Bitten by the bug

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By: Joe Strupp

A town official living next door to Middletown (Conn.) Press reporter Marty Bodwicz thought he’d found proof of biased reporting after intercepting a cordless phone conversation in which Bodwicz allegedly criticized town leaders whom he covered. Hoping to see Bodwicz’s allegedly biased views exposed, Walter Damuck and his wife, Patricia, took a tape recording of the conversation to Bodwicz’s editor, Marc Levy.
But when Levy heard the tale of the couple’s tape-recording escapade, he took no action against his reporter. Instead, Bodwicz went to local police, who filed a felony eavesdropping charge against the Damucks several weeks ago. They were arraigned in Connecticut Superior Court Nov. 16 and face a preliminary hearing Dec. 14.
“We honestly just thought we were doing a good thing for the reporting of our community,” Walter Damuck told E(and)P. “We were not asking to fire him, just to let them be aware of his bias.”
Instead of ensuring balanced coverage, however, the Damucks’ actions have highlighted two key issues: what weight a reporter’s bias might play in coverage, and the privacy rights of those who engage in conversation in their own homes.
The incident occurred nearly two years ago when Bodwicz ? who lives in rural East Haddam, Conn., one of several towns he covers for the Press ? was reportedly talking on a cordless phone and allegedly bad-mouthing East Haddam officials.
The Damucks said they began to hear the conversation through a baby monitor and, when they realized it was Bodwicz, taped it with a video recorder. As a leader in the town’s Republican Party and an appointed member of the municipal planning and zoning board at the time, Walter Damuck said he had an interest in the newspaper’s coverage of city leaders and wanted to make sure the Press knew of the alleged bias of its reporter.
“I’m not sure a crime was committed,” said John Keefe, the attorney for the Damucks. “They didn’t intentionally do anything. They were in their own home.”
The couple said they did not bring the tape to the newspaper until October 1998, when they began to fear that Bodwicz’s coverage had turned one-sided.
Bodwicz, 43, said he does not recall the exact language of the recorded conversation, but defended his reporting and said the Damucks’ actions were wrong. “It is terribly underhanded and criminal,” he said. “I have had disagreements with town officials, but there is absolutely no bias.”
Connecticut law defines eavesdropping as a felony in which someone wiretaps or uses other mechanical means to intentionally listen in on a conversation. State’s Attorney John Redway of Middlesex County, whose office handles prosecution of criminal charges in East Haddam, could not be reached for comment.
Bodwicz, who had been involved in a previous dispute with the Damucks over a shed built near his property, said he also has filed a civil lawsuit against the Damucks, in which he is seeking unspecified damages. “It’s an open-and-shut case,” said John Williams, Bodwicz’s attorney. “It’s against the law to tape a call.”
Press Publisher Marc Romanow did not return calls seeking comment. The Press, owned by the Journal Register Co., is a 10,000-circulation daily.
(Editor & Publisher [Caption]
(copyright: Editor & Publisher November 20, 1999) [Caption]

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