Chasing news tips

Published 11:04 am Saturday, November 5, 2011

Since long before “Deep Throat” brought down a president four decades ago, newspapers have relied on tipsters to uncover important stories.

At The Tidewater News, we’re grateful for the handful of reliable sources who regularly put us on to stories we might have otherwise missed. Tips come fast and furious during election season, and our news staff devotes considerable time to checking them out.

Some are easy. Public records are readily available to prove the veracity of the tip.

A couple of weeks ago, a letter writer alerted us of a Southampton County supervisor candidate’s history of drug convictions and prison time. It was easily and quickly confirmed in court records.

To his credit, Capron District candidate Bruce Phillips manned up and laid out his life story in a lengthy interview with Managing Editor Gwen Albers. Phillips’ powerful story of recovery and redemption will probably garner him more votes than his criminal past will cost him.

Herman Cain, the Republican presidential candidate whose campaign is in freefall over allegations of sexual harassment and his all-over-the-map response, could learn a lot from Bruce Phillips.

Phillips’ mistake was not putting the issue on the table from the get-go. He made a bad assumption that because his friends knew all about his past, everybody did. They didn’t. He was getting hammered in a whisper campaign that was costing him votes.

Had he told his story publicly the day he announced his candidacy, there would have been no whisper campaign. The facts would have been on the table.

A little free advice for political candidates: Always control the message, lest it control you.

Some tips are harder to verify. The story we’ve devoted more time to pursuing than any other in recent months is the allegation made by Southampton County resident Ash Cutchin at a Board of Supervisors meeting last month: that a current county supervisor interfered with an industrial prospect’s attempts to build a facility in the county.

Our newspaper requires one of two things in order to report on an allegation of misconduct: written documentation or on-the-record confirmation from one or more people with direct knowledge of the matter. Rumor, innuendo and third-hand accounts aren’t good enough.

In the case of Cutchin’s allegation, which we were pursuing long before his remarks at the Board of Supervisors meeting, no written evidence exists, and the people who are in a position to know aren’t talking on the record.

We quizzed the supervisor, who denied it. We talked to the company, which had no comment. Neither did the county administrator, other supervisors, and economic-development officials.

There’s enough smoke to suggest a fire. The problem is that no one wants to spook a prospect who’s still actively considering our community. That’s an understandable reason for people in the know to stay quiet — for now.

Once the industrial prospect makes a final decision to build or not to build in Southampton County, the same officials who are declining comment now owe it to the citizens — and to the supervisor in question, for that matter — to confirm or refute Cutchin’s allegation.

It’s a serious one. Ideally, voters would know the truth before casting their ballots on Tuesday.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is