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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 8, 2007

Extremely tough news decision

By Mark Platte
Advertiser Editor

Two weeks ago, in the midst of our stories on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and how volunteers were building a 3,500-square-foot house for the family of Theresa "Momi" Akana and a 4,500-square-foot community center for a nonprofit agency she runs, a reader suggested we look more closely at Akana's salary and the nonprofit's finances.

"You need to do a little better investigative work," the e-mail said.

It took us some time to nail down the key points of the story and to determine whether we would even run an article. After all, some 3,000 "Extreme Makeover" volunteers worked on what many still consider a worthy project for a program (Keiki O Ka 'Aina Preschool Inc.) that serves thousands of preschool children and their parents. By all accounts, executive director Akana is beloved by those who work with her and know her. She came from modest surroundings to build the nonprofit into what it is today.

According to the most recent tax filing, she made $97,000 in salary, drew almost $6,000 in benefits and received $22,000 in annual rent from the nonprofit for using the top floor of her home. Her husband is a senior vice president of First Hawaiian Bank, a position that typically pays at least $125,000 a year. Her husband's job was pointed out by someone who posted a comment on our Web site after reading one of the "Extreme Makeover" stories online.

(After the story was published, we learned that Keiki O Ka 'Aina Preschool Inc.'s administrator Jack Randall is married to Theresa Akana's mother, Marie Randall. According to the nonprofit's tax filing for fiscal year 2005, Randall earned $81,955 in salary, $4,098 in benefits and $670 in expenses, or a total of $86,723.)

The story on the Akanas and the nonprofit involved extensive discussion and careful editing. Ultimately, it was up to me to run the story or not.

We were aware we'd be open to a firestorm of criticism if we did not treat the family and the nonprofit fairly. We also wanted to be respectful of the volunteers, as they had sacrificed their time for what they believed was a worthy cause.

The crucial fact for me was whether the show portrayed the Akanas as a family in need rather than as a family who could use a break because of good deeds. Into this latter category fall a small army of deserving candidates.

The show's news releases indicated that the Akana family had endured hardship (their home was damaged by flooding in 2004) and described their inability to fix the home and nonprofit center. A spokeswoman for the show described the Akanas' need for a new home, the desperation of their plight and their service to the community as contributing factors.

My instructions to the editors and reporters handling the story were to give readers the details of the salaries, the land values involved, the history and impact of the nonprofit, and whatever "Extreme Makeover" had to say. We spoke to Theresa Akana and Kanoe Naone, a spokeswoman for Keiki O Ka 'Aina as well as Denise Cramsey, executive producer for Lock & Key Productions, the show's creator. All were forthright. We also called on a couple of volunteers and told them what we had found out. Neither said it changed their opinion about working on the project.

So why write the story at all?

Because this was information that readers needed to have to form their own opinion about the show's credibility, which The Advertiser had touted on Page One and television news stations had covered extensively.

We had a person with no connection to the project saying how it didn't seem right that Akana and her husband were making a combined income of more than $200,000 and then getting a new house and a new building for Keiki O Ka 'Aina, but I removed it from the story. I didn't want anything in the piece to sway a readers' conclusion one way or another. I wanted the facts laid out as simply as possible. We even put Theresa Akana's salary in perspective, pointing out that it is in line with others who run similar-sized nonprofits.

Reporters Rick Daysog and Kim Fassler did an admirable job and played it straight down the middle.

Reaction to the story so far has been two-thirds positive and about one-third negative.

Some are angry at ABC and the show and have vowed not to watch. Others are angry at the Akanas and believe the help should have gone to someone else. Some who know the Akana family and the nonprofit personally are upset with us for what they say is a story that implied that Theresa Akana and Keiki O Ka 'Aina were not deserving of the help. They seemed to ignore all the previous stories done on "Extreme Makeover's" assistance to the Akanas.

The story did not imply that the Akanas did not deserve what they received. It allowed readers to make an informed decision about the show just as previous stories focused on the effort of the volunteers and the nonprofit's accomplishments. For us to ignore the new information that came to our attention meant that we'd be telling only half the story.