You might not be aware of it, but September 23rd 2006 is a significant date in Delaware blogging history.

On that date Mike Castle had a stroke. The record shows that his staff repeatedly and premeditatedly lied to cover up the severity of his stroke. Among the lies were reports that Castle had not suffered a stroke and was “walking around” and “joking with hospital staff” about the Phillies. The early line out of Castle’s office was that he had experienced, “dizziness and nausea, but showed no signs of a stroke.” This PR line was pressed by the News Journal and filtered in to blog comments the following day. Castle’s Reagan-esque composure in the face of doctors and nurses “making a fuss over nothing” was astounding – according to the leaks from Castle’s office.

But the lie was too big to stick. Within hours of being evacuated by helicopter to Christian Hospital it was obvious that the Castle team’s PR spin was fraudulent. Nevertheless, the News Journal’s political editor Doug Williams took an active role in abetting the cover-up by reprinting the staff lies verbatim over the next few days without the faintest whiff of critical scrutiny or what we traditionally regard as “journalism.” And that could have been that, if not for blogs.

Mike Mathews, a journalist by training but a person who is disinclined to work for editors like Doug Williams, did not take Castle’s staff’s word at face value. He did some journalism and within five days of the stroke, reported the following:

Speculation has run rampant over the last week after many have questioned the severity of Rep. Castle’s condition. I have it on good authority…with no less than three confirmed, separate, reliable sources, that Rep. Castle’s stroke was, indeed WORSE than The News Journal has reported. Conversations with some have told me that Castle was on a ventilator for quite a while because the stroke he suffered briefly — but seriously — affected the brain’s thalamus.

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Mike’s reporting was accurate and the News Journal was forced to back off its initial white wash story and admit to the unconsciousness and ventilation. When I asked Mike about his role in overturning the official spin, his “matter-of-fact” response confirmed for me that the News Journal was a willing participant in a cover-up.

According to Mike,

“…Rep. Castle had been hospitalized several days when I received word from several reliable sources that his condition was much worse than had been portrayed in The News Journal and other ass-kissing Internet “journalists.” I heard he was on a ventilator. The tips were so reliable I ran with the story. No one from Rep. Castle’s camp ever confirmed or denied when questioned that he’d been on a ventilator or that his condition was quite dire. But we’ve come to expect that type of cockblocking from them.”

So it was not some heroic “Woodward and Bernstein” style knitting together of fragmented and difficult to obtain testimony. It was simple reporting. Source + 2 confirming sources = Story. The truth was hiding in plain sight, and yet The News Journal did not break the story. Clearly, they didn’t want to expose the Castle team as liars in the late stages of what looked like it could be a close election.

Now, one year later, although Castle has a lingering heart defect that could cause another stroke at any time, Castle’s health does not appear to be an issue. He has leveraged his Congressional Health Insurance (and his media contacts) for a full recovery.

However, the News Journal’s political reporting is still in critical condition and blogging continues to be the first source for actual news and reporting for people who’s taste in political news extends beyond the simple talking points transcribed so adeptly by The Wilmington News Journal. As blogs across the political spectrum become bigger and gain readers by the day, the News Journal readership declines and the paper has gone into what industry observers describe as a death spiral. (Gannett shares vs. Dow since 2005)

Rumors of Gannett’s desire to divest itself of the dead weight continue to swirl as paid subscribers continue to abandon the milqtoast transcription service in favor of zestier fare. As a result, the NJ ad revenue dips and the bean counters respond by starving the newsroom of money and talent. That choice further starves readers of worthwhile reporting and a reason to subscribe which in turn starves the parent company of revenue.

Under it’s current business model of serving as a repository for Mike Castle, Tom Carper and Joe Biden’s press releases it is difficult to imagine the newspaper holding on for more than a few more year.

But who knows, maybe Delaware’s political class can keep it going so that it can continue to carry out its current mission as courtly stenographers. After all – somebody is putting bread on Celia Cohen’s table right?

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