"When is the mayor’s relationship with his secretary a legitimate part of a story?"

"Windsor (Ontario) Mayor David Burr’s relationship with his secretary had been the source of persistent rumors around the city.

Fuel was added to the fire when The Star learned that the mayor had separated from his wife, which was reported in a short story in the newspaper.

After a secret meeting of the city council, Burr announced he was going on a trade mission to Japan, Hong Kong and China, and that his secretary Kim Wilson was part of the delegation.

That’s when Star city hall reporter Marty Beneteau started questioning why a secretary with no apparent credentials for this kind of goodwill trip was tagging along at taxpayers’ expense.

...Beneteau approached Burr before he lowered the gavel on the council’s weekly public meeting, and the mayor detailed his itinerary, who was going along and why.

The issue of his relationship with Wilson was not raised.

Beneteau returned to the newsroom, and troubled about this missing element in the story, consulted with a fellow city hall reporter.

They agreed that the relationship was now entering the spectrum of public interest, and that Burr should have a chance to answer the rumors.

Beneteau contacted the mayor by telephone at his home, explained the situation and asked: "Is Kim Wilson your girlfriend?"

Burr, who was upset about the line of questioning, acknowledged that he had heard the rumor since his separation and flatly denied it.

...Night assistant metro editor Doug Firby immediately agreed the issue was of legitimate public interest.

But since the newspaper was dealing mainly with rumor and innuendo, Firby was concerned about being fair and at the same time thorough.

Facing both a legal and ethical dilemma, the reporter and editor talked about the fine line between conveying what they knew to be true and what had in fact been substantiated.

...Beneteau and Firby discussed exactly how and where the relationship should be played, agreeing that it should not be the lead but simply a detail addressed in the body of the story.

The matter was dealt with in two sentences, toward the bottom of a 21-paragraph story that constituted a straight news account of the trade mission.

On the day the story appeared Beneteau met again with the mayor in his office to pursue information on the trade mission that was to cost $20,000.

Burr’s relationship with Wilson surfaced again in the conversation.

Beneteau explained at length that the rumored relationship with Wilson had been of no consequence until she received city tax dollars to go abroad.

Burr accused Beneteau of taking a "cheap shot" by using the mayor’s acknowledgment and denial of a rumor as the basis for that element of the story.

The Star made no further mention of the alleged relationship until it was raised by other media at a news conference.

The mayor himself raised it in an address to the city council in which he condemned The Star and attacked Beneteau personally.
And yet again on a radio talk show the following morning.

Wilson filed a complaint with the Windsor Media Council, a local media watchdog, against the newspaper and Beneteau. In it, she denied the relationship and charged that she had been wronged by the newspaper.

The complaint was withdrawn by Wilson when confronted with overwhelming evidence, including sworn statements by witnesses, that she had, in fact, been engaged in a relationship with Burr.

Despite the mayor’s continued denials that there was anything between them, on Oct. 29, 1988, after announcing he would not run for re-election, Burr and Wilson tied the knot."

Marty Beneteau and Richard Brennan

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