Patch settled a lawsuit filed by former State Sen. Raymond Lesniak after an unnamed person writing under a pseudonym falsely implied that the former gubernatorial candidate was involved in the 2019 death of his wife, but the local news organization has not yet taken steps to assure that similar content isn’t published in the future.
Lesniak sued Patch after a third-party user dishonestly suggested that ex-political consultant Sean Caddle’s guilty plea in a murder-for-hire scheme led law enforcement to reopen the circumstances of Selena Carroll Lesniak’s death. The story was later pulled, but only after Lesniak filed his lawsuit.
Yesterday, the New Jersey Globe create an account with Flemington Patch, and simply by verifying an email address, content was posted directly to the website. Later, a request was made to post a news story to Patch – permission was granted within two hours and the same story was posted again.
The ease of posting content on Patch, which has stepped up to provide local news coverage that old newspaper outlets like the Star-Ledger and Gannett are increasingly ignoring, does concern some readers.
“Everyone who values the open exchange of information has a responsibility to be vigilant about not disseminating content that isn’t reviewed, or can be confused with content that has been,” says Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “If we want readers to be able to believe what they read, they need to have confidence that it’s been vetted.
The New Jersey Globe and other news organizations, including TAPinto, NJ Advance Media and Gannett, have eliminated reader comments and blocked any ability for the public to post any form of news that has not been properly reviewed.
“It is critical that news outlets have trust and credibility with their readers. Towards that end, we do not publish anonymous content on TAPinto,” said Michael Shapiro, the founder and CEO of TAPinto, said about the Patch settlement. “In addition, all content published on TAPinto is reviewed by human eyes prior to publication.”
The settlement, obtained by the New Jersey Globe, requires Patch to respond to a subpoena that will provide identifying information regarding the anonymous author.
Despite the terms of the Patch’s settlement, their New Jersey editor and senior regional manager, Russ Crespolini, rejected the idea that his news organization isn’t acting responsibly.
“Patch does not publish third-party news stories outside of partnership agreements from reputable sources. Patch does allow neighbor posts and comments published by members of the community,” Crespolini said. “To refer to what was posted, and removed by our moderation team, as a news article or as Patch content is inaccurate.”
Crespolini noted that “user-generated content is tagged with a disclaimer on the veracity of the content and is subject to flagging and removal much like any user-generated content one would see on any information-sharing platform.”
“All of this is clearly delineated in our terms of service and on the posts themselves,” he said. But this disclaimer is not terribly strict: “This post was contributed by a community member. The views expressed here are the author’s own.”
Crespolini has not been strict in the past, even though issues related to false information on Patch sites he managed were brought to his attention.
In the spring of 2019, a multitude of posts were made on Patch by an author called “Ed Watchdog” that largely supported perennial candidate Lisa McCormick, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for Union County Surrogate at the time.
In one instance, the New Jersey Globe questioned an “Ed Watchdog” post reporting that the FBI was investigating the Union County Surrogate’s office. McCormick was challenging the incumbent and there was no indication that the Patch post was factual.
Crespolini forwarded the email to his boss, but inadvertently copied the NJ Globe. The email acknowledged that the “Ed Watchdog” post was “user-generated content.” The post was eventually removed, but others that were not flagged remained.
A post from “Ed Watchdog” just before the 2020 Democratic primary, accused wrongly accused Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) of collaborating with then-President Donald Trump. McCormick was challenging Watson Coleman at the time. As of this morning, that post remained on the Patch website.
Similar posts remain on Patch sites in South Brunswick, Princeton, and Westfield.
These same stories were also published on NJToday.net, a website owned and run by McCormick and James Devine, McCormick’s controversial life partner.