorials aren't a gratuitous slap at our competitor or Benjamin. I take no joy from writing this column, because I like Benjamin and have some professional and personal history with him. Here's the back story.

Benjamin arrived in New Orleans just as I was leaving. He was hired as Gambit Weekly's associate publisher in March 2003. He bought a house a few blocks away from me, and after mutual car troubles, we carpooled to work on a few occasions. Between our shared interests in media, music and a love for our Lakeview neighborhood, we developed a rapport.

What I didn't tell Benjamin at the time was that I was burning to leave New Orleans and move to Acadiana. I'd already been in the Crescent City for a decade and was blessed to meet and marry a Cajun girl in New Orleans who had New Iberia roots. I had also developed close friendships with a number of people in Lafayette, and after my wife, Cindy, and I had two sons, we longed to be closer to our south Louisiana family and friends. And since I grew up in a small rural country town, I yearned to give my sons that same experience and raise them away from the omnipresent specter of New Orleans crime and a soundtrack of police sirens.

Benjamin was gracious and supportive when he heard I was leaving Gambit in August 2003 to work for The Independent Weekly. Before I left, he gave me a copy of The Chain Gang, the nationally acclaimed 1996 book by Richard McCord. (The book documents the Gannett Corporation's brutal predatory tactics against an independent publisher in Wisconsin, a terrifying case study of Gannett's corporate culture and mission to create media monopolies in the communities where it operates.) Benjamin wanted to make sure I knew exactly what I was going up against by working for a start-up newspaper competing against a Gannett entity like The Times of Acadiana and to some degree its daily counterpart, The Daily Advertiser.

His gift of The Chain Gang seemed to reflect his professional values and desire to work at an independently owned newspaper like Gambit Weekly. "I think that large media corporations have tended to lose sight of the necessity of serving the reader and the advertiser, and think more of serving the investors, who very often are themselves top management," he said in the March 25, 2003, issue of Gambit Weekly. "And I think that once you lose sight of serving the 'endline consumer' ' the reader and the advertiser ' you're undermining the fourth estate."

I was taken aback when Benjamin parted ways with Gambit just six months after he was hired. (No official statement was ever issued by Gambit regarding his departure.) I was equally surprised when Benjamin took a job with Gannett as The Times of Acadiana's general manager ' in the same corporate culture he'd warned me against six months earlier.

I did empathize with Benjamin's work arrangement with The Times. He chose to stay and live in New Orleans after Gannett hired him. He told me last fall that he only stays overnight in Lafayette one or two nights a week in a hotel ' and otherwise commutes the rest of the week. One day out of the week, he has the company perk of "telecommuting" so he doesn't have to come to Lafayette at all. When I asked him again about the arrangement last week, he declined to discuss it.

I live in north Lafayette Parish in Carencro and am ineligible to vote on July 16 since the referendum is, disappointingly, only for city of Lafayette residents. According to Louisiana voter registration records, Benjamin remains registered to vote in New Orleans. And unless he stops commuting from New Orleans and makes Acadiana his home, he'll never be able to vote on any local issue affecting Lafayette and its residents.

Which is ironic, when you consider another statement Benjamin made in Gambit Weekly in 2003: "An important role in upper management of a newspaper is to be involved in the community, not just to comment on it and write about it and sell to it, but be part of it."

I asked Benjamin last week if he stood by that statement. "I am involved in the [Lafayette] community," he says. "I'm on the board of directors of the Better Business Bureau. It's a mission I believe in and enjoy doing." Finally, I asked him if he thought it was hypocritical to be writing columns on local issues when he isn't even eligible to vote in Acadiana. "Absolutely not," he says. "I'm a journalist. If I commented on the politics of China, would I have to live there to be credible?"

Lafayette and Acadiana readers will ultimately decide whether Benjamin's editorials on a community he doesn't live in are credible.