Interview with Jesse Smith of the Kingston Times
By Rowan Farrow | Disinfo.info Contributor
Jesse Smith is known in New York as the guy who said Gotcha! to astrologer Eric Francis. Barry Brett, journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, said recently that Smith’s article, Bad Moon Rising, “was the most lurid in local history, and also set a record for breaking the most foundational journalistic rules.” By the way, the interview was conducted August 9, 2018, on the New Paltz campus, in the Bliss Hall 2nd floor lounge, right above where the PCB transformer exploded in 1991 — a historic place, if there ever was one.
Rowan Farrow: What got you interested in covering Eric Francis?
Jesse J. Smith: It’s simple: I find the guy annoying, and saw the opportunity to mess him up.
RF: Mess him up?
JJS: Yeah, you know. Make some problems for him.
RF: You’re admitting that to me?
JJS: Why not? I don’t see an issue with that.
RF: Why did you call the piece “Bad Moon Rising?” It would seem that implies he’s on the ascent, not decline.
JJS: We didn’t think of that. Yeah, that’s pretty stupid. The whole job was rushed. My editor actually wrote the title. He’s into old rock songs and stuff.
RF: So, tell me what kind of vetting process you went through, when people had accusations. How did you verify what they were saying?
JJS: We didn’t. We just ran the digital recorder, and anyone who said anything could get into the story. Then I typed it up. We printed everything, except the part about the posse trying to run Eric Francis out of New Paltz when he was living in Germany. That probably didn’t happen, unless it happened in Germany, or maybe Eric has an identical twin brother. We didn’t print it because we ran out of room.
RF: You ran out of room? As in space in the newspaper?
JJS: That’s right. The article was already 5,000 words. We couldn’t fit any more in.
RF: So you’re saying there was no vetting of anyone’s claims? I notice that most of them don’t have dates or places on them, and they’re anonymous.
JJS: We didn’t care when things happened, only that someone said they happened. If we were to start checking dates and places, that would have caused problems with the story, especially since Eric has lived out of the country so much.
RF: Yes, I can see that might have caused a potential problem. I am aware that there was an official investigation conducted in May, by a former United States attorney in New York city named Ryan Poscablo. I know who that is, and he has an excellent reputation. I’ve read elsewhere that the investigation cleared Francis, that Poscablo told Chronogram, “There’s nothing there.” But you didn’t report that. It would seem like a central fact in this whole issue.
JJS: We did our own investigation.
RF: What standards and practices did you use?
JJS: We have our own. That’s our business.
RF: Still, it would seem central that there was an official investigation, and that it had a result.
JJS: Well, that didn’t matter to us, or we would have put it in the story.
RF: Now, you’ve known Eric Francis prior to this, I’ve read, for seven years, and also, he worked for your company for 11 years. I’ve read that he has known your editor and your publisher, both, for 28 years. Why didn’t you mention any of that in the story?
JJS: It wouldn’t have helped.
RF: Why is that?
JJS: Well, we’ve all known Eric for a long time, and he’s always been a decent guy. I mean he lives on the street where our office is, so we see him almost every day. We’ve always respected his work. He’s disciplined and accurate. He knows everyone on our staff, going back years, including the admin team upstairs. Sometimes he comes into the bar where I work just to say hello. So if we said any of that, and then someone said, did you ever notice a problem, I would have had to say no. But some of us just don’t like him. He’s annoying.
RF: For the purpose of the story, how did you define “misconduct”? I read in the piece that someone said they felt sexually harassed because he allegedly asked to pet their dog.
JJS: So we printed it.
RF: And that’s it? Your definition of sexual misconduct involves petting a dog? Was that the bottom line for the story?
JJS: If the person says that it does, then it does, right?
RF: That’s ridiculous. Let’s move on. I read an interview with your editor, Dan Barton, where he said that your company is not particularly worried about litigation. In the news business, that translates to not worried whether something is true or not. Would you agree with that?
JJS: We figured some of it was true. Also, since Eric is a public figure, he can’t sue us. Anyway, it’s not my problem, it’s the publisher’s problem.
RF: Did anyone fact-check the piece? Did you corroborate your sources?
JJS: Are you kidding? We don’t have the budget for that. I just put in the quotes as accurately as I could.
RF: I read in an article on Eric Francis’s website that he was not contacted prior to your publishing your article. That is not customary in our profession.
JJS: Well, we felt that could mess up the story. And we thought it was funny, you know, that we were printing it with no input from Eric. My boss wanted to stick it to him. He doesn’t like Eric. It’s an old grudge, involving the 1992 congressional race, and Eric exposing some problems with the candidate that everyone wanted and that my boss was supporting. Nobody remembers it anymore. Well, they do.
RF: Are you saying this article was a work of revenge?
JJS: Basically, yeah. I mean not really revenge, he didn’t do anything to us. But you know, something like it.
RF: Those are my only questions.