Sentinel’s unconscionable breach of journalism ethics

by Diana Tittle | October 29, 2021
5 min read

Below please find a copy of Ron Fenn’s responses to the candidate’s questionnaire that should have appeared in today’s Sierra County Sentinel. Fenn is a candidate for Truth or Consequences City Commission.

Ron Fenn running for T or C city Commission
Ron Fenn was the only local candidate who submitted answers to the Sierra County Sentinel’s candidate’s questionnaire that the paper chose not to publish. Source: Fenn

The Sentinel published in its Oct. 29 edition the completed questionnaires submitted by every other candidate for T or C commission, Elephant Butte City Council and Mayor, the Village of Williamsburg Board of Trustees and the Truth or Consequences Municipal School Board. The paper took pains to inform its readers that three other candidates—T or C incumbent commissioner Paul Baca and Williamsburg trustee candidates William Frazier and Kell Took—had declined to submit answers.

But the Sentinel made no mention of the fact that Fenn, who is running against former T or C City Commissioner Rolf Hechler and Joseph Louis Schwab for Position 4, had submitted his questionnaire responses via email to the Sentinel this Monday, Oct. 25, at 5:48 p.m., well in advance of the paper’s usual editorial deadline of Tuesday noon for its Friday print edition. Nor did the Sentinel offer its readers any explanation of why it had decided not to run Fenn’s questionnaire responses.

The Sun emailed Sentinel co-owner and publisher Frances Luna at 12:43 today to give her the opportunity to explain the reasons for the paper’s inequitable and unfair treatment of a certified candidate for local public office. We asked Luna to respond by our deadline of 4 p.m. and informed her that we would take a lack of response as her “acknowledgment that there is no defense for this unconscionable breach of journalistic ethics.”

Luna did not respond, but it is fair to wonder whether she is playing politics here, in addition to violating the requirement of reportorial objectivity.

Luna calls the editorial shots at the Sentinel, though she declines to make that clear to her readers by claiming the title of editor on the masthead. She is also the most influential of T or C’s sitting commissioners. Although Luna has stopped regularly attending commission meetings in person in recent months, perhaps because of the demands of her new responsibilities as the proprietor of a women-oriented gun shop, Luna still gives the commission its marching orders through her phoned-in participation. Civic activist Fenn (who—full disclosure—is the Sun’s staff photographer) has been a regular and vocal attendee of commission meetings for years. Fenn uses the public comment portion of meetings to criticize the latest examples of what he perceives to be the city’s mismanagement of taxpayer resources and upbraid commissioners for what he deems their failure to act or lead. By denying Fenn’s positions on the issues the same public exposure her paper gave to his opponents, Luna seems to be doing what she can to prevent the election to the commission of a known challenger of the status quo.

Fenn acknowledges that he did not use the requested submission address ( and instead sent his completed questionnaire to (GPK Media is the corporate umbrella for the paper and KCHS radio). But he asserts it is unlikely his questionnaire went astray because “it’s not like the Sentinel is the New York Times” in size. In addition, he had informed a Sentinel support staffer who called him this Monday to inquire about the questionnaire’s whereabouts that he planned to submit it that day.

Furthermore, this is not the first time that Luna, a registered Republican, has used the Sentinel’s coverage to diminish a candidate she does not favor. After the spring 2020 primary, the Sentinel ran an online article by editor/senior reporter Chuck Wentworth claiming that incumbent state Representative Rebecca Dow, Luna’s fellow Republican and T or C native, would have no Democratic opponent for her District 38 House seat. When, as a private citizen, I pointed out to Wentworth that Karen Whitlock, a Grant Countian who ran during the primary as a write-in candidate for the Democratic nomination for District 38, had received sufficient votes to be placed on the ballot as an official candidate in the fall, Wentworth brushed off my request for the publication of an immediate correction with the promise to fix the error in future stories.

Late that August, in the Sentinel’s announcement that it was organizing a candidate’s forum in which both Whitlock and Dow had agreed to participate, the paper “fixed” the error by identifying Whitlock as a write-in candidate instead of as the official Democratic nominee. Write-in candidates are often perceived to have no chances of winning. Again the requested correction was not immediately forthcoming.

In late October of 2020, publisher Luna refused to run a paid advertisement that the Whitlock campaign wished to run in the Sentinel. The ad was “super critical of Dow,” according to Whitlock campaign manager Rick Lass, who received an email from Luna, advising: “This ad has known misfacts and is inaccurate on several issues. On the newspaper side, I can make sure the information is correct and verifiable before we publish something—I will not run this ad.”

Although it denied Fenn his rightful editorial coverage today, the Sentinel was willing to accept his paid advertising. In fact, when Luna personally sent out the questionnaire and instructions for its completion and submission to local candidates, including Fenn, she attached a copy of the Sentinel’s paid advertising rates for their convenience.Fenn's candidates questionnaire, p 1

Fenn's candidates questionnaire, p 2

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

2 thoughts on “Sentinel’s unconscionable breach of journalism ethics”

  1. It’s disheartening. The only long-term newspaper in Truth or Consequences and the editor will not abide by ethical reporting standards:
    Seek the truth
    Minimize harm
    Act independently
    Be accountable and transparent


    Not that it’s new; in her weekly “Dear Boss” editorial, Ms. Luna has always shown her colors. So it is not a surprise that she is a staunch Republican supporter early if ever straying from the extreme right party line. She doesn’t seem to understand her responsibility as an editor to have the Sentinel present unbiased campaign information, even when she is at odds with those running for office. Her slight in this week’s Sentinel of not including the information from submitted candidate Ron Fenn is reprehensible, as was her attack on former City Manager Morris Madrid.

    And why the city commission allows her to not attend city commission meetings calls into question the entire city commission’s judgment.

  2. Shameful but not unexpected. Commissioner Luna has failed to honor her commitment as an appointed city commissioner, so it does not surprise me that she would not publish Ron Fenn’s responses. She even jokes about her poor attendance at the commission meetings.

    We desperately need new blood on the city commission as the current mayor and commissioners are ignoring procedural rules and do not care what the citizens want. We can only hope that none of the incumbents will be re-elected.

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