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.