Steven Matsas, managing editor of Image, Scavo, and Ben-Gurion Matsas, publisher of Image, in a photo that accompanied the article written by Michael Geller, under a pen name.
City Council candidate Theresa Scavo and her supporter, former District Leader Michael Geller, admitted to Sheepshead Bites that a glowing Q&A published by a Sephardic magazine was written by Geller under a pseudonym and with no disclosure of a conflict of interest.
The issue came to light during last night’s candidate’s forum held at the Young Israel of Midwood, when one of Scavo’s primary opponents, Chaim Deutsch, alleged that the profile was written by a supporter in an attempt to deceive the Jewish community.
“When Theresa Scavo advertised in Image Magazine, and the author had a name of Kim Grell, that wasn’t the name of the author, was that?” Deutsch said. “This community is being fooled by our politicians, that article in the Image was a novel. It was written by a person who has written many novels. We cannot be fooled.”
Earlier today, Scavo confirmed to Sheepshead Bites that the article was written by Geller, a supporter and head of the Highway Democratic Club, of which Scavo is a member. However, she said she didn’t see a problem with Geller’s lack of disclosure.
“What crime was committed? Mike Geller is an author, and my friend. Image Magazine does not have an author to write stories, so Mike Geller did it,” she said. “He didn’t want his true name used because the next person would say, ‘Oh, Mike did it for you, let him do it for me.’”
The four-page Q&A article appeared in the July 2013 issue of the magazine, accompanied by a full page ad from Scavo’s campaign. The byline reads “E. Kim Grell,” an abbreviated anagram of Mike Geller’s name. In a touch of unintentional irony, the piece was titled “Full Disclosure Interview with Theresa Scavo.”
The Q&A largely keeps to simple questions about her qualifications and background, but is introduced with a glowing description of the Democratic candidate:
Theresa Scavo is taller than I thought (about 5’9” in heels), and without the granny glasses she wears in her store posters, she looks a decade younger. I’m waiting for her at a rear table in a neighborhood restaurant and as she walks toward me, she is stopped by well-wishers at almost every other table who shake her hand and wish her good luck. She greets me with a smile and a firm handshake, but not too firm. She apologizes for being late and I remind her that she is actually 10 minutes early for our appointment. “For me, that’s late,” she says, and we both laugh.
It also includes a question that asserts that she enjoys broad support from the Sephardic community, the magazine’s target audience.
“Theresa, you are very well liked and respected in the Sephardic community. How did that come about?” Geller asked under his nom de plume.
Geller told Sheepshead Bites that a second article also appeared in Image Magazine, also using the pen name E. Kim Grell and written by him, that followed Scavo as she campaigned through the neighborhood. Sheepshead Bites could not find a physical or digital copy of the second article.
While the ethics of using pseudonyms is a source of contention in media circles, it is universally accepted that authors of journalistic works disclose any conflict of interest between them and their subjects in order to ensure transparency.
Geller, a close friend and confidant of Scavo’s, and the head of the Highway Democrats, which has endorsed Scavo, did not make any mention of the apparent conflict in his report.
But Geller claims it’s no lapse in reporting ethics, since he’s not a reporter and was not paid for the piece by either Scavo or Image.
“I’m not a paid employee of hers, and I’m not a paid employee of Image Magazine. She’s a friend and I wrote it as a friend and the reason I didn’t put my name on it is because there’s people who don’t like me,” Geller said. “If Image Magazine paid a salary to me, there’s a difference in what you’re talking about.”
Geller also likened the articles to letters or speeches he’s written on behalf of elected officials and candidates as a district leader for 24 years.
According to Geller, the staff of Image Magazine asked Scavo to provide a piece about herself for publication. Scavo turned to Geller, who has written as many as 10 novels and began his career as a reporter at Brooklyn’s Courier Life newspaper chain.
“They asked her to do the piece, and she asked me to help her on it, and I did. But I didn’t want any of the baggage that I might have to be put on her,” which is why he altered his name, he said.
Image Magazine’s publisher, Ben-Gurion Matsas, confirmed Geller’s account.
“Usually when a candidate runs for office, they want to give their side of the story, so we ask them to write it down and give it direct to us,” Matsas said. “If we [write it], it’s like double the work.”
When asked if he had known that the piece had a pseudonymous byline, he said he didn’t.
“No, I didn’t know. It was familiar to us, but we didn’t know exactly. We didn’t investigate. We don’t know,” he said.
He added that he didn’t much care, either.
“It’s not really an interview or like an objective editorial or something,” he said.
According to campaign filings, the Scavo campaign made three payments of $600 each to Image Magazine, with one in June and two in August, for print advertising.
Asked about the ramifications to the magazine’s credibility from the failure to disclose that the submission was from the Scavo campaign, or was a paid advertisement as Matsas alluded (but would not outright say), Matsas said he was unsure what we meant by “credibility.”
“I don’t know what your point is or who you want to accuse. This is very simple, very plain, very honest, and nothing to do with any other opponents,” Matsas said. “If people want to advertise and promote themselves, anyone can.”
UPDATE (4:14 p.m.): We wanted to get an expert to weigh in on why such disclosure is important, so Sheepshead Bites turned to the head of a professional association of which we’re a member.
“This seems to be a case of the parties involved wanting to have things every which way,” said Dylan Smith, chairman of Local Independent Online News Publishers and a co-author of a recent book on attribution and journalism ethics.
“The publication says they’re not responsible for the story, and it doesn’t reflect on them that the author of the piece has a connection to the candidate,” he said. ”The author says he ‘wrote it as a friend.’ What’s missing is any transparency for the readers, so they can judge the piece on its relative merits — and knowing if it’s a possibly paid ad or a puff piece ghost-written by someone who has endorsed the campaign would be a big part of that.”
Smith pointed out that federal regulations require sponsored content posted online to be clearly identified.
The story posted by Image Magazine does not include any notice that it was sponsored.