Before the verdict was in, the media – or at least some among the media – pretty much tried landlord Jack Hughes for the tragic death of five young girls and prepared him for the hanging.
The stories are still out there. Not much gets rolled back on the internet these days.
Josh Fryfogle “The People’s Paper,” an online website run by Make A Scene magazine in Alaska’s Matanska-SusitnaValley, led the charge.
“The outlet sparked,” Fryfogle wrote.
“Raising concerns that anyone would have, this moment rings as more significant now.
“Jimmy Flores called the landlord, texted, but he says the landlord was reluctant. He was told to fix it himself, but Jimmy is no electrician. Finally, after three days of asking, the landlord replaced the outlet, without diagnosing the root problem.
“‘Why did it spark?'”
The story pushed the suggestion that bad wiring in a Butte trailer had caused the fire that killed the girls. The People’s Paper wasn’t the only one making that suggestion.
“Tenants complained of problems at Butte trailer years, months, days before fatal fire,” headlined mainstream KTUU.com, an Anchorage television station.
“Families living in the Butte mobile home that burned Thursday, killing five children, reported a series (of) problems with the trailer to landlords in the years, months and weeks before the blaze,” reported the story below.
“An attorney for the family, Josh Fannon, said today that an electrical outlet had sparked within seven to 10 days before the fire.”
The Alaska Dispatch News, the state’s largest news organization, also reported “problems with leaking gas and electricity,” though it added the caveat that it was possible those problems had been fixed.
The dozens of comments at The People’s Paper, however, left little doubt as to how readers interpreted all of this. More than a few suggested Hughes should go to jail, probably for a long time.
“Effing landlord. He should be convicted of five counts of manslaughter or worse,” someone named Renee R. wrote. “It is his (sic) cheap, pinched penny poor excuse of a human who did not hire a valid electrician to diagnose the cause of the sparks. He is and was legally bound to do so. That effer needs to be in prison. This couple lost all five of their children. All five.”
And what exactly was Hughes’ crime?
As it turned out, there wasn’t any. None.
The fire, the state fire marshal eventually announced, was “cooking related.”
So the question is what now? Forget the mistakes that have been made. Journalism is an imperfect business. Mistakes happen. These are now history.
And the story is horrible. Five beautiful young girls ages three to 12 burned to death in a trailer. It hits you in the gut even if you aren’t a parent. You want someone to blame.
Which is what made it so easy to finger Jack Hughes, or Jackie Hughes as a lot of stories called him. Trailers – mobile homes, if you will – aren’t the classiest accommodations in the nation. In the wake of a horror like this, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that anyone who rents one to others is some sort of slum lord.
But Hughes is not responsible here. It wasn’t his trailer that caused the fire. The fire had another cause.
So who fixes the story for anyone who Googles Hughes in the future, gets those old stories about an electrical fire that wasn’t, and concludes, “Oh man, this was that Alaska landlord responsible for the deaths of those five kids”?
What The People’s Paper did tiptoed close to libel, but Eric Conard, Hughes’ attorney, doesn’t think his client will sue.
“I seriously doubt he’ll take action,” Conard said Friday. Hughes, the attorney added, just wants to put this behind him.
“He’s still devastated,” his lawyer said. “He’s lost sleep over this. I’ve been quite tight-lipped about the whole thing. He didn’t want to get into a debate.”
And for good reason. When something like this blows up in the way these things blow up in these times, it’s hard to defend yourself.
Hughes was lucky to have the fire marshal clear his property, and thus him, of blame. Still, it’s hard to roll back something like this once it’s started. It’s why journalists used to be very careful about entertaining the speculation of involved family members in these sorts of situations.
It’s one thing if fire marshals say they are investigating the possibility an electrical or gas system was involved in a fire. It’s another when family members or friends of the victim are making that suggestion, especially in a situation with a history of a landlord-tenant dispute.
Flores and partner Janelle Quackenbush, along with their friends and family, have every reason to want to believe Hughes somehow responsible in the wake of a tragedy like this. It would be against human nature for them to believe otherwise. The media, however, is supposed to recognize that and factor the necessary restraint into the reporting, not follow the easy emotional narrative.
“Let’s face it,” Conard said, “what this is is just the societal pressure.”
A good story needs a villain. Hughes got fingered as that villain. Whether he’s a good landlord, your average landlord or the landlord from hell, no reporters involved with this story really know. The attempts by this website to contact Hughes all failed.
But whatever he is, he is not the party responsible for the deadly fire in Butte.
Conard said some of what happened here reminded him of “that pizza joint in D.C.” That would be Comet Ping Pong, the business in the nation’s capital that got caught in a fake news story claiming it was the home base for a child abuse ring run by Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff, John Podesta.
The story was fake news, not to mention so absurd as to be unbelievable. But some people believed it. One of them showed up at the place with a gun.
The Butte story is both better and worse. Better in that it is not fake news. Worse in that reporters gave unfounded speculation the imprimatur of truth. That imprimatur might not be what it was 20 years ago. Reporters these days don’t wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking they got some small detail wrong in the story of the day.
The volume of production is in some cases so high the day’s first story might have been almost forgotten by the time the last story of the day is written. But that imprimatur – even if it only comes from a little-known reporter at The People’s Press – still has meaning.
There remains a belief that information vetted by the media is better than the BS funneled by that guy named Charlie two stools over at the corner bar. And if journalism is to have value going forward, everyone in journalism has to recognize this.
“I’m not at all familiar with how it’s all supposed to roll,” Conard said.
He’s not alone. Journalism is in a state of flux. Nobody is exactly sure of how it’s gonna roll from here on out, but if it keeps doing stories like this it’s just going to die.
From the looks of it, The People’s Paper got a goodly number of online views with “the landlord-did-it-line.” One can only hope this is a freak occurrence, that people will see through the sensationalism and opt for honesty.
But who knows.
That said, there’s an incredibly easy way for the media – all of them – to right what has been done Hughes in this the Age of the Internet. Type out an editor’s note saying simply this:
“Editor’s note: The Alaska fire marshal found this fire was “cooking related.”
Then copy that note and paste it to the top of every online story related to the Butte fire that mentions the possibility of an electrical fire. It might take each online news site five minutes, probably less, to do this.
You’d think they could afford that little amount of time to fix any accusation that someone innocent was responsible.