Not everyone likes to be unpopular. But reporters are mostly supposed to be. Journalists entrusted to steward the public interest are trained and employed, in part, to hold government officials accountable. We ask hard questions of powerful people and institutions. And while we know we are among their chief aggravations, we figure these people are grown-ups. They must know that government service and powerful positions come with public scrutiny.
Sometimes, however, we are very wrong about how prepared people are to accept the mantle of “great responsibility” that the enlightened Voltaire once linked to great power.1 And especially lately, as Oregon politics seem inclined toward spin-control, public officials appear less able to cope with a universe in which journalists ask hard questions and they provide the answers. It’s a little alarming.
Which is the reason I was struck by a series of incidents in Clackamas County this spring, all of which seem to keep landing on the beat of Raymond Rendleman, the journalist at the helm of the Clackamas Review.
The first involved a public official in the city of Oregon City who, upset about newspaper coverage of an incident involving a departed employee, emailed the entire public works staff and told them they could not speak – not only to the press, but to anyone – about the incident. Then, in the city of Gladstone, the city council considered officially reprimanding a council member for plainly expressing his opinion in a news article. Soon after, he was stripped of his position as a council liaison to various boards and committees in the town. That left library board members to fret over their own ability to hang onto their posts after they chose to write a letter over a lawsuit involving library fees to the same Gladstone City Council.
In all cases, the journalist on the beat was Rendleman. And he has done a journalist’s job: recording both sides of the news, taking the inevitable guff, and articulating his case when he had one. Following the email attempt to cut him off from his sources, he said a meeting with Oregon City officials and a subsequent public records request put to rest any concern that the incident was more than just isolated. And at least in Oregon City, things are back to normal.
“It may have even helped. … I think I have a good working relationship with Oregon City and will continue to because, maybe even from that incident, they understand what my role is, what my concerns are. And I don’t think an email like that will likely go out in the future, at least in Oregon City.”
His concern is bigger than Oregon City, however. And bigger than his beat. It’s not that one employee in Oregon City he’s worried about. Or whoever made the decision to try and censure a city councilor in Gladstone. “I think it’s a much deeper thing where cities and government agencies, in general, don’t understand the role of media and the role of the First Amendment.” That, coupled with public relations trends that encourage staying on message rather than answering people’s questions, is a potentially discourse-stifling recipe he worries could be a real factor in curbing public debate in places where there isn’t a journalist to act as a watchdog. It’s worrisome, says Rendleman, who sees “PR is more about withholding and controlling than it is about getting the information out there.”
I find that sentiment very on point. And it’s a scary point lately, when you consider that the balance between reporters – people whose very jobs help test agencies’ and officials’ tolerance for tough questions – and public relations employees has shifted enormously in a decade. In the 10 years between 2005 and 2015, the number of Oregon journalists declined by 23 percent, from 730 to 560.2 Meanwhile public relations jobs climbed to more than 200,000 nationally by May 2015, and in Oregon were at least three times the number of journalism jobs last year.
Of course, tension between the press and government-funded handlers is nothing new. Disagreements over analysis and source quality have always been a reporters’ fare. Public officials also very routinely make their case for good coverage – and the best of them deserve it – while public records battles are standard on the job of reporting a beat. My own career history includes these kinds of furious paper wars, even a couple public records lawsuits, lots of prickly and occasionally loud conversations, and even an incident involving a prominent developer, a conference table, and a phone book.
A recent conversation with Steve Bagwell, managing editor at the News-Register in McMinnville, underscores this has long been the case. Bagwell’s stint in journalism pre-dates Oregon’s public records law, and asked about recent PR trends he recalled how a group of journalists from Bend once bought a copy machine at a Staples store, then lugged it to the J Bar J youth homes and plugged it into a wall to avoid paying stingingly high copying fees on offer after J Bar J’s records were ruled public in a lawsuit.
At least in cases like the J Bar J records, however, and others like it, the playing field is level – it’s a courtroom or a DA’s office or the attorney general’s office – and everybody knows the rules. “For the most part, I haven’t found it to be punitive or deliberately obstructionist so much as it is just kind of a sincere feeling that it’s none of our business,” Bagwell said.
What’s more worrisome is how that is changing, and how incidents of late look different than general disagreement about the line between public interest and the internal operations of government. Instead, they look more like a shifting view within government – one in which members of the press are no longer viewed as essential to public process and democracy. The relationships between press and government are, at best, devaluing. At worst, they illustrate a newly popular belief among officials that members of the press have no right to be where they are or ask the questions that they ask. They are something to be managed. To be dispensed with. And to be muscled when they don’t behave.
Bagwell says time will tell whether a recent executive session closure – a legal one, but unusual – in Yamhill County was payback for reporter Nicole Montesano. It followed an article in which Montesano reported a conversation between the three county commissioners about labor contracts that devolved into a grouse-fest about how much they hate unions. The conversation occurred during an executive session, on which reporters can report if the discussion strays outside of the legal reason for the closed session. “We have warned people over the years what we will do if they stray off of permissible topics for what’s cited,” said Bagwell, who adds that the commissioners were warned they were out of line by their own attorney with Montesano in the room. “We did not report anything that was legitimately subject to the framework at hand” but the paper did dish the union-bashing. Montesano next found those sessions closed.
It was less pointed than an incident in late 2014 when Jon Isaacs, as chief spokesman of Portland Public Schools, took clear aim at WillametteWeek reporter Beth Slovic in a text message exchange in which he warned: “We are considering charging you for public records requests and slapping a standard 10 day response on all of your requests.” This as a follow-up to an invitation to coffee.
“I’d just started back at Portland Public Schools. I had covered them for a long time, but it had been a while,” said Slovic, who covered PPS from 2006 to 2011 and is known for her aggressive coverage. When she returned to the beat, there were new people in the communications office, and she says they weren’t always good about answering basic questions by phone or email. Instead, she said PPS began steering her toward making public records requests for most everything, including simple items – routine questions or access to documents that most other agencies standardly retrieve.
Slovic said when nearly every question led to a formal records request, it increased tension with the communications staff. “They were complaining about the volume of public records requests, but also creating the problem,” she said. When Isaacs texted her an invitation to coffee, saying their relationship was headed for a train wreck, she tweeted about the threat that followed.
Isaacs has since left PPS. But his tactics seem not to have left the public service arena.
Jack Orchard, the media attorney the Pamplin Media Group summoned in response to questions from Rendleman, says incidents like these are symptomatic of an attitude in which government employees don’t seem to want to deal with the press in Oregon, and don’t think they should have to. Public records are one example, Orchard said, noting he sees agencies routinely look for exemptions to avoid responding to reporters, and complain that responding is difficult, time consuming, and never top of the list.
“I understand you need to keep the garbage picked up and fire suppression done on a timely basis, but I think it’s part of the function” of government to respond to requests for information. “To screen off basic communications seems to me to be part of this attitude problem that I see,” he said. While the public is more adept at using media in Portland, he adds, “You go to John Day, Baker City, Cave Junction, Bandon – who do you think is the only source of news about local government? It’s the community newspaper. There ain’t no television and radio station … and those are the people that I find have borne the brunt of the issues I’ve discussed.”
Laura Kane, the chief communications officer for the Public Relations Society of America, says nationally these issues seem less about tension between government and the press than about changing roles for everybody. In a world where what’s called “earned media” – or news articles generated about an organization – now has less value than connecting with constituents via original content on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and the like, it’s harder to maintain relationships with reporters, she says, particularly when those reporters are more in demand than ever. “Getting a hold of them and talking to them is hard. Getting them to come out and cover press events is hard. I don’t know that the relationship has changed so much as the demands on the reporter have changed.”
Kane believes this makes local reporters more important than ever. She points out that local reporters often are the only source of information that’s crucial, say, to businesses – impending layoffs or unrest in a community – for example. And that she sees smart executives keep careful tabs on the reporters who know their community best.
Hard to say, though, whether Kane’s appreciation for the local journalist is uniformly embraced elsewhere. It doesn’t seem to be the case in Oregon. And I think it should be. If government agencies fail to appreciate the necessary and productive tension between their agencies and the press, they are paving the way for bloggers and social media to fill the void. Unlike ordinary citizens expressing opinions, zeroing in on their individual concerns, and sometimes fanning rumors, trained journalists provide a balance to community discussion. They also distill complex information for general audiences in a way that not only educates, but puts community events in proper perspective alongside civic concern.
Attitudes that treat reporters as pariahs, policies that shut the door on communications and, in cases, muzzle the free speech of government employees and other elected officials who wish to remain engaged with the press, are shortsighted temper tantrums. And they engender more than just the momentary relief of effectively shutting a reporter out of a public issue. They engender community ignorance, misinformation and unbalanced, unhealthy democracies. That’s not good for Oregon. And it’s a woeful oversight of what public service is all about: service. Anyone who expects that service to be a cakewalk free of dissent, devoid of serious discussion or of criticism really ought to rethink whether they belong in the business of government.