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Why we pursued and published the Dr. Mase story

No respectable journalist I know finds glee in someone else’s misfortune – even when that individual’s wrongdoings absolutely must be reported.

That is especially true in a community like Sonoma County where so many of The Press Democrat’s stories focus on local issues and individuals.

Such as the story of Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer.

On Friday evening, The Press Democrat published a story on pressdemocrat.com that revealed Dr. Mase was convicted in July 2021 of misdemeanor reckless driving with alcohol involved after pleading no contest.

An anonymous tipster late Thursday flagged our newsroom to the incident. It’s not uncommon for off-the-record sources to share inside information or potential “you should look into…” ideas with our staff. As we typically do, we immediately got to work digging into the tip.

Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Three veteran reporters spent most of Friday tracking down and analyzing court records and arrest documents that outlined Dr. Mase’s situation. Their findings and the story were reviewed by three senior editors.

Ultimately, I gave the green light to publish it – not of any attempt to besmirch Dr. Mase’s character, spark racial tension because of her ethnicity or give oxygen to those opposed to vaccines and mask mandates, as several readers have suggested in weekend emails, phone calls and social media posts.

Instead, our decision to pursue and publish the story was quite simple: The highest-ranking public health official in Sonoma County has at least twice driven while under the influence of alcohol, putting herself and others in harm’s way.

County supervisors, who hired Mase and have the authority to fire her, were not aware of the incident. Neither was her new supervisor, Tina Rivera.

And until our reporting, Sonoma County taxpayers who pay Dr. Mase’s $282,450 annual salary and for whom she works did not know of her arrest, conviction, $530 fine or that she remains on probation until July 23, 2022.

Our story reported Dr. Mase was convicted July 23, 2021, stemming from a Dec. 2, 2020, arrest in Alameda County on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol with a prior offense. Records showed Mase had been arrested in San Diego on suspicion of DUI in May 2014.

The story appeared atop Page One of Saturday’s edition. It deserved such prominent play because of Dr. Mase’s county position, her prominence in public health circles, her heartfelt apology and the significant concerns expressed by county officials who were stunned to learn about the incident.

We knew it would trigger an immediate response from readers. Many have praised the story, questioning why Dr. Mase’s arrest and conviction were not made public before. Others described the story as a “smear campaign” and insist it’s irrelevant and shouldn’t have been reported.

“What’s the big deal?” someone wrote in an email to me. “Her job has been so stressful and demanding. Didn’t she deserve to have a drink after work? I don’t know why it’s a story.”

That’s why I am sharing this column. You should insist on transparency involving your public officials and those making decisions at Sonoma County’s largest media source.

Dr. Mase, responsible for the protection and promotion of the public's health in Sonoma County, needs no introduction. She is a highly trained and, by all accounts, a very successful and respected physician with a deep understanding of infectious diseases. She has spearheaded Sonoma County’s medical response against COVID-19 for nearly two years and has been center stage throughout the pandemic.

Like so many of her peers nationwide, Dr. Mase has simultaneously earned praise for her leadership and implementation of restrictive measures she said was needed to curb the virus, while also being blasted by some who say she’s been too stringent and infringed on civil liberties.

Our story was not about her performance as Sonoma County’s medical officer.

Instead, it thoughtfully and accurately focused on what happened in December 2020, at one of the most trying moments during the pandemic with COVID cases and deaths mounting. At the time of her arrest, the county was in the most restrictive tier of California’s reopening plan. Many businesses remained closed and consumers’ choices of where to shop were limited.

That’s when the California Highway Patrol says Dr. Mase was driving under the influence with a blood-alcohol level above .08 percent, the legal limit in California, with a prior offense. She had a blood alcohol level that night of 0.14, according to court documents.

Dr. Mase put her life and the lives of others on the highway that night at risk. Records show officers said she was driving erratically while westbound on Interstate 80 in Oakland. She “nearly collided with another vehicle” on Interstate 580, while changing lanes. They flashed red and blue lights to stop her, even used a police car’s PA system – however, Mase did not stop.

She was placed under arrest at 12:10 a.m. Dec. 2, 2020.

Contacted by our reporters Friday, Dr. Mase apologized in a statement that read, in part, “I made a very serious mistake. After socializing with a friend after work hours, I misjudged my sobriety and got behind the wheel of my car.”

It was, she added, “a terrible lapse of judgment on my part.”

Dr. Mase’s boss, the newly promoted health services director, Rivera, said the incident undermines the doctor’s credibility and “negatively impacts our department and county.”

“Something like this truly gives fuel to advocates who stand against these mandates, stand against vaccines, things of that nature,” said Rivera, who didn’t know about the incident until she was contacted by The Press Democrat.

The story raises at least two important questions:

•The county’s top lawyer said Dr. Mase was under no obligation to report the incident. While she did disclose it to her supervisor at the time, county supervisors likely are going to ask when does a personal matter become a formal personnel matter? And, why didn’t they know about it?

•Will the county adjust its long-term COVID strategy if Dr. Mase’s incident impairs her credibility with the public?

Stories of this magnitude are never rushed into print. There were numerous conversations with reporters and editors, including newsroom leaders who were not directly involved in the story.

One important decision made was to not allow readers’ comments on the pressdemocrat.com story. (As of Tuesday afternoon, the story on The Press Democrat’s Facebook page had generated more than 800 comments and was shared about 200 times.)

During the pandemic, as the health crisis continued for months and months, the public’s anger directed at health officials has boiled over. In numerous occasions, those comments from trolls became personal attacks — even racist, if not outright threatening.

Dr. Mase, in particular, became the target of hateful posts, not because of her decisions, but because of her ethnicity and gender. Those attacks violated our civility terms, and it is not uncommon for those comments to be removed by our staff.

We anticipated the same with Friday’s story, so, we disabled comments. I feel strongly that was the right call.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, the highest and primary obligation of journalists is to serve the public.

Our job is to pursue and publish responsible journalism that truly mirrors our community; providing a true reflection on its good days, as well as its bad days.

That means celebrating successes when they’re achieved; grieving in the face of tragedy; providing community leadership during challenging moments; giving voice to the most vulnerable among us; and – arguably our most important role – holding public officials accountable when it comes to matters of the public’s money, health and safety.

Especially their safety.

I am confident that’s what we did in reporting Dr. Mase’s arrest and conviction.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Don’t hesitate to drop me a note or email.

Thanks, as always, for reading The Press Democrat.

Richard Green is our executive editor. Email him at rick.green@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @EditorRAG

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