by MICHELE VAN HESSEN
Archived July 2007 article
A free society relies on the free exchange of information between the media and public. All levels of society must feel they can speak to journalists without the fear of retaliation,” said local journalist Malia Zimmerman.
Born and raised in Kailua, and now a Hawaii Kai resident with her 12-year-old son Michael, Zimmerman has many fond memories from four generations of her family living on the islands.
From the time she was a young child, Zimmerman performed on stage in hula shows, fashion shows, the ukulele choir, live theater and television commercials.
Homesick even if she leaves Hawaii for a week, Zimmerman opted to attend a local university on partial scholarship studying journalism, business and theater at Chaminade University of Honolulu.
After graduating in 1990, she interned at KHON TV 2, worked for Pacific Business News, and wrote for several national and local publications.
In February 2002, under the banner “Freedom to Report the Real News,” Zimmerman co-founded Hawaii Reporter, Hawaii’s only online daily news publication.
“From our experience at various media outlets, my business partner Jay McWilliams and I knew that Hawaii needed more investigative reporting, but we realized the traditional mainstream media often does not provide this kind of in-depth coverage because of influence of advertisers or powerful government officials or time and space constraints. That is why we created an online publication with a business model that doesn’t rely on advertising and has no word limit or firm deadlines,” said Zimmerman. They also wanted to establish a publication where virtually everyone can share their views.
KSSK Morning Talk Show host Michael W. Perry says, “Malia and the gang are must-reads for me everyday. For the same reason that we rely on Internet sources to counter sloppiness and bias in the national media, we need Hawaii Reporter to give the seldom-heard ‘other side of the story’ in our local media.”
East Oahu Realtor Walt Harvey said Hawaii Reporter is a “must-read” for him every morning. “I get the news that doesn’t show up anywhere else and I appreciate the hard hitting reporting and guest editorials.”
Recognized for her political expertise and blunt style, Zimmerman was recruited during the 2002 election as an on-air commentator for KHNL TV 8 news. She was featured on ABC’s newsmagazine “20/20″ and Fox News and published in dozens of national publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, Forbes, Business Week, Associated Press and Drudge Report.
For The Washington Times, Zimmerman traveled, in January 2001, to American Samoa to investigate a Korean sweatshop owner who enslaved more than 300 workers. Subsequently, Kil Soo Lee was arrested by the FBI, convicted in federal court for human trafficking, and incarcerated in 2005 for 40 years. For this story, she won the highest award for investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists – one of several journalism awards given to Hawaii Reporter’s staff and Zimmerman.
Part of their business strategy was to expand Hawaii Reporter into a diverse media corporation. Hawaii Reporter’s research division produces books and studies; its public record division has a database with more than 1 million business and government records. She makes weekly radio appearances, and launched a television show – “News Behind the News” – on Olelo Channel 54, that airs Mondays at 6 P.M.
Zimmerman made national news again in recent weeks because of her involvement in a legal fight for the First Amendment and freedom of the press.
Investigative reporters across America are being called into court to testify about their stories. Zimmerman is no different. In April 2007, she was subpoenaed after more than one year of investigative work into the cause of the March 14, 2006 breach of Kauai’s Ka Loko Dam, which killed eight people and destroyed millions of dollars of property. William McCorriston, attorney for dam owner James Pflueger, wants Zimmerman to be deposed and turn over notes and sources for her reports, which appeared in Hawaii Reporter and on “20/20.” Jeffrey S. Portnoy, Hawaii’s leading First Amendment attorney, is representing Zimmerman, and to fund this effort, Hawaii Reporter has launched a legal defense fund.
“This is a civil case in which the lead plaintiff and his attorneys want to use Hawaii Reporter’s research, without first proving the information cannot be found through their own efforts. According to federal case law, this is not allowed in other jurisdictions and it should not be allowed here,” Zimmerman says. She notes her sources were not quoted anonymously, but says they directed her to documents that were useful and now fear retaliation.
Hawaii is not one of the 31 American states with a journalism “shield law” that gives reporters additional legal protection. But that may change next year.
Lawmakers in the House of Representatives and the Senate are planning to introduce such legislation in 2008. “It is important to protect the journalists’ First Amendment rights, because they can tell all sides of the story, while government officials often say only what they think you should know,” says Republican Rep. Gene Ward, Ph.D., who represents Hawaii Kai to Kalama Valley.