Your Weekend Reader for Sept. 30-Oct. 1

by | Sep 30, 2023 | Weekend Reader | 2 comments

Let’s start local this week with a deep dive into the new media policy at Benton County, which says, among other things, that county officials can refuse to talk to members of the media who aren’t considered “objective.”

Penny Rosenberg, the editor of the Gazette-Times and Democrat-Herald, reported on the new policy in a story this week, noting that the three members of the commission unanimously approved it.

If you want to check out the media policy yourself, it runs from pages 46 to 65 of the packet for the commissioners’ Sept. 19 meeting. Much of it covers the question of who can speak to news organizations on behalf of the county, and tries to limit that to the county’s public information officer or people who are designated as spokespeople on certain areas of expertise. It asks that spokespeople get media-relations training. This is all stuff that’s understandable, from the county’s perspective, but it’s frustrating for reporters — in my experience, how it works in practice is that county employees become reluctant to talk to reporters even on the most noncontroversial subjects.

My sense is that the policy, on the whole, makes it more difficult for news organizations to get timely information from the county but maybe a little easier for the county to control its messaging, which — of course — is the entire point.

Much of Rosenberg’s story focused on a part of the policy outlining when county employees can refuse to speak to a reporter or editor. Here are two of the reasons listed in the policy for when a county employee can refuse to grant an interview:

  • “Media or journalists are coming at a story with an angle without a willingness to be objective.”
  • “Media requestor has consistently shared inaccurate information, misinformation, or disinformation.”

Of course, this raises all sorts of issues — and we’ll get to those in a moment. But it’s just as important to realize that none of this is necessary. As Rosenberg herself pointed out in her story, there’s no law forcing public officials to speak to reporters about anything. Anybody, public official or not, always has the option to choose not to speak to a reporter. This portion of the policy essentially is a self-inflicted wound.

And it raises important questions: Who decides whether an angle that a journalist is pursuing is “objective?” (In fact, many times, journalists seeking information don’t have an angle beyond curiosity about something that’s occurring. A knowledgeable and willing source often has an opportunity to help a journalist find or shape an angle. There’s nothing untoward about that, and a more progressive media policy would understand how that can work.)

Who gets to decide whether a reporter has “consistently shared inaccurate information, misinformation or disinformation?” In fact, how does the county define “misinformation” or “disinformation?” (The policy does include an appendix in which some terms are defined, but not those two.)

Rosenberg had some questions for the county’s public information officer, Cory Grogan, who had submitted the policy to the commissioners — and Grogan dug a deeper hole with his answers.

Asked who would determine “objectivity,” Grogan replied to Rosenberg via email that the county “will rely on the expertise of our subject matter experts to assess the objectivity of a reporter’s work, especially when dealing with contentious or politically sensitive subjects.”

(Grogan’s answer put me in mind of that scene in “Annie Hall” when Woody Allen pulls Marshall McLuhan from behind a movie poster to settle an argument. “You want experts? We’ve got experts right here!”)

Grogan did elaborate: “The experts on contentious subjects and politics can vary, and for complex topics, they may include key partners, Benton County employees with subject matter expertise, or leaders knowledgeable in the specific topic. In the realm of politics, our leadership, such as commissioners, the county administrator, and department directors, often serve as experts.”

So the county itself has experts who can decide whether a reporter’s angle on a story is “objective” and can decline to be interviewed on those grounds. Left unsaid here is the idea that county “experts” on a certain topic also could choose to speak to a reporter about why a certain angle fails to be “objective” — which could help ensure that the county’s position is represented in a news story.

The questions keep coming: How will the county determine whether a reporter has “consistently shared inaccurate information, misinformation, or disinformation?” Grogan said “multiple corrections or retractions for inaccuracies or biased reporting” would be indicators, but again, the question is who’s counting and how exactly they’re counting. And “biased reporting” isn’t a particularly reliable indicator. (When I edited the Gazette-Times, I always encouraged sources to immediately call me or a reporter if they had an issue with a story; the idea was, first, to promptly run a correction, if warranted, to set the record straight — and, second, to clear the air right away so that a source wouldn’t tell me, six months or so later, that a story had erred in a significant way. This language makes me worry that someone at the county would be keeping a private tally of errors or “biased reporting” and would haul that out when some unspoken limit had been reached.)

Grogan told Rosenberg that reporters had several avenues to get back in good graces with county officials after interview requests had been denied. They included:

  • Public acknowledgment of any previous instances of bias or unbalanced reporting.
  • Commitment to adhering to objectivity standards moving forward.
  • In some cases, retractions or corrections of past biased reporting may be necessary to rectify the record.
  • Assessment by the public information officer, county administrator, and commissioners of the reporter’s efforts to address their past positions.

Leaving behind for a moment the demeaning nature of these, they raise important questions: Whose objectivity standards? In what venue are reporters expected to acknowledge their previous sins? By what standards will county officials assess reporters’ efforts “to address their past positions?”

I am unaware that Benton County has been the recent target of any particularly aggressive reporting by the perpetually understaffed Gazette-Times — but even if that were the case, calling reporters on the carpet for perceived errors or bias as they try to do their jobs isn’t going to help matters.

Commissioner Nancy Wyse told Rosenberg that she was willing to take a second look at the policy. That’s good. But it would have been better if the commissioners had taken a tougher look at some of the language in the policy and asked these questions in the first place.

I’m a little bit sorry that took up so much space in this edition. Let me add links to a couple of unrelated stories before I wrap it up this weekend:

I noted with sadness the obituary for Linn County Clerk Steve Druckenmiller. Shayla Escudero of the Democrat Herald/Gazette-Times did a nice job with the obit, but I wish it had gone into more depth to outline Druckenmiller’s long-running efforts to boost Oregon’s vote-by-mail system and his work to extend the franchise in Oregon. (Former Linn County Clerk Del Riley was among the fathers of vote by mail, and Druckenmiller was among his most devoted disciples, although he initially harbored doubts about the idea — doubts that he expressed to Riley during a job interview. Riley hired him anyway.) I did a story in 2020 about everything county clerks did to help ensure election integrity, and as I did those interviews, it became clear to me that Druckenmiller was well-known and beloved among his colleagues.

Maybe the most interesting Pac-12 Conference news came from this week’s legislative hearing in Salem on the matter, which attracted testimony from officials from both Oregon State University and the University of Oregon. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian provided this recap, and noted that it remains unclear what precisely the Legislature can do about any of this. OSU officials said they were projecting a potential revenue shortfall of $35 million or so between 2024 and 2025 from the loss of conference payouts and television revenue. Meanwhile, Karl Scholz, the president of the University of Oregon, told legislators that his school had no choice but to bolt for the Big Ten to ensure “stability and visibility” for the Ducks. He also said that it likely was better to have one state university facing financial distress than two state schools. Of course, it’s probably easier to say that when you’re not the school facing big revenue losses. But maybe that’s an example of “biased reporting.”

That’s it for this weekend. See you next week.

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