In what should be viewed as the latest frightening incursion upon the role of the media in the country today, county officials in Oregon have asked the local sheriff to look into the newspaper’s reporting to see if any criminal conduct had taken place.
The paper, the Malheur Enterprise, a small, independently owned publication in Vale, Oregon, apparently had crossed into harassment territory because reporters were making phone calls and sending emails to personal accounts of economic development employees outside normal office hours and on weekends. Apparently, people had been “subjected” to emails at all hours of the day.
The story has gotten traction in the national media. The Washington Post wrote about it earlier this week.
At the center of the matter is state Rep. Greg Smith, a Republican lawmaker who also serves as the county’s director of economic development on a contract basis. Neither he nor his aide are county employees, and his issue is with their being contacted outside of business hours despite his asking the newspaper to refrain from doing so.
The sheriff hasn’t said publicly whether he plans to open an investigation. Oregon, like many other states, has a law on the books that says, “a telephone caller commits the crime of telephonic harassment if the caller intentionally harasses or annoys another person” by calling a number they have been forbidden to use.
Smith, an elected official who reportedly and repeatedly has told numerous people to call him directly with questions, has said he was available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Unless, apparently, you are a reporter with legitimate questions trying to do a job.
Journalists are trained to obtain and verify information. This is especially important when it comes to dealing with elected officials and holding government accountable for the way taxpayer dollars are spent. We contact people. If we don’t reach them, we leave a message and ask for a call to be returned.
However, for all the journalists who are trained to get information, there are an equal or greater number of people trained to avoid sharing that information. They don’t return calls. They ignore messages. They use stall statics. As hard as it is to believe, there are people, including elected officials, who would just as soon never have to deal with a member of the media.
In some cases, it’s legitimate. They’ve been burned, misquoted or misled. Those are exceptions to the rule. The overwhelming majority of journalists are doing their dead-level best to do their jobs because our most important commodity is accurate information.
Bottom line, though, public officials and those who hold high-profile jobs are supposed to be available and they should expect that dedicated journalists are going to contact them. If we don’t get an answer the first time, we will try again and again. If we don’t connect with a main source, we try other sources.
As the wise old Editor told me years ago, “Keep shaking the tree until something falls out.” That’s the nature of the game. It is not harassment. It is simply working on behalf of people, who, by the way, also want answers.
Now, I doubt many folks are shedding a tear for the newspaper involved. In fact, there may be those cheering against the press (or taking note of the strategy for some future occasion).
From the outside looking in, this appears to be a tactic of intimidation. If you can’t get the media to quit asking questions by evading them, maybe you can by raising the specter of legal action. This can be a powerful deterrent.
Let’s face it. It’s not the best time to be a journalist in America. A few months ago, according to the Post, San Francisco police raided a journalist’s home because he refused to reveal his source for a confidential police report he obtained. The raid came despite the fact California has a shield law that protects journalists.
Even more sobering was this fact included in the Post report: last April the international organization Reporters Without Borders downgraded America to “problematic” status for the first time since it began tracking press freedom in 2002 (other countries rated problematic include Ukraine, Angola and Brazil). The reasons: increasing threats of violence against journalists and rhetoric from President Trump that includes calling the media an “enemy of the people.”
Here’s the deal. If you are an elected official or a high-profile newsmaker – for example, a head football coach or chancellor at a major university – you should expect to hear from the media. Sometimes these inquiries will be inconvenient. It comes with the territory and the responsibility.
Through the years, I have contacted chancellors, university presidents, athletic directors, head coaches and a handful of public officials after 11 p.m. on weeknights and on weekends.
It is fair to say they were never thrilled to hear from me at that time, but they understood I was just trying to do a job. I shudder to think that one day someone from the law enforcement community might show up at the office to ask us about our phone call and email practices. It’s the stuff of Orwell.
Fortunately, through the years here in West Texas, newsmakers have, by and large, been accessible to the media. That’s a credit to them and also a largely non-confrontational local media. I told a colleague this week that I’d always rather be known as "fair" than "friendly." Part of fairness is contacting people at odd times to get a response and balance a story.
Anything intended to chill journalists’ ability to do their job should get our attention as the threat it is to a free press fundamental: holding people with power accountable by expecting them to be accessible.
Doug Hensley is associate regional editor and director of commentary for the Globe-News.