For the past few years, community journalists have been using Twitter to cover local government meetings, informing local residents in real-time about important proceedings they previously would learn of days later in print—if at all.
However, as Lowell Sun reporter Melissa Hanson found out this week, that’s still news to some people.
Hanson has been exhaustively covering the Nashoba Valley Technical School’s search for a new superintendent. The school committee in charge of the search was recently dealt a setback when its first choice for the job backed out, and at a meeting Monday, some members wanted to discuss why. Richard DeFreitas, an alternate member from Chelmsford, urged the committee to go into an executive, or private, session to have that conversation, saying their speculation about the candidate’s decision shouldn’t be aired publicly.
“This little lady over there is going to tweet out everything we say!” DeFreitas complained, indicating Hanson in the audience.
His remark drew accusations of sexism, and capped building tension between Hanson and the school committee. During the previous meeting, chairwoman Jennifer Rhodes had e-mailed Hanson and asked her to refrain from immediately reporting its votes on Twitter before the committee could notify candidates of the board’s decision. Hanson, a former Globe correspondent, declined, explaining the meetings were public.
Toward the end of Monday’s meeting, the committee unanimously approved a motion expressing “disappointment” in Hanson for depriving them of the chance to break the news to candidates for the superintendent job.
In response, the Sun’s editorial board published a withering editorial that scornfully characterized the school committee as “combination Politburo and Pravda” — a reference to the ruling body and state-controlled newspaper of the former Soviet Union.
“We’re disappointed that the futures of hundreds of students could be left in the hands of policymakers who are clueless about government transparency and bereft of common decency,” the Sun’s editorial board wrote Tuesday. “None of the 14 members or staff present — even the five female board members — called out DeFreitas, because in 2016 referring to a professional journalist as a ‘little lady’ apparently isn’t worth questioning.”
The Sun editorial also suggested that the municipalities that appoint the school board members, especially DeFreitas’s hometown of Chelmsford, “should consider whether their representatives can promote a 21st-century education with a 20th-century mindset.” Nashoba Tech is located in Westford.
Reached by the Globe Wednesday, DeFreitas said he remembered calling Hanson “young lady,” not “little lady.”
“I tell you, God as my judge, I don’t remember saying ‘little,’ he said. “As much as I hate political correctness, I don’t want to offend anybody. I would have said ‘young gentleman’ if it was a male.”
“I’m sorry if she took offense to it somehow, but it had nothing to do with the damn story.”
DeFreitas insisted he was not criticizing Hanson, but rather warning the committee not to openly speculate about the withdrawal of its preferred candidate, given that their conversation would be made public by Hanson.
“My concern was that things were being said about the applicant and the reason she withdrew, and I didn’t believe that should have been done in open session,” he said.
In an interview, Rhodes, the committee chairwoman, defended the vote criticizing Hanson, saying it was taken in consideration of the candidates for superintendent.
“The committee felt it was important to express their disappointment,” she said. “If I was applying for a position, I’d like to know before everyone and their mother that I didn’t get the job... When we called them, they already knew from Twitter.”
Asked about DeFreitas’s remark, Rhodes noted that women occupy a number of leadership positions in Nashoba Tech’s administration, and said that the school is committed to educating women.
“It’s unfortunate that he said it, and it was perhaps inappropriate, but I can assure you he didn’t mean it in a derogatory way,” she said.
Rhodes said she was disappointed that the flap had overshadowed what she called an “extremely open” search for a new superintendent.
“The school is incredibly focused on transparency,” she said. “I’m disappointed that the committee is being cast as not wanting information to get out to the public, because that’s not true.”