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Notes from the Battleground

When is a "journalist" not a "journalist?"

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The January 17 meeting of the Southwest Charter School board of directors touched on a number of subjects, including discipline, a possible revision of the school's attendance policy and a library upgrade.

After the meeting, one of the school's board members touched on a subject that hadn't been on the agenda. Margaret Schmitz Rizzo criticized former Southwest Charter instructor Josh Harden in a brief interview with the Pitch.

Rizzo, who was a member of the committee that helped draft the school's charter, said Harden could not control his class. During one of her visits, Rizzo said, Harden had to raise his voice "seven times" to keep his students from being disruptive. Rizzo mocked Harden (who quit his job at Southwest near the end of last semester to move to Colorado with another Southwest teacher whom he plans to marry) because he preferred to call himself a "journalist." In addition to teaching Spanish part time at a Catholic school, Harden works as a freelance writer for the Boulder Weekly.

"He called himself a journalist," Rizzo cawed on January 17. "Who uses the term journalist?"

Rizzo, for one. Besides being a Southwest Charter School board member who testified in Jefferson City when state legislators were considering legalizing charter schools, Margaret Schmitz Rizzo is a freelance writer who contributes to The Kansas City Star.

Since she has been affiliated with Southwest (her board term runs out in 2003), Rizzo has written three "news" stories involving the school: "Showing Pupils the Right Path; Social Workers Keep Schools Safe and Successful" (published October 29, 2000); "Southwest High Reunion Will Also Celebrate Charter School" (October 18, 2000); and "Weighing Cost and Value Rewards of Earning a Master's Degree Vary by Field" (July 18, 1999). The last story features Southwest Charter School principal Tracye Bruno, with her photo taken by one of The Star's photographers. (Bruno turned down the Pitch's photo request; this paper obtained its shot of her from a source who had taken it on a visit to the school.)

With all that writing, however, Rizzo apparently doesn't understand some basic tenets of the profession.

Moments after speaking with the Pitch, Rizzo requested that the paper refrain from using her comments -- though journalists are ethically bound to comply with such a request only if it comes before a source starts talking. Suddenly, without provocation, Rizzo snatched away the reporter's interview notes. (The fact that she also was holding an infant prevented an unseemly struggle on the part of the reporter to retrieve his work.)

Rizzo's husband, Tony Rizzo, is a Star news reporter. With that much "journalism" going on under one roof, Rizzo undoubtedly understands that apprehending the notes of a competing newspaper reporter amounts to stealing.

Rizzo refused to return the notes that night. The next day, the Pitch placed a call to Rizzo and demanded their return. Rizzo said she had consulted with a number of Star reporters who had told her that if a source wanted to change his mind at any point, a reporter is obligated to nix the comments (or the entire story).

Wrong, Fast Hands.

Rizzo said she would not return the notes, but a few hours later, she called back to apologize and promised to look for the notes and return them to their rightful owner. She confided, however, that she might have thrown them in the garbage. More than a week later, the Pitch had no word from Rizzo.

That Margaret Schmitz Rizzo is a charter board member at Southwest who also has written about the school for The Star provides a textbook example of a concept every "journalist" should know. It's called conflict of interest. Rizzo should take note.

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