Saturday, December 19, 2009

Public needs to know or Breaking News?

I try and respond to requests for records with open arms. I am even criticized by my peers for being too open to the press. Not mildly criticized mind you but heavily criticized and accused of damaging the ability for law enforcement to function in the state and creating roadblocks for the ability to successfully investigate and prosecute cases by releasing too much to the media. While my reasons for doing it in my mind are clear, open and honest government, I have been accused of being too accommodating to the media only for political reasons, or because I am "a media hog".

I bring all this up because I truly believe in open government, however the recent fight over the Governor releasing names of 59 employees who are being laid off in a few weeks has me questioning motives and what is right and decent. The media and bloggers have been trying to force the governor to release the names of the employees. Two of the names have already been released. Those two were released either by the employee themselves or through leaks.

Many of these 59 employees are widely regarded at least by the media, but probably by the public as well to be undeserving political flaks who only got their jobs by serving Governor Richardson in some point in his political career. Some may be, and who knows maybe all of them are. You know what? They are also people. People with families, kids, mortgage payments, college tuition etc. Yes these may all be high paying jobs, but the more you make the more you spend. And who says high paid workers hurt any more or less when they lose their jobs? Now lets combine the suffering of being told you will lose your job weeks before Christmas with the media dying to have the "BREAKING NEWS" banner listing your name as one of the poor slobs who lost their jobs.

Reporters often say the public "has a right to know" or "needs to know", "this is taxpayer money" but does the public even want to know who has been laid off? Is outing peoples identity who have lost their jobs necessary? There are no taxpayer dollars being spent in the move to cut these jobs, in the contrary taxpayer dollars are being saved. If the names are released what will the media do with them?

Lets take a look at the two names which have been released. Bruce Kohl, head of the Securities Division at the Regulation and Licensing Department and former Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron with the state Department of Workforce Solutions. The media portrayed Bruce Kohl as a victim who really was not the type of employee who should lose their job and was in a needed position while Rebecca who is facing federal charges for misspending money in her former elected position of Secretary of State is portrayed as someone who either should have lost their job months ago or someone who should have never gotten the job to begin with.

Now that's exactly what will happen if all the names are released. First there will be a big headline listing all the names. Then the rush will be on to see who gets the in depth story. Each news agency will try to interview the employees who are losing their jobs and exploit their situation for all its worth. Some of the employees will be portrayed as deserving in losing their jobs while others will be portrayed as human beings who will suffer due to the job loses.

All T.V. Stations, Newspapers, and even radio have had cutbacks in the last year. When the Santa Fe New Mexican laid off employees in two separate cuts in the last year, no one interviewed the employees and decided who was deserving of losing their jobs and who was not. No one went to their homes and workplaces like stalkers and shoved microphones and cameras in their faces trying to get that emotional story that makes up the tabloid style journalism that has permeated the media today. But wait! There is a difference, the reporters and news staff are private employees, the laid off state workers are government employees. Since they are government employees they are not worthy of dignity. By becoming public servants they give up all rights to a private life and deserve to have the entire state aware that they are now unemployed.

In the past editors weighed the story against good old fashioned morals and right and wrong as well as whether the story was really newsworthy. Today news media want to be first with the big story. Emotions and tragedy sell or so they think. Yet as the media go's for the jugular and becomes more and more tabloid like, people are buying and watching less and less. Is this just a coincidence?

One of the reasons reporters often ask for police reports is not just to relay the facts of the case. Public information officers, Chiefs, and Sheriff's provide that information. The real reasons they ask for the reports is to hunt down witnesses, suspects, and victims like dog the bounty hunter looking for his criminal. Once they find them they bring their cameras and show up at their front doors. Even when the person exercises their constitutional if not god given right to decline to talk to the media then the story just becomes the reporter knocking on the door and the person refusing to talk. Heck I have seen reporters chase people into bathrooms and then make that the story when the person refuses to talk. I look forward with disdain to some poor state employee who is probably already depressed over losing his or her job at Christmas being chased down a hallway or into a bathroom by the reporter trying to get his or her story online or on TV first.

In the case of these laid off employees I really don't believe the public wants to know. Its the reporters who want to know, the Governor has had the audacity to deny them their story! So like any good reporter or blogger would do, they can still write a story, the headline instead is "Governor Releases No Info on Outgoing State Employees". There is many a reporter in this state who are mumbling "as god is my witness we will fight the governor on this"! I have no doubt that the press will get the names one day. To those employees who will be subject to undignified embarrassment and harassment I am sorry. It is no wonder it is so hard to find good public servants. I often warn new deputies, this is not a regular job, you are subjected to public scrutiny unlike any job you ever had and you must recognize it and be ready to deal with it. The truth is you can not get ready to deal with it. If you get involved in a major case or make a mistake, only then will you receive a baptism by fire, only then will you truly understand what it is like to be a public servant.

Final Notes: After I wrote this I had my wife read it over. We had a lively discussion about how hard I was on the media. Many times she reads my posts before I post them and she convinces me to change things. I have debated in my mind changing certain things like the reference to Dog the Bounty Hunter. My wife says this post gives the impression that I am painting all media with the same brush. She says it is exactly what the media is doing to these state employees and actually to all exempt state employees. She is right. I have been very harsh to the media in this post.

Many times members of the media proudly proclaim that they are the watchdogs of the government and only when they expose governments downfalls will changes occur. But who is the media's watchdog? I say it is the public, when the public stops reading, stops buying or expresses their disappointment with the media only then will they change. When the media goes after perceived wrong doing in the public they often do it with tenacity and extreme criticism. Editors don't often mince words and the editorial pages and news stories often mix. Well first off I apologize to any reporter or editor who would not take advantage of employees losing their jobs. If I have painted you with the same brush, then take this note to heart, you are not the one I am talking about. To the rest I chose to leave the post just as I initially wrote it, full of strong language and passion.



Santanita Grogg said...

The media of today has gone too far in obtaining their stories.
Who cares how many women Tiger Woods has "befriended"? That is a private family issue.
Those 59 people losing thier jobs dont need to be harrassed. They need peace of mind to search out new employment. Whose going to hire someone that has been publicly embarrassed, and harrassed. What employer wants the media distracting business?

Media needs to be reined in and held accountable for thier actions. We need to speak up and put an end to their abuses.
No one deserves the harrassment of the media.

Katherine Guidry said...

this post and your post script brings to mind why I support you as Lt Gov.

Being open and willing to discuss your thoughts and reasoning is something we just quit doing about 10 years ago..The corporate world found us much easier to deal with when the news is controlled. I thank you for bringing this subject up for discussion.

I have to disagree with you on this one. There will never be enough openness for a functioning democratic society.

"A citizen is one who participates in power" Aristotle

These positions deserve credit due them, the help the elected officials so they can make informed decisions. There are many areas of government that are complicated. Having the older soldiers of a party (D or R)with fundamental understanding of history and the time and resources to try to understand the future, this is the duty of these "government employees".
And frankly the salaries are just in the value they bring to the process.
There is a quote by Thomas Jefferson that goes something like
"If you think the public cannot make good decisions, the remedy is not to take away their right to the decision, but rather to give them more relevant information."

Anonymous said...

Personnel issues should be protected. I can see who is hired and how much they are paid being public but terminations and layoffs should not be public information.

politicswest said...

Your argument might make common sense but the public's information is the public's information. What the media does with it is something else and should be closely watched and criticized if they exploit the information.

midnight desire said...

Great blog... Never doubt what you say or how you say it... Honesty and openness is better than sugar-coating....

SWT said...

Anonymous, if indeed that is your real name, "Personnel issues" are protected under the state Personnel Act. The very definition of exempt employees is that they don't fall under that act.

Santanita, speaking as a reporter myself I can tell you that nobody in the Capitol press corps has any intention of harassing any fired employee.

Now, sheriff, you know I appreciate your general attitude and relationship with reporters, including me. But I'm surprised by the cheesy Hollywood stereotype of reporters you present, It's as if compared all SF deputies to the cops who beat Rodney King. The only person I'm aware of being chased into a bathroom by a reporter was a judge who was later indicted and forced out of office.

But to the issue: Were the terminated exempts political hacks and cronies? Were they people in needed regulatory positions? Or -- let's get a little far-fetched here -- did they exist at all? Were they no-show jobs in which the salaries were funneled into some slush fund?

I know that last one is unlikely, but the point is, WE DON'T KNOW. We're being told by government officials "Take our word for it."

Sorry, that's not what reporters do. If that makes us Dog the Bounty Hunter, then all I can say is "Woof!"

And by the way, you know the difference between the New Mexican reporters laid off and the exempt employees? Reprters aren;t paid with tax money.

Anywho, Merry Christmas sheriff. I appreciate you participating in discussions like this, even when we disagree.
Steve Terrell

Sheriff Greg Solano said...

Steve, I appreciate your comments. I was a little harsh but once again I did not mean to paint all with one brush. I know you would not be chasing someone you want to interview into the bathroom so your not the type of reporter I am talking about.

Your post made me think of a few more questions. How will you determine who was actually working and maybe doing a good job and who is a hack and cronie? Who would want to hire someone labeled a hack and cronie on the front page of any paper? What is the criteria for differentiating between a hack, a cronie, and a good employee? If you gave money to any Richardson campaign does that make you a hack or a cronie? As a candidate for office in the same general election as Bill Richardson ran in, I had to attend several events where I paid $25,$50, or maybe even a $100 to get in the door and network. (I never could afford to go in the door of anything costing more so I missed all the $1000, and $5000 events.)

Does this make me a hack or a cronie? If I had lost the election and applied for a job, lets say DPS Secretary, or head of Special Investigations, and I got the job, Based on the fact that I donated somewhere in the range of $200-$300 dollars, do I automatically become a hack or cronie?

Ok, I asked way too many questions but I think you get the idea. The thing that bothers me most is what the media will do with the names once they get them. I have seen lives ruined or at least severely damaged by characterizations in the media some were deserving and some were not. I really feel that news organizations did a much better job years ago at towing the line between sensationalism and news and the pendulum really needs to swing a little more to the middle.

And Merry Christmas Steve!!!

SWT said...

Now Greg, you know I'd chase any politician accused of wrongdoing into any bathroom!

We don't label people hacks or cronies or good guys or whatever, at least I don't (though I do refer to my own friends as "cronies")

But of course I would point out political connections, campaign contributions (including the amount), family ties, past jobs and other factors. We do it all the time when someone is hired. I don't think that's hurt anyone's future employment prospect (unless that background would include a criminal record.)

Thanks again for providing this forum Merry Christmas to you and the Mrs.

ched macquigg said...

There are two sides to this coin; one says all records of the spending of public power and resources belong to the public except by exception.

The other, all records are secret except by exception.

On its face, New Mexico Law, because it provides exceptions, is based on the premise that all records are ours except by exception. In practice it doesn't work that way because public servants routinely create their own exceptions which then have to be tested in court; a cumbersome process at best, and one where taxpayers own resources are used against them in court (we pay for the lawyers who argue against disclosure, we pay the fines levied against agencies that hide records unduly).

A reasonable solution to this mess, is to create an arbiter of disputes over the redaction public records. If a record is requested, and the holder of the record wants to see it redacted, there should be an impartial third party that redacts the record according to the law and due process.

To simply allow public servants to create their own exceptions, ie "not necessary, appropriate or dignified", is dangerous and will allow unnecessary and unjustifiable secrecy.

Dave said...

Why the rush? Why is it "News?" It affects those 59 people, that's not news when there really is a whole bunch of major stories going unreported in local media right now. Besides, it is a whole lot easier for those 59 people to get another job if the newspapers aren't speculating about "Why" they are being laid off.

I realize that we have a government that is constantly being pilloried as "corrupt." We have an executive that can't leave town without fear of being publicly snubbed and there are people lining up to burn his lieutenant at the stake, and those are the people who are ultimately responsible for putting the 59 names on the list. So why are the names the story? What happened to the old guy in the corner who used to assign the Reporters to get the real stories? Did he quit?

Robert Shapiro said...

Hi Greg, greetings - long time. I was reading the Santa Fe New Mexican on line to see how friends and one special friend are doing because of the storm and lo, I ran across this article Glad to see you're getting some good press.

Also while I've got you here, so to speak, I wanted to let you know that I've published my yearly holiday story: Hope you and yours enjoy it.

Goodlife my friend.

David Collins said...

You are correct that motives of some media in this town cannot be trusted when they advocate access to public records. When the New Mexican laid off 10 employees, business editor Bob Quick did not offer one word about why the desk immediately across from his was empty. He didn't call to ask why I vacated the desk where I sat face to face with him. I left because the paper dropped the ball in its obligation to defend the public’s right to know, and instead constructed an empty fa├žade of public-service advocacy. I left after I could not get access to public records I’d stored on company servers for use in a deadline story.

The New Mexican's report of its layoffs three days later was 638 words long, quoted two senior internal sources and included a review of benefits laid off employees would receive. The New Mexican did not report that a manager escorted a 10-year employee from the building after the layoffs were announced.

When the competition laid off employees Quick interviewed or cited five current or former Albuquerque Journal sources, including two laid off employees, in a story that ran 812 words long but did not explore benefits afforded to the laid off employees.

On his political Web log, New Mexican reporter Steve Terrell promotes his comments here, patting himself on the back with a claim that he only advocates publicly on matters related to access to public information.

"As a reporter, I normally don't take stands on issues — except freedom of the press, policies on open records, government transparency, etc., where any claim of objectivity is inherently false. So I responded to Solano."

Two days later on his music Web log, where he identifies himself as a political reporter, Terrell urges his music fans to campaign for his stand involving public policy in the very heart of our city.

He gets emotional in his plea -- "pig spit'n mad.” He claims not to know who are members of a round table of local citizens yet disparages them as “square.” He polarizes the debate as between "locals" - including himself - and some other ostensibly non-local downtown business owners. The opines what those news sources whom he claims not to know think of "locals", himself included: "some -- not all -- downtown merchants just wish locals would stay away."

He seals his egregious violation of ethical standards with an overt plea that his fans take action, lightly salting his rallying cry with conditional weasel words as he injects his opinion into the electoral process: "If they get serious about moving the Bandstand series, I hope local music fans do the same. And with city elections coming up, maybe we should get some bumper stickers saying ‘I like Santa Fe Bandstand AND I VOTE!’!"

The New Mexican publishes ethical guidelines for newsroom employees that say “As a general rule, you should avoid partisan politics, demonstrations and causes. You should not advocate for a position or candidate with yard signs, bumper stickers, phone messages and political buttons.”

Terrell’s complaint and overt electoral advocacy did not come out of the blue. The senior New Mexican political reporter uses a New Mexican story as the peg for his electoral campaign. “I'm talking about Tom Sharpe's story in today's New Mexican.”

Like you and your officers, the media wields a powerful force in our community. When they abuse that power in plain view for the entire community to see, it undermines respect for the media, and damages the means by which we exercise our right and need to know about public business. No, we cannot trust that they want those 59 names for any other reason than to hang them on their wall as trophies to indicate service that they otherwise have failed to provide.