There is a need now more than ever for local journalism.
In a time when journalists and newspapers are called an “enemy of the people,” and stories are labeled “fake news” if the subjects think they portrays them negatively, news outlets need to be even more diligent in their reporting.
Such was the case when an Enterprise reporter covered a Calaveras County Water District (CCWD) meeting about a pipeline project where a local Native American tribe had alleged in writing that the district and its general manager had discriminated against them in its handling of that project.
After the Enterprise story was published online – just prior to going to print – the general manager of CCWD cried foul, stating that the Enterprise story was biased and that he wasn’t given a chance to respond to the tribe’s allegations. More on that in a bit.
After the Enterprise refused the manager’s demand that it issue an immediate apology and retraction and the manager persisted in his refusal to go on record in an interview that would have been published in the next issue of the Enterprise , the CCWD issued a press release stating, “The District categorically denies these accusations, which are based on demonstrably false allegations,” and “The District is disappointed that the Enterprise violated basic principles of journalism by failing to verify the allegations and neglecting to give CCWD an opportunity to respond prior to publishing its article.” A complete copy of that press release is available at ccwd.org.
The most basic principles of journalism make clear that journalists are supposed to just report the facts and not draw conclusions as to who is right and who is wrong in the case of some dispute between parties on a matter that is newsworthy, such as a claim of discrimination leveled against a public agency. That is what we did. And that is particularly appropriate in dealing with such allegations of discrimination against a public entity. The public has a right to know that serious allegations of that nature have been made and why. The public entity has its own obligation and also has the opportunity afforded by public meetings to address those allegations on the merits. That process should never be impaired by the public entity’s efforts to duck public disclosure and discredit the allegations simply by demanding that the newspaper withdraw its article and apologize for reporting the basic facts.
The allegations of discrimination in this matter were clearly outlined in correspondence between tribal representatives and the general manager of the CCWD. At a subsequent public meeting of the board where the project in question and the issues raised by the tribe were discussed, CCWD representatives did not acknowledge those written claims, but simply stated that they had acted properly in moving forward with the project over the objections of tribal representatives and in refusing to provide any reimbursement for the work tribal representatives offered to do in bringing issues concerning risks to cultural artifacts to the attention of CCWD. The tribe’s budget proposal for that assistance was refused by CCWD before any work was done, but the tribe went on to do the work unpaid anyway and complained about the discriminatory treatment of the tribe and its members. CCWD and its manager chose not to provide any detailed response to the allegations of discrimination in that public forum, and still have done nothing more than simply reject those allegations as groundless and demand that the Enterprise apologize for reporting on them.
While CCWD now complains that it should have been given the opportunity to deny those allegations in detail in the article that was published, when offered that opportunity as soon as they complained to the Enterprise, they declined to provide any details on the record unless the Enterprise first publicly retracted the article and apologized to CCWD and its general manager. In its subsequent press release, the CCWD says, “Had the Enterprise sought comment, CCWD would have asked it to review the recording of the CCWD Board meeting on which the article focuses.” Yet there is nothing in the recording of the board meeting that denies allegations of discrimination were raised or offers any reason to believe that those allegations are false, except a flat denial that the CCWD did anything improper in its relationship with the tribe.
This incident illustrates why newspapers and journalists are so important. If there was no independent community newspaper covering all public agencies or if what purported to be an independent newspaper could be intimidated into withdrawing or apologizing for its coverage of a public matter by threats from an agency, public officials could avoid discussing any negative matters in their public meetings or offer only their side when they did, and the public would never know the other side of the story.
There has never been a time when that risk was more acute due to well-publicized economic threats to the survival of all community newspapers and the willingness of politicians and other public officials to exploit that weakness with threats of retribution for reporting facts they would prefer not to see disclosed to the public. In communities like Calaveras all over this country, citizens no longer have that protection because in the past 15 years, 1,400 of those communities have lost their only newspaper, according to data compiled by the University of North Carolina, and local journalists no longer report on the actions or inactions of their public officials.