Thursday, August 17, 2006

When It's Time Not To Be Nice

Press's responsibilty to inform public, locally or otherwise
Colfax City Council candidate Will Stockwin asked me Monday during a phone call why I was writing a story about the candidates before the filing deadline had passed.

Ten questions were composed and delivered via e-mail last Friday afternoon to four of the five candidates. Although the filing deadline was Wednesday, the deadline I had to meet was Monday. Therefore, I required that the answers to the questions be returned to me no later than Monday evening.

The fifth candidate, Mark Viscia, filed his papers late Friday and I didn't become aware of his candidacy until Monday morning. When contacted Monday morning, he voiced concerns about the short notice, but agreed to complete the questions by Tuesday.

When discussing the two concerns with my editor (short notice and writing the story before the filing deadline), we agreed that although these might be legitimate concerns, they are not valid.

A short notice would perhaps be a hindrance if the nature of the questions required the formulation of new policies, positions or ideas. However, these candidates are running for City Council and the questions are directly related to this elected office. The answers should have been well thought out prior to the decision to run for City Council - they should be automatic. They are not difficult questions - it's not too much to ask of those who are asking for your vote.
The simple answer to the question raised by Stockwin regarding our justification to write a story before we were absolutely sure who was running should be obvious to any journalist. It's news and it's happening now. Although I didn't know it at the time, according to Stockwin's statement in our questionnaire, he is a journalist with 25-plus years of experience.

Furthermore, we're pretty sure there won't be any surprises. We keep our nose in everybody's business - it's the nature of our business and we are fairly certain that these are the five candidates we'll see on the ballot this November.

This questioning of the Record's judgment in writing and publishing a story on the election has found its way under my skin. Stockwin's rationale was, "There could be two or three more candidates filing between now and Wednesday." Perhaps, but that's our problem - we'll deal with it. There is a greater principle involved that may be lost on many outside this business, but is held dear by those within it.

Responsibility.

Although the following does not pertain to Stockwin, the election or even Colfax specifically, they have everything to do with the vital role of a free press in America and illustrate the sacred duty the press has in any free society. It is absolutely where I'm coming from.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America reads in part: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." Indeed, not only has Congress made no law abridging the freedom of the press, it has enacted several enhancing it.

Perhaps the most far reaching at the federal level is the Freedom of Information Act. Enacted in 1966 and strengthened after the Watergate scandal in 1974, the FOIA is a powerful tool to force federal agencies to release documents that would otherwise be withheld from public scrutiny. According to a Public Broadcasting Service Web site (www.pbs.org/now/politics/foia.html), FOIA requests are responsible for:
  • The Department of Transportation being sued for information on the infamous Ford Pinto gas tank explosions and the subsequent recall of the Pinto in 1978.

  • Law students at George Washington University sued for the release of some 2,500 pages of documents that led to the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew.

Closer to home, here in California, we have similar laws regarding public access to information held by governmental agencies. One of particular note to those of a journalistic ilk is the Ralph M. Brown Act of 1953. Named for its author and signed into law by Gov. Earl Warren, it too has been strengthened over the years (www.thefirstamendment.org/brownact.html).

The Brown Act was enacted to end secrecy of local public agencies and allow for the participation in the public policy and decision-making process. Among its key provisions are:
  • Public and regularly scheduled meetings of local agencies such as a city council or board of supervisors.
  • Public officials cannot discuss agency business outside of the public meeting forum dictated by the law.

  • All public records provided to the body must be provided to the public without delay.

The burden to acquire the information that our public officials don't always want to part with has been the traditional and sacred role of the press since the formative years of our nation. I take this responsibility seriously. Next time I am asked to explain why, how or when we cover the news, my response will be much more concise: It's my responsibility. In this case, my job includes covering the local politics of Colfax - that's why.

Michael Althouse can be reached at mikealthouse@earthlink.net.

4 comments:

Awareness said...

Love it!!

Looks like Stockwin is looking for a pissing contest ? !

25 years in journalism? Hmmmmmm I'm wondering if an old codger journalist turned politician is a bit like a reformed smoker type?

Or he's found Jesus or something.

Looks like he's got the "talking out of both sides of his mouth" down pat.......it will make for an interesting local election.

Will you be working there in the fall, or will you be back to school full-time?

Well written, Mike. I love reading articles with a local political flavour.

mckay said...

Woo!! go get 'em, sam.

Lacey said...

I ran into this question when listening to a Sacramento Bee editor speak once. We talked about "Bleeding heart" stories--stories of little boys with cancer, perhaps, who are doing a funraiser tomorrow and could the public please come? A big paper like the Sac Bee will have leads on several of these kinds of stories, and can only pick one to print.

Usually the story that gets printed gets the dough.

So, how can you be fair to everyone, and at the same time only print one story?

You can't. Journalists try to cover everyone, and we want to do right for everyone. But the truth is, we can't. Now, maybe next week you can go back and write a second story about a last-minute filer. And maybe it isn't fair that you give first press to people who filed early. It certainly wouldn't be ethical to imply that your story had more than the early filers. But when the press deadline comes, you've got to write the story you have. That means writing about the early filers, and only the early filers.

Anyway, just my five cents!
Lacey

Snaggle Tooth said...

If ya can't field questions without answering with a question,

should ya be running for city council n running public meetings?

Is it his job to ask you about your job, (no, just ask your credentials) or to run a good campaign... hmmm?

I'm sure your publication offered later free n equal coverage to any late filers in fairness-