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New GONSO News Tied to Controversial PR Firm

By Matthew Cardinale, News Editor, The Atlanta Progressive News (February 25, 2009)

(APN) ATLANTA – A month-old online news service in Atlanta called GONSO, founded by veteran corporate journalists, is tied to a controversial public relations firm, Alisias, which, among other things, has put a positive spin on the mass displacement of public housing residents and mass demolition of public housing in Atlanta.

The Chair of GONSO is Alisias President Rick White. John Sugg, columnist and former Senior Editor at Creative Loafing magazine, is Executive Editor. Jon Sinton, who co-founded Air America Radio, is Publisher.

The Georgia Online News Service (GONSO) does not yet have a functioning website, but its current articles appear to be published by GONSO exclusively on the Alisias website.

GONSO also has an email distribution list powered by Alisias.

Both GONSO’s emails and Facebook page list the same address—3390 Peachtree Road, Suite 1150—as Alisias does.

"We launched in January 2009 with more than two dozen veteran Georgia journalists and media professionals. We produce news feeds that go to every Georgia newspaper and broadcast station as well as more than 15,000 opinion leaders across the state," GONSO’s Facebook page says.

"Because our content is written, sourced and edited by trusted veteran journalists, it is ‘print ready’ for the next day's newspapers or immediate publishing on web sites when it arrives in our subscribers' newsroom," the page says.

"You'll note our commentary is decidedly post-partisan. Randy Evans and Ralph Reed are regular contributors. John Sugg, Lyle Harris and Hollis Gillespie have weekly columns. For years David Beasley managed op-eds for the AJC and now he does it for GONSO," the page says.

"During our beta phase, subscription is free to news organizations and individuals alike," the page says.

ALISIAS CONNECTIONS

Several connections between GONSO and Alisias are apparent, Atlanta Progressive News can reveal. First, as noted above, Rick White is both the President of Alisias and the Chair of GONSO.

This means, White has the ability, and business incentive, to both promote Alisias clients, on the one hand, and provide or orchestrate coverage for them, on the other, though his respective operations.

This fact in itself raises numerous questions about conflict-of-interest and transparency.

As far as transparency, Alisias does not list its clients on its website. "We do not… advertise our client list," Alisias writes on its website.

Therefore, while some of Alisias’s clients and former clients have been high profile—such as the Atlanta Housing Authority and Councilman Lamar Willis—readers of GONSO will for the most part be unable to watch out for potential conflicts of interests involving Alisias clients.

Some may question Atlanta Progressive News for raising questions of conflict of interest regarding GONSO and Alisias, seeing as how APN is an openly progressive news publication which often takes principled issue stands. For instance, the present writer has made public presentations against public housing demolitions and nuclear power.

Ironically, in his Alisias PR capacity, Rick White verbally attacked the present writer at an Atlanta Housing Authority Board of Commissioners meeting in 2007, asking "Are you with the media? Why don’t you act like it?"

The irony of such a comment two years later aside, the difference is really about transparency. If GONSO were to disclose its ties to Alisias or its owners and staff—and if Alisias disclosed its client list to the public—then at least readers would be able to engage in the kind of healthy media literacy required in today’s diverse media ecosystem.

Second, as exclusively reported by Atlanta Progressive News, Lyle Harris--who formerly wrote for the Editorial Board of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper--recently distributed business cards listing him as an Alisias employee. Harris is now listed, as noted above, as a columnist with GONSO.

Third, as noted above, Alisias and GONSO are using the same mailing address, email distribution service (“Powered by Alisias”), and website, facts which are confusing at best but which also suggest a lack of separation between the two entities.

RECENT CONTROVERSIES INVOLVING ALISIAS

Alisias is no stranger to controversy; in fact, its mission is to serve clients pursuing controversial public policies, like public housing demolitions, according to its website.

Alisias has a website but it has very little information about its staff or its clients.

"We [Alisias] specialize in providing confidential advice to individuals and entities that are distressed and/or under attack by the media, the public and special interests," according to a description on PRWeb.com.

First and foremost, Alisias has promoted AHA’s demolition and eviction policies.

Alisias, on behalf of AHA, also has made numerous false claims, including regarding resident preferences and the location of voucher-leasing opportunities in Atlanta.

Alisias crafted a print advertising campaign of quarter-page and half-page ads appearing in publications like Creative Loafing and Atlanta Voice, claiming 96% of public housing residents want to leave public housing.

As APN has previously reported in depth, that claim was false, as it was based on one question surveys issued to residents, which asked, "Would you like the opportunity to receive a Housing Choice Voucher?"

These surveys occurred at meetings where AHA had already told residents their plans to demolish their buildings. Thus, residents were never given a real choice.

As reported by APN, a recent GSU study shows that many residents do not want to leave family public housing, and the majority of senior residents do not want to move. Given the chance to complete petitions opposing the demolitions, a majority of residents at Hollywood Courts and Palmer House signed.

Alisias also claimed that residents had a choice of where to move with the vouchers they would receive. This, of course, did not address the fact that voucher leasing opportunities are mostly clustered in poor, Black neighborhoods.

According to a misleading blog post by Alisias on July 14, 2007, AHA residents had voucher-leasing options all over Atlanta. However, the map cited as evidence for this, was a map instead showing subsidized workforce housing, that is, housing for people making the salaries of teachers and police officers.

Councilwoman Felicia Moore last year called for Rick White’s termination from AHA when White attacked her in the AJC, arguing that the reason she was seeking accountability from AHA was that she was worried about how public housing relocations would affect the demographic makeup of her District. Several Council members called for an apology to Moore.

Alisias also had to stop working for Councilman Lamar Willis, after the firm realized it had made statements on behalf of Willis which no longer seemed to be true. This turnabout at the time raised questions about the due diligence of Alisias to ensure claims it makes on behalf of its clients are true.

A TANGLED WEB

APN broke the news in March 2008 that Sugg and Harris were now working with White.

Sugg, who previously told APN he supported the public housing demolitions and the privatization of Grady Hospital, advised APN he was working with White during a Council meeting last year. Sugg told APN, as a result, that we were on opposite sides of the public housing issue.

Sugg continued to attend events related to AHA, apparently on behalf of Alisias. Sugg’s ability to parlay his expertise as a former journalist to Alisias, to help Alisias support public housing demolitions, raises even more questions now that Sugg is back in the business of journalism.

At the time of APN’s March 2008 story, some expressed disappointment with both former journalists, Sugg and Harris.

Notably, the AJC’s news coverage has tended to present AHA’s assertions as facts and residents’ assertions as opinions. The AJC has rarely printed any information critical of AHA during at least the last three years.

The AJC’s Editorial pages, where Harris—now of GONSO and Alisias--often wrote columns on behalf of the Editorial Board, typically contained glowing editorials, and sometimes photo spreads, about AHA’s demolition plans and AHA’s director Renee Glover.

"Wow, it's a perfect match, they belong together. It's certainly the place [Alisias] for an editorial writer at the Journal-Constitution, who already wrote public relations pieces for the AHA and the City," Anita Beaty, Executive Director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, said at the time.

"As a Member of the Editorial Board, he rarely if ever represented all sides of the issue," Beaty said of Harris. "It was usually an opinion representing the business community of Atlanta. We've had a challenge trying to get him to see objectively any other side of an issue than the development."

Regarding Sugg, "It is disappointing to say the least, because of Sugg’s progressive record and involvement in progressive causes," Adam Shapiro, host of WRFG 89.3 FM’s progressive news hour "Current Events" program, told APN.

"To see this kind of thing happen, even if just on one issue [public housing], is–I keep coming back to the word, disappointing. It’s also reprehensible," Shapiro said.

"That surprises me a lot. John Sugg has been the editor of Creative Loafing, which in some ways in the past was an alternative to the Journal-Constitution’s editorial point of view but has become less and less so. And I'm just disappointed because John's a colleague and I thought he knew better," Beaty said.

"He's too good of a reporter to be working with the likes of Rick White," Beaty said.

GONSO’S FIRST MONTH

The majority of GONSO content at this time appears to be commentary or opinion pieces, a few which have appeared in the opinion pages of corporate daily newspapers like the Athens Banner-Herald and Early County News.

Out of about two dozen articles listed in a February 23, 2009, “news feed” obtained by APN, the vast majority are opinion articles, including pieces by Maynard Eaton of the Atlanta Voice, Hollis Gillespie formerly of Creative Loafing, Lyle Harris, and John Sugg.

A few news stories appear regarding the nuclear power bill in the State legislature by a reporter named Maggie Lee; and a book review appears by David Lee Simmons, formerly of Creative Loafing.

APN would normally contact GONSO for comment; however, based on APN’s extensive experience with White, it is unlikely he would respond at all or within a reasonable time frame.

Sinton did not immediately return a voice mail seeking comment.

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor for The Atlanta Progressive News, and is reachable is matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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