If you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger. Those who receive public money, but aren’t too thrilled when they are held accountable, should not be allowed to adopt that principle.
On Aug. 20, the Malheur Enterprise newspaper reported that Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe was considering investigating possible criminal harassment charges against the paper’s reporters. Their offense? Trying to investigate state legislator Greg Smith’s possible conflicts of interest in his work as an economic development consultant for Malheur County.
Oregon makes it a criminal offense for someone who “intentionally harassed or annoys another person” at a number they have been forbidden to use. Smith claims reporters have done so with after-hours calls to his employees, or emails sent to their personal email addresses.
Editor Les Zaitz defends his reporters for simply doing their jobs to ensure that information about public spending is available to the public.
News organizations, once respected as public watchdogs, are now casually demeaned by politicians on a daily basis. Prying open public reports, which were formerly available for the asking, now requires filing formal Freedom of Information Act requests or navigating nearly impenetrable or expensive digital records systems. Too many officials asked about subjects the public has a right to know are refusing to answer.
This is not the first time the small Oregon weekly has made public officials uncomfortable or even miffed for asking questions. Nor is the Malheur Enterprise the only news organization to have done so. It is not even the only one to have been threatened with criminal or civil penalties for doing its job.
The relationship between the press and public officials is, and should be, adversarial when necessary. The job of every journalist is to find out what the public should know and then tell it. Public officials might not like what is found and told, but they should never intimidate or interfere.
“When government officials act to control the press, by manipulation or by playing favorites, the losers are Americans who deserve to know what they’re doing. We’ll keep asking questions, sometimes tough but fair ones, on your behalf.”
Malheur Enterprise Editor Zaitz’s words sum up why the Bill of Rights begins with freedom of the press. A free and fair press ensures that elected officials will be accountable to the public for the actions they take and the money they spend.
Good newspapers like the Malheur Enterprise don’t always deliver messages that are popular with those they cover or those who read that coverage. All the same, they deserve support and respect.