A Pine Bluff City Council alderman is defending his decision to anonymously administer a Facebook page that presents itself as a source for "facts" about local politics and local news.
A Pine Bluff City Council alderman is defending his decision to anonymously administer a Facebook page that presents itself as a source for “facts” about local politics and local news.
Alderman Bill Brumett confirmed in an e-mail interview in June that he is one of the administrators of the Facebook page called Pine Bluff Briefing.
“The public can form their own opinion about PBB,” Brumett said in the e-mail. “Again, I make my opinion and positions clear in many venues. PBB is a barometer of public opinion, a sounding board and a place where people don’t have to be politically correct, self censored or quiet. The fact that I take the time to monitor and post should be seen as admirable and illustrate my willingness to engage constituents. Should I sign my name? Maybe.”
Brumett said he is not the primary poster, that less than 25 percent of the administrator posts come from him.
“Since my personal entries on the site do not dominate the site and I strive to not drive the conversation by my personal opinion, I do not feel it is a problem for me to be an administrator. I make my personal opinion clear in council meetings, council committee meetings, as chair of the City Ways & Means Committee, as chair of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, a member of the Pine Bluff Area Transportation Study Committee, President of Little League Softball and many other venues. We often get posts thanking PBB for giving the public such a forum to get to the truth about issues. I am very proud of PBB and the contributions it has made.”
Brumett was asked to respond to the idea that although Pine Bluff Briefing purports to deal only in fact, it actually contains a lot of opinion, the vast majority of which either praises Brumett’s efforts directly, mentions him in a positive light more frequently than other public officials, attempts to draw attention to issues that he is planning to address with legislation or attempts to convince readers to hold the same opinion as himself on local political issues.
“Why would you not be above board about it if you are actively participating in something that presents itself as a news source but is in fact building political support for yourself and your positions? Does the public not have a right to evaluate the source behind the information so that they may weigh that in determining how much trust to put in the information?” Brumett was asked.
“The original idea was to give people a way to find the truth,” Brumett responded in the e-mail. “Truth and fact can both be viewed pretty nebulous or in the eye of the beholder so to speak. Yes, there is lots of rhetoric and opinions that are posted, much like you will find at Hardee’s or other coffee shops where people talk about what is happening. Many times the information around the coffee shop is not correct. So, with PBB citizens have the opportunity to give feedback in hopes of finding the truth. As it is said, ‘somebody knows the truth and let’s find it.’ Anonymity may be the best way to get to the truth.”
Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, was asked to comment in general on the issues of politicians and the use of anonymity on issues with which they are publicly involved. Larimer said he is not aware of any laws on the books that would apply to anonymous political speech at the state and local level, but said its use raises ethical questions.
“I would just have trouble in the future trusting any politician that would do something anonymously like that,” Larimer said. “I would much rather see them do things with openness rather than with anonymity on a social site.”
Posts by both the administrators and readers on the page are often critical of Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. and Police Chief Brenda Davis-Jones. An Aug. 4, 2012, post by the Pine Bluff Briefing administrator reads, “Only way to remove the chief is to remove the mayor.”
Another on July 30 accuses the chief of not being truthful by “misspeaking” about whether she has been offered a job with a school district in Macon, Ga. Interviews conducted by The Commercial with the spokesman for the school district have thus far corroborated Davis-Jones’ statements. In the end, a district spokesman announced she would not be offered the job. The Pine Bluff Briefing administrator did not cite his reasons for accusing Davis-Jones of lying.
Brumett has run for mayor in the past. Asked if he plans to run for mayor in the future, Brumett said, “I do not see that happening.”
“Does the mayor get criticized regularly? Sure,” Brumett said in the email. “He also gets criticized in The Commercial’s editorial page. That is the nature of public sentiment, which one may agree with or may not. I have worked with the mayor on many projects and will continue to do that. I and the other administrators work to control negative posts and often delete posts that are negative about Pine Bluff, the mayor and others in positions within the city and county governments.”
News and opinion articles in The Commercial are separated into different sections and clearly labeled, as is the norm for print and other forms of journalism. There is no such separation or labeling on Pine Bluff Briefing.
In the past, the administrators have refused to reveal their identities when asked by participants on the page. In the interview, Brumett declined to identify any of the other administrators or make a comment on whether they play an active role in city politics or business or benefit financially in the results of the topics covered.
Brumett said in the beginning of the site, which is listed on its “About” page as March 2010, there were many administrators, but there are fewer now because some found they could not keep their personal opinions out of the discussions when “our goal is to moderate and encourage conversation, not steer it.
“The reason the admins are not revealed is because the admins actually have very little input in the discussions phase and it is designed to be reader driven,” Brumett said in the e-mail. “It is not about personalities, it is about opportunity. Every reader has the opportunity to be heard if they choose to. Many topics that the admins bring to the board have actually been sent in by private messages by a reader who wishes to not be made public. Police officers, firemen, business owners, etc. have sent in concerns and topics that they feel would be used against them if they posted it themselves. We honor that privacy and feel it is important to the success of the site.”
The Commercial and other traditional media outlets only use anonymous sources in rare occasions when there is a compelling reason to do so. The general journalistic rule of thumb is that the public has a right to evaluate the source of the information, and that if a source is making a statement or accusation, they should be willing to stand by it.
Larimer said letting readers know the source of information is part of what differentiates media based in journalistic principles from those that are not.
“This is why newspapers have credibility and anonymous websites don’t,” Larimer said. “Where’s the credibility to come from? Any police officer, sheriff’s deputy, city employee can say whatever they want about their boss. What sort of assurance does the public have that what they’re saying is true or that they are even who they claim to be? It could be anybody. It’s an ethical quagmire — could potentially be anyway.”
Brumett said that Pine Bluff Briefing began “years ago” as a free print newspaper. He and some friends were dissatisfied with local newspaper coverage.
From there, it evolved into being associated with an information technology committee for which he served as chairman.
“When Facebook came along it seemed a natural way to put information out to the public and the great thing was the public can respond either thru private messages that all do not see or posts directly on the site. I think the public perceives news in the modern era as a two way street of dispersing information (newspapers, Wikipedia, web sites, etc.) and seeking feedback (social media, blogs, twitter, etc.). PBB is an alternative to traditional media outlets and due to its nature subject to the pitfalls as Wikipedia and others that allow public access and development of content.”