Two years on from the story Alaska’s legacy media largely ignored, the state’s largest news organization is claiming it has the true story on what led to the downfall of Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and the disintegration of the re-election campaign of Gov. Bill Walker.
Meanwhile, it’s dumping on the upstart website that pursued the story most aggressively at the start by doing what it accuses that website of doing two years ago, putting a young woman in the spotlight of a messy political scandal.
Welcome to journalism’s new world order.
Until the Anchorage Daily News and left-leaning ProPublica, provided a forum for Jody Potts, the former director of law enforcement for the Tanana Chiefs Conference to tell a story that may be true or not, whatever happened between Potts and former Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, once a respected Alaska Native leader, was gone and forgotten by most.
The stated reason for bringing it back to life was this:
“Potts said she is coming forward today…out of concern for her daughter, who she says has been harassed by people who mistakenly think the daughter was propositioned by Mallott.”
Why anyone would harass a young woman for being propositioned by an old man now dead is not explained in the ADN/ProPublica story.
And the claims of harassment are sourced only to Potts, who could have one or more axes to grind. Whatever the case, ADN/ProPublica points the finger of blame for the alleged harassment at Must Read Alaska, a right-leaning site now in something of a competition with the ADN.
Of the two-year-old Must Read story, ADN says this:
“Subtitled ‘A woman’s revenge,’ it said that ‘even an ill-advised remark to a 16-year-old doesn’t normally get a statewide elected official pressured out of office two days later.’
“The (MustRead) story, unsourced and with no comment from Potts or Mallott, continued to describe a ‘lovers quarrel’ involving Mallott.
“The young girl’s mother evidently had a close relationship with Mallott, who is 75. Must Read Alaska has learned that Mallott said something to the daughter — and the mother went ballistic,’ wrote the blogger, Suzanne Downing. Downing gave no evidence to substantiate the claim.”
“Blogger” is the pejorative term the legacy media uses to refer to anyone reporting in anything but the legacy media. It is used in much the way “flak” was used to refer to those in the public relations business before the relations between the media and the spinmeisters evolved from adversarial to symbiotic.
If you read the news carefully these days, you will notice most of it originates from the lips or busily typing fingers of the people now politely referred to as spokesman, spokeswoman, high-ranking administration source, etc.
The ever-shrinking legacy media has largely allowed these one-time flacks to become the boots on the ground for reporting most things. That position gives them a lot of power to manipulate the news.
The ADN/Propublica story is full of comments from such public-relations types, and the one thing you can be sure of is that most of them will tell some version of the truth. Any reporter who thinks any of them are going to tell the full truth is simply naive.
Fibbers and fabulizers
To start with, human memory is highly fallible. Even people doing their best to tell, as they say in court, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” often fail.
They forget important details. They color situations in which they or their friends might look bad. Their inherent biases (yes, everyone has those) inflate the misbehavior of those they don’t like.
And these are the people trying their best to provide the most accurate story. The ones who lack a serious allegiance to the truth as a standard? Well, they often make up their own truth.
These human frailties are what makes real reporting hard. This is why even the best reporters sometimes get it wrong. Good reporting has more in common with intelligence gathering than stenography.
The ADN/ProPublica story is beautifully written stenography seasoned with a little make believe:
“She sat on a chair facing the window; Mallott sat on a small couch.
“‘Ever since I met you,’ Mallott began, according to Potts, ‘I’ve been physically attracted to you, and I hope that’s reciprocated.’
“‘You don’t have to answer now,’ he added.
“The blood seemed to leave Potts’ legs. She said she felt sick, her heart pounding. She was used to controlling a room as a public safety officer, stopping fights and confronting abusers. She wasn’t used to feeling powerless.”
It goes on this way at length. Though Potts in summary claims Mallott “scared me. The amount of power this man held, the deception to get me to his room, the comments he was making, the insinuation that I should submit to him sexually,” there is little indication of that in the things she claims he said:
“Potts said he seemed to be making the case for himself. He’d been sober for 25 years, he said, and faithful to his wife.
“‘But I had to tell you about my feelings for you and how special you are to me,’ he said, Potts recalled.
“Standing up, she said she really had to leave. Mallott gave her an awkward hug and she walked out the door.”
The sexual contact here appears to have been an “awkward hug.” The sexual insinuation was “I had to tell you about my feelings.”
And everyone is to believe that this so gravely upset Potts that she went to complain to Walker despite her alleged fears of Mallott’s “power?” And everyone is to believe this led Walker to start a discussion that led to Mallott resigning as lieutenant governor and in the process sinking Walker’s bid for re-election?
When this story broke in 2018, Potts was not named in what was reported here, although a half-dozen sources identified her as the woman who brought Mallott down. She did not then respond to a request for an interview, and she is not responding now.
This is what was written of the unnamed Potts in 2018:
“She has visibly spoken out against the problems of domestic violence and sexual assault in this state, especially in rural Alaska. She has, in particular, urged communities to stand up to protect minors who might become victims.
“And this is where the issue of identification gets sticky.
“Suzanne Downing at Must Read Alaska has reported the 75-year-old Mallott’s inappropriate comments, whatever they might have been, were directed at a 17-year-old. And it would appear the woman who brought Mallott down is the teenager’s mother.
“Suffice to say, the mom in this case – if it is the woman involved in law enforcement in Fairbanks – is no wallflower. She has a reputation. Some who know her think that if Mallott had said something untoward to her she might have kneed him in the groin.”
That was in October. Only three months earlier, when trapped in the parking lot of the Tanana Lakes Recreation Area near Fairbanks, Potts used her truck to push a car out of the way and then got in a bit of trouble for leaving the scene.
Many have no doubt wanted to do this in similar situations, but most don’t. Most are too timid. Suffice to say, Potts has never had a reputation as a Timid Tammy. It was just the opposite in fact.
I have talked to Potts in the past about the horrors of sexual abuse in rural Alaska. The assaults on girls and young women, especially by older men, made her angry as they make any right minded person angry.
It is hard bordering on impossible to believe she wouldn’t have pushed back against an unwanted sexual advance by Mallott, but then all the sources who identified Potts two years ago said then that she and Mallott were having an affair or had previously had an affair.
That would make their relationship something a little more than the “close relationship” described by Downing at Must Read.
More than one of these sources said that what sparked the falling out between Potts and Mallott was the latter’s suggestion he had an interest in Potts’ daughter. Given Potts’ involvement with sexual abuse in rural Alaska, it is easy to imagine her going ballistic about any such suggestion.
None of this was reported here in 2018 because it was little more than rumor. No one was willing to go on record with that version of events, and I confess to doubts about its veracity. Still, it sounds more plausible than the version now on offer.
Simply claiming something is true doesn’t make it true as the actions of America’s political leaders from President Donald Trump on down should remind us daily. And just because something is rumor doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The Mallott family denies Potts was lured to Mallott’s hotel room as she claims. If that one element of the story is factual and Potts went to the room without being enticed, the whole rest of her story falls apart. The reality is the truth of what exactly happened here will likely never be known.
Walker, who promised a transparent administration before he got elected only to turn opaque after, should have told the truth plainly and simply when this whole mess arose in 2018, but he didn’t.
ADN/ProPublica should have left this story in the filing cabinet where it would have gone in the old days of journalism, but they didn’t.
The story is the worst thing in journalism: a one-source narrative spun by someone with motives to spin and, worse yet, someone who appears bound by a legal agreement restricting what she can say about the main player in the story. Potts, according to ADN/ProPublica, signed a nondisclosure agreement with Mallott to settle a civil suit although online state court records reflect no lawsuit being filed.
Nondisclosure agreements set strict rules for what people can say about legal cases in which settlement agreements are reached. The penalty for breaking the agreement is usually forfeiture of any money that changed hands as part of the settlement.
ADN/ProPublica described the monetary amount in this case as “minor.” That might range from $10 for a working stiff to tens of thousands for a millionaire. Mallott was reported to have a net worth of around $20 million.
Suffice to say that if Potts signed a nondisclosure agreement with Mallott seriously restricting what she can say about the meeting that led to Mallott’s downfall, it is possibile almost anything could have happened in that hotel room.
So much for the true story coming out.