How The West Was Bought: The deceptive practices of a local paper

Like I teased at the end of my anniversary post last week, I have some borderline-interesting news to share about chronic and extreme unethical behavior by a local journalist and her newspaper. Sorry for making you wait so long for it. Iíve been busy.

The news is this:

Caren West, entertainment reporter for Atlantaís The Sunday Paper, isnít a reporter at all. Sheís a publicist who receives money from several of the people and events about which she writes.

While Ms. Westís columns have sometimes made reference to her work as a publicist, she has never been honest with her readers about her conflicts of interest. She does not inform her readers that she is frequently paid by the people about which she reports.

The most glaring example of Ms. Westís inability and/or unwillingness to distinguish between being a publicist and being a journalist is her recent coverage of the 99X Downtown Rocks concert series. She has thus far ìreportedî on the concert series in four of her columns (June 19 and July 17, 24, and 31). Not once, however, did Ms. West respect her readers enough to tell them that she is in fact paid by 99X to promote the concert series in the press.

99X is not the only client that Ms. West has furtively inserted in her columns. Twice in the past few months, Ms. West has touted shows by local rockers, The Hiss. The Hiss has employed Ms. West as a publicist in the past.

The list of clients that Ms. West has ìreportedî on as a “journalist” is long. She has engaged in the practice since her days as an “editor” at Atlanta’s Cover Magazine.

Iím not gonna name more names, however, until I have independent verification. In an e-mail to Ms. West last week, I asked her to tell me how many of her clients have appeared in her column. She did not answer the question.

How has Ms. West gotten away with lying to her readers for so long? Responsibility lies with The Sunday Paper’s editor, Conal Byrne. Mr. Byrne hired Ms. West with the knowledge that she is employed as an entertainment publicist.

When I spoke to him last week, he also said that he is fully aware that Ms. West writes about her own clients. When I asked Mr. Byrne if Ms. West’s actions violate The Sunday Paperís policy on disclosing conflicts of interest to readers, he said that the paper decides such matters ìon a case-by-case basis.î In other words, The Sunday Paper has no guidelines to violate.

Without clear ethical guidelines in place, readers of The Sunday Paper can never be sure that what they are reading isn’t just an advertisement masquerading as a news article.

If Mr. Byrne allows Ms. West to write about her clients without ever informing readers, how can we trust that the newspaperís food reviews arenít being written by restaurant publicists?

How can we trust that the paperís recent story on political candidate Ralph Reed wasnít edited or altered by Ralph Reedís publicist.

We canít know. Especially in the case of the Ralph Reed story. After all, Sunday Paper columnist Lisa Baron is Ralph Reedís campaign spokesperson.

Ms. West’s latest Sunday Paper column, published after she and the paper found out that I was writing this story, finally discloses that she is a publicist. The column does not, however, reveal to her readers that she writes about her clients.

Notes:

Below, I have posted the whole of my recent e-mail dialogue with Caren West. As a courtesy, I omitted her e-mail addresses and her phone number. The last few are enjoyably pissy. For a woman who supposedly doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong, she sure is upset at the idea of me writing about her.

Also, I have two disclosures to make.

1. I do have a personal stake in this story. Simply put, I am a journalist and Caren Westís selfish misdeeds reflect badly on the profession.

2. I write and photograph the entertainment and nightlife column for Creative Loafing. Some people consider The Sunday Paper to be a rival of Creative Loafing. Clearly, those people haven’t read The Sunday Paper yet.

My e-mail dialogue with Caren West:

From: Andisheh Nouraee
Subject: Story on journalistic ethics
Date: August 1, 2005 3:33:36 PM EDT
To: Caren West

Caren-

I’m finishing a story for atlanta.metblogs.com on the subject of ethics in journalism.

The story will mention that you write about 99X in your Sunday Paper column without informing readers that 99X is one of your WickedWest clients.

Before I post the piece, I’d like to ask you some questions:

How many of your clients, past or present, full-time or part-time, have you mentioned in your column?

Do you believe that journalists are ethically obliged to inform readers when they have a financial relationship with the subject of their articles?

Have you informed anyone at Sunday Paper about your financial relationships with the people and companies you write about?

Andy

***
andisheh nouraee

—–

From: Caren West
Subject: Re: Story on journalistic ethics
Date: August 4, 2005 3:39:44 PM EDT
To: Andisheh Nouraee
Cc: Elisabeth Bergman

Andy,

So sorry that I did not answer your below email sooner. Most people email me at caren@ADDRESSED OMITTED. Feel free to use that email address at any time or call me at my office at 404.NUMBER OMITTED. I also CCd my editors at the SP on this email as well.

Yes, I do write about 99X, and as of lately about 99X DTR b/c I am there every Saturday. I used to do a weekly segment for a bout an year-and-a-half covering events, etc., called the Weekend Reacharound and to this day regularly attend 99X events. Kim L. w/ Kimistry 101 does it now. I have known the folks over there for years and have been a longtime listener and fan of the station. Just as I am a huge fan of the Buzz and The Regular Guys. I am also doing the PR for 99X Downtown Rocks and running the media operations/credentialing, etc., for the event. If you want insight into what I do, you are welcome to join me backstage or talk to the folks at 99X. I am also a huge supporter of Downtown Atlanta and have written about its evolution for many years, so I love that 99X brought a free concert series to the area and I a proud to be involved with the event.

I used to have a one-liner at the bottom of my column in the SP saying what it is I do and who I am affiliated with and I guess some how along the way it got lost in the sauce. We are putting that back into effect, b/c I do think it is important to tell readers who I am and what I am about, who I work with, etc., and give them our website so they can learn more if they desire to do so. I also try to incorporate this into my writing as much as possible.

As far as my column is concerned for the SP, I have written about some WWPR in the past and I am sure I will continue to do it the future. PR, writing, networking, events, etc., it is all a lifestyle to me and is an extension of who I am…as is my column. I consider myself lucky to get a behind the scenes (whether I am paid to do it or not) take on events, happenings and personalities. I am also honored that I have met and worked with so many interesting people along the way. I also write about my friends, other magazines, events, Atlanta radio stations, news, TV stations, celebs, gossip, etc, and work with PR companies daily to get information about their clients.

If I happen to mention a past, present or future client, my intention is not for financial gain. I do not promise coverage in the SP to any of our clients, nor will I. I just don’t think about it that way and never have. It is not who I am and how I work. I love my job, my company, my business partners and I am very passionate about what I do. I am also deeply committed to Atlanta and the people here who continue to make positive contributions towards its growth. If I write about ‘Christians Gone Wild’ at 99X DTR, it is because that is where I spent my Saturday and I thought it was pretty funny and I want to share my experienceÖ.just as if a friend was hanging out at the Four Seasons and bumped into Jessica Simpson. Really it is as simple as that for me. Andy, I just write about what I know, see, care about, my opinion or takes on certain events, and see and hope that readers enjoy it on some level. I enjoy writing and I am truly grateful for the opportunity to work with the Sunday Paper.

On another note, Creative Loafing, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Gwinnett Daily Post, Atlanta Now, Atlanta Business Chronicle, Atlanta Music Guide, WXIA, Atlanta Magazine, WSB, UPN Atlanta Tonight, WGCL, Weezer, Stereophonics, etc., are among the many people/media outlets talking about 99X DTR, b/c it happens to be newsworthy.

Our company also regularly refers journalists to sources outside of our client base for stories. I am more than happy to put you in touch with people we have worked with for years on this subject. If you want to come and meet with Brian, Colin and myself and discuss details of how we tackle projects and work with our clients, I welcome you to do so. It may shed some light for you about WWPR, our background and our philosophies.

I appreciate you reaching out to me and I can assure you I will do my best to inform readers of any connections I may have to a client in my column. I have always been very open with all that I do and what I am a part of. Shit, I just went on WE and exposed my dating life for all to see and have talked about my life, business, etc., on the radio, in magazines and on TV. I am not trying to pull the wool over anyoneís eyes. I am simply doing the best I can and trying to have a good time along the way.

What are your thoughts on subject? Do you inform your listeners that you are in fact not Lisa Baron when you read her column during your podcasts? lol.

Best,
Caren

—–

From: Caren West
Subject: haven’t heard back — caren west
Date: August 5, 2005 10:44:30 PM EDT
To: Andisheh Nouraee

Andy,

Just wondering if you were planning on interviewing me for your blog story? Still haven’t heard from you. More than happy to talk to you at any time. My cell is 404.NUMBER OMITTED.

As I said before, you are more than welcome to come to our office so you can talk to my business partners, learn more about my background, what we do, our philosophies, client roster, etc., as well.

You are also welcome to come to 99X DTR and learn more about what I do, talk to me person, or talk to clients, etc.

I am assuming as an ethical journalist you would want as much accurate information as possible, but I could be mistaken.

Was wondering if you ever meet with people in person that you write about…or do you prefer to not interview them? Would love to sit down in person and do an one-on-one with you.

Thoughts?

Let me know.

Best,
Caren

—–

From: Andisheh Nouraee
Subject: Re: haven’t heard back — caren west
Date: August 5, 2005 8:50:16 PM EDT
To: Caren West

Caren-

The piece I’m writing isn’t a profile of you or your PR agency. It’s about a newspaper columnist who maintains business relationships with the people she writes about — a violation of one of the most important rules of journalism. (If you care to acquaint yourself with these rules, there is a collection of ethics codes right here: http://www.asne.org/ideas/codes/codes.htm)

I don’t need to talk to you to communicate that simple fact to readers. I have all the first-hand information I need in the form of your articles and WWPR press releases. When I spoke to Conal, I got the answer to my other questions.

I’m not under any ethical obligation (as a journalist or as a blogger) to speak to you on the phone. I e-mailed you as a courtesy — to give you a chance to respond. You responded. You didn’t deny that 99X is your client. I took note of what you wrote.

>>>Caren West wrote: I am assuming as an ethical journalist
>>>you would want as much accurate information as
>>>possible, but I could be mistaken.

Caren West – Ethics Watchdog. Now that’s funny.

Andy

—–

From: Caren West
Subject: Re: haven’t heard back — caren west
Date: August 6, 2005 4:38:27 PM EDT
To: Andisheh Nouraee

Oh Andy,

You live in such a small, hypocritical and sad world. You make it impossible for me not to feel sorry for you.

The invitation is still open to talk to me and/or my business partners in person or via phone at any time.

Best of luck,
Caren

—–
From: Andisheh Nouraee
Subject: Re: haven’t heard back — caren west
Date: August 6, 2005 7:38:01 PM EDT
To: Caren West

meow meow meow meow.

I’m sure it sucks getting called out for lying to your readers, but there is a bright side to all of this. When more people realize that your column is for sale, your PR business will probably pick up!

Look for my blog item on Monday.

21 Comments so far

  1. Seth (unregistered) on August 8th, 2005 @ 11:07 pm

    Go Andy! It sounds like someone (Ms. West) is in need of her own PR services. Maybe she’ll write an article about the irresponsibility of bloggers and help our cause here.


  2. karsh (unregistered) on August 8th, 2005 @ 11:12 pm

    The Sunday Paper definitely tries hard to get content, even if they have to pump a publicist for stories. Maybe she’ll rename her column “Caren West, Goin’ South”?


  3. Jim V. (unregistered) on August 9th, 2005 @ 8:23 am

    You mean MonkeyZuma is not your client?


  4. Lori (unregistered) on August 9th, 2005 @ 8:33 am

    The whole 99X relationship with The Sunday Paper is so curious to me. I wonder if they have any more hens in their midst.


  5. Andisheh Nouraee (unregistered) on August 9th, 2005 @ 9:28 am

    I have eaten some of the potato chips that MonkeyZuma’s throws at people during her shows. Does that count?


  6. Kent (unregistered) on August 9th, 2005 @ 10:24 am

    The Sunday Paper is a real newspaper? I had no idea.


  7. Louise Bryant Park Sun (unregistered) on August 9th, 2005 @ 12:15 pm

    ANDY

    I donít remember all my life

    alt-rag competition cold as ice.

    Shadows of a town,

    eyes rolled through a window, cryin’ on Freedom Parkway,

    the road goes into

    Sunday Paper just another way;

    I can totally waste my day.

    Looking in their eyes,

    I see publicists I now realize

    how happy they made my clients.

    Oh Andy well,

    You live in such a small, hypocritical and sad world,

    but I sent you away.

    Oh, Andy well,

    You make it impossible for me not to feel sorry for you,

    and I need you today. Oh, Andy!

    I’m standing on the edge town;

    I hid when full disclosure was mine.

    Caught up in a world of bitchy clients,

    the knife is in my back

    and nobodyís buying ñ this buuuuuulllllllshit.

    Oh Andy well,

    You live in such a small, hypocritical and sad world,

    but I sent you away.

    Oh, Andy well,

    You make it impossible for me not to feel sorry for you,

    and I need you today. Oh, Andy!


  8. Cyanbane (unregistered) on August 9th, 2005 @ 12:57 pm

    VERY interesting article. Nice writeup.


  9. Andisheh Nouraee (unregistered) on August 9th, 2005 @ 4:51 pm

    Don’t forget . . . I came and I gave without taking, but they sent me away.


  10. Juni Xuan (unregistered) on August 10th, 2005 @ 4:45 pm

    sorry to be the one to say but i find something troubling with the posting of your entire email conversation with ms. west, especially the more personal exchanges, unless she was OK with it. This is mainly because it sets an unwelcomed precedent as well as could possibly have a chilling effect on private discourse between bloggers/journalists and sources/readers via email if there’s a fear that any email exchange could end up being broadcast to the world. I think it’s easy to tell when someone is intending an email to be solely private (one-on-one) and not meant for public consumption and when they are writing to a journalist with knowledge that what they write may be published.


  11. Tony Simon (unregistered) on August 10th, 2005 @ 5:22 pm

    Juni,

    Here’s a rule everyone should use to govern their behavior on the intarweb: Don’t type anything on a keyboard that you wouldn’t want the entire world to read. Period. Any less vigilance is really just naivety.


  12. Juni Xuan (unregistered) on August 10th, 2005 @ 7:16 pm

    probably a lost cause here with this group with me popping in as an ‘outsider’ (meaning I’m not one of the ATLmetbloggers/commenters, which seems to be a mutually exclusive club here–without exception). but regardless of one’s naive expectations of privacy/decency when it comes to a private email correspondence, the point was not about the author’s lack of so-called vigilance but about a journalist crossing ethical lines (ironically in a post raising ethics) and setting unwelcomed precedent. Sure naivety is naivety, but sleazy is, well, sleazy, and that’s how i see it.

    btw, do you really live in smyrna . . . with cats?


  13. Andisheh Nouraee (unregistered) on August 10th, 2005 @ 11:16 pm

    Juni Xuan, I’d like to address your point.

    I began the e-mail exchange with Ms. West by telling her that I was asking questions for a blog story, thus declaring that my purpose in writing her was public, not private.

    Note also that each of her three e-mails referenced my first e-mail — the one with the questions. That she chose to get snippy and personal with me does not suddenly render the exchange private — it just makes her look bad and proves that she’s as bad a publicist as she is a journalist.


  14. Tony Simon (unregistered) on August 11th, 2005 @ 10:08 am

    Juni, I’m not sure what Smyrna or cats has to do with ethics and the internet, but I’ll take the bait and confirm both.


  15. James (unregistered) on August 11th, 2005 @ 4:00 pm

    This entire blog site is more boring than Lisa Baron’s column in the Sunday Paper. Hopefully Atlanta will soon have a Gothamist type site. By the way, how do you explain going from celebrating blogs + your mission to advocate better journalism and to call out papers when they are incorrectly telling a story and your first attack piece is a gossip type columnist which isn’t even hard news. I just read that girls column and its harmless whether or not those are clients of hers.. she an out and about type writer not an entertainment reporter – i highly doubt this girl even considers herself a reporter. This is just another reminder of how pathetic Atlanta is sometimes – wish i never stumbled across this site.


  16. andisheh Nouraee (unregistered) on August 11th, 2005 @ 4:05 pm

    “I juggle my time as a PR pro and as a journalist” -Caren West, 08/05/2005


  17. John Trappley (unregistered) on September 22nd, 2005 @ 2:13 pm

    Ok, I’m digging this blog. I have another question. Why does the Sunday Paper have TWO PR people writing for them. Lisa Baron is a publicist too and what’s worse…she’s the publicist for Ralph Reed..her husband Jimmy on 99x doesn’t like to talk about the fact that he and Lisa are making money off the independent thinker but voting for the Religious Right. I happen to have an inside track, Meg Reggie, Lisa Baron, Caren West all work together on diff stuff and becuase they are either married to or sleeping with a publisher, on-air talent they get to come across as independent.

    What ever did happen to Journalist integrity? I’m a huge fan of the music 99x plays, but I think Caren, Lisa and Meg need to actually work to get a client or a job not just be married to the boss…

    ANDY…you keep it rockin!


  18. tyrea (unregistered) on September 27th, 2005 @ 9:25 pm

    i love thuge life


  19. Sandy (unregistered) on November 15th, 2005 @ 9:38 am

    I personally think Ms. West’s response was as honest as it was responsive to the questions presented. She’s not hiding anything and I, as a reader, am curious as to a behind-the-scenes take on Atlanta music and entertainment events whether it comes from someone paid for it or not. Put simply, she’s an expert on the subject and can provide insight that perhaps a sole journalist could not. Many times, outside of the the information, I read for the writing and the Sunday Paper definitely found an outstanding writer in Ms. West. I have no quams and will continue to read the Sunday Paper. Also, since when has a column been considered “hard news”?


  20. atlsurvivor (unregistered) on February 13th, 2006 @ 2:35 pm

    Well… here it is 2006 and that hack is still writing for the Sunday Paper. Guess it just doesn’t matter, does it? The government fills us all with propaganda and so do local rags. I pegged that woman from the first time her words poked through that ridiculous thing called a newspaper. It puts independent papers to shame. (I stopped reading Sunday Paper months and months ago so I dunno… is she still there?)


  21. Andisheh Nouraee (unregistered) on February 13th, 2006 @ 2:45 pm

    She’s still there, only now she has a little tag at the end of her column that says that sometimes she writes about her clients.



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