A real case of fake news in Indiana?

One of the state's top law firms wants to know whether a local reporter fabricated a source.

The small town of Kentland, Indiana, and surrounding Newton County—population 13,984—is abuzz about a local newspaper story from earlier this year that appears to have included a fabricated source.

Now, one of the state's most powerful law firms is investigating what happened.

The 156-year-old Newton County Enterprise, a member of the Hoosier State Press Association, published a story in February that almost immediately caught the attention of Ice Miller Partner Derek Molter, who represents the Newton County commissioners and hails from there.

On February 1, the paper published an item with the kind of bland headline that is the bread and butter of local government coverage: "Experts: Newton County's handling of PTABOA appointments opens up more possibilities for appeal." The story examines whether the council violated state requirements for its appointments to the Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals and asks whether local officials need to waive its members' political affiliation.

The reporter, Greg Myers, who is also the paper’s editor, cited three experts who dissect state law on the matter, including Steve Key, executive director and general counsel of the Hoosier State Press Association, and Barry Wood, director of assessments at the Department of Local Government and Finance.

But here's where things get hinky. The original article went on to cite Jordan Masterson, whom the paper called an analyst who "specializes in property tax and assessments," and who takes aim at the Newton County Council in a spicy soundbite: "In this situation, four members of the Newton County Council intentionally chose to ignore the party requirements even though that same board voted to rescind the waiver," Masterson told the paper. Masterson goes on to say: "It is a perfect example of thinking you are above the law, and now opens up all decisions by the PTABOA board to be appealed and possibly thrown out."

The article sent ripples from Newton County down to Marion County, where Molter, working with Patrick Ryan, the Newton County attorney, began searching for Masterson (In most counties, the commissioners act as the executives). Key, the first source, is well known at the Statehouse and in media circles across the state. And Barry Wood was easily verifiable as an employee at Indiana's Department of Local Government and Finance.

But who was Masterson, they wondered, and why was he aiming for the Newton County Council?

Molter and his associates and researchers at Ice Miller did a comprehensive search of local, state, and national records. They searched the Indiana Board of Tax Review decisions, the Department of Local Government and Finance, Westlaw databases, Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

They could find no evidence that Masterson existed.

Ryan, the Newton County-based attorney, emailed Myers, the author of the article, on February 17, noting that he couldn't find Masterson. Myers gave Ryan an email. Molter emailed the address and received no response.

Next, Molter, the Ice Miller attorney, sent a demand letter to Myers on March 2, asking for copies of materials Myers used to verify Masterson's existence, as well as any correspondence with him. The deadline: March 5.

"Hopefully, you recognize I have skipped the fire-and-fury rhetoric that is typical these days in letters to reporters about their reporting," Molter wrote. "Newton County and I both recognize what an important institution the Newton County Enterprise is and the service its reporters have provided to the community for over a century. So, this letter aims for cordial cooperation rather than antagonism. It seems it should be easy to put this issue to rest since the request is merely for the verification of what you have already publicly reported. But this does remain an important issue, and the County, of course, reserves all its legal rights. For that reason, we request that you share this letter with legal counsel to the Newton County Enterprise or Community Media Group. Also, please preserve all materials you have related to Mr. Masterson, including computer files, emails, text messages, research, and correspondence in case any litigation ensues."

Myers, within his rights as a journalist to do so, declined to provide more information to Molter.

"I am going to have to deny your request for further information regarding Jordan Masterson," the reporter wrote. "I supplied the county with his email but did not say that is how I corresponded with him. I reached out via his email, but he responded by calling me in person, and that phone call was not recorded."

Later that day, Myers sent Molter another note, claiming reporter privilege. Masterson was referred to me by a trusted source, who will remain anonymous due to reporter's privilege," the reporter wrote.

Greg Perrotto, the group publisher of Kankakee Valley Publishing, also got involved, telling Molter he would investigate and respond in "due course."

The two attorneys—Ryan and Molter—met with Myers on March 15. According to Ryan, Myers broke down in tears, asking what they wanted him to do. The reporter said he was going to be terminated in two weeks because of the error. Myers explained that he was protecting a source with the Jordan Masterson moniker and that this person could lose their job if he disclosed his real identity.

Finally, on March 18, the paper ran an apology and retraction: "Following the publication of a story on February 1 regarding PTABOA appointments, the validity of a quoted source has come into question. The Enterprise has performed an internal review and has determined that Mr. Masterson is not a credible source. At this time, we retract the quotes attributed to Mr. Masterson and apologize for this error."

They offered no further explanation.

What happened? Was Masterson just not a credible source? Or did he even exist?

Asked by IMPORTANTVILLE about the matter, Myers, the reporter and editor, said: "I didn't fabricate Mr. Masterson, but I didn't check his credentials as I should have, and it turns out the person I spoke with wasn't who he claimed to be."

In what respect?

"Due to possible pending litigation," Myers told me, "I can't comment on any other details besides my statement and the retraction."

Perrotto, the publisher, did not return an IMPORTANTVILLE request for comment. The original piece includes this correction:

Following the publication of this story on February 1 regarding PTABOA appointments, the validity of a quoted source has come into question. The Enterprise has performed an internal review and has determined that Mr. Masterson is not a credible source. At this time, we retract the quotes attributed to Mr. Masterson and have removed them from this story.

The controversy comes at a time when trust in media is at something of a nadir. According to Gallup, six in 10 U.S. adults have "not very much" confidence (27%) or "none at all" (33%) in media. Gallup first polled Americans on the question in 1972, and the trust level has not risen above 47% since 2005. And yet, when it comes to local news, Americans tend to have greater trust in the media institutions closest to them: A Knight-Gallup survey in 2019 found that "six in 10 Americans believe local news organizations are accomplishing most of the key tasks of informing communities. And local journalists are seen as more caring (36%), trustworthy (29%) and neutral or unbiased (23%)."

Andy Schotz, a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee, told IMPORTANTVILLE the current retraction doesn't past muster.

"Once the newsroom decides what happened, they need to report back to the public," Schotz said. "The situation that is described is 'does this person exist?' That's a pretty clear question, and the answer that is given doesn't satisfy the question. That's not an attempt to be clear what the problem is. Corrections are meant to be clear."

Newton County officials want more of an on-the-record explanation from the paper.

"We're in a really unique market media-wise, because we're 90 miles south of Chicago and 100 miles north of Indianapolis," Ryan, the county attorney, told me. "We're just a very rural place. This was a big betrayal to the community because of our high reliance on that paper. What we're looking for is that the public be made aware of what took place for, especially because where we find ourselves in the world right now."