As one small part of the often derided “legacy media,” I am aware that what I am about to say won’t find sympathy with many readers out there.
But it’s been on my mind for such a long time, I figure I may as well say it.
When I began in this business nearly 30 years ago, the beats that guys like me covered — in my particular case, city and county governments and the people who worked for them — were filled top to bottom with public servants much more accessible and willing to speak than they are today.
In those days, it was easy for a reporter — a genre my late father jokingly referred to as “ink-stained wretches” — to arrange in-depth sit downs with public servants, even at the top, who were willing to talk about the issues of the day. They may not have liked doing it — I’m sure most didn’t — but they went ahead.
I think they were willing to do that because, at some deep level, they understood that for all of its faults, and there are many, the free press had a place in the choir, just like they had.
That’s not always the case today. I believe a diminution in the understanding of the press’ role, a role that has been key from the nation’s earliest days and still sets us apart, has taken place, and in step elevated people into positions of power who regard the free press as something alien, a creature antithetical to the American way of life, the enemy.
To get around the press, the tendency today is to create web content more congenial to them, relying on their own in-house spin machines to push out scrubbed versions of events. In this way, public servants are free to weave a rosier picture of the state of affairs than may actually be the case.
I can’t count the number of times in pursuit of a story that I’ve been referred to government-generated web content, which, the person I am dealing with assures me, “explains everything.”
“It’s on our Facebook page, you can read about it there.”
“Yes, but you guys wrote that, and I have a question about — ”
“It’s on the page.”
Now let me bring all this rambling to a point.
In the eight years I covered the current administration in Auburn — I say current because such was not the case with the two previous administrations — not once did its highest elected official consent to an interview beyond the congenial soundbite.
What’s more, Auburn’s highest elected official rarely responds to questions herself anymore— at least from this publication — except to complain about stories she believes were in error. Instead, she has the city’s director of administration handle inquiries for her. In this way, the mayor has insulated herself from all that unpleasantness.
A simple inquiry last spring into how it felt for her to run for re-election without an opponent in the then-upcoming election was rebuffed by the city’s director of administration on the grounds that we were trying to get the mayor to “break the law” by using city-owned resources — a computer or phone at City Hall — to respond when we had specifically noted her concerns about that in our initial request and asked that she respond from a location other than City Hall, say, from home.
In the end we were told we could contact the elected mayor of Auburn via the number she had supplied to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. We still have the emails from the director of administration — and other e-mails from like rebuffs — to back this up.
But we may all read what the elected mayor of Auburn says online, thank goodness for that.
Look, I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here. Most public servants are happy to speak. But our colleagues who cover other local cities report encountering similar problems to the one just described up and down governmental organizations, from fire chiefs and police chiefs to city council members and beyond.
Well, buddy, some may respond, and that’s your problem, not mine. Maybe it is. But it may become everyone’s problem should things go awry at any time in the future that people in positions of authority would prefer not to talk about. Except at a distance, except online.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.