Trump and the Work of Being a Free Press

Thursday, August 16, 2018, 7:08 am
By: 
Publisher Alice Dreger and Managing Editor Ann Nichols

East Lansing Info (ELi) is a proud member of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN). This week, INN members have been discussing whether to join the Boston Globe’s call to fellow news organizations to address what the Globe is calling President Donald Trump’s “dirty war against the free press.” Many news organizations are today publishing op-eds denouncing Trump’s administration’s “assault on the press.”

The two of us discussed whether we should join this action. We will admit we feel ambivalent. We certainly do not appreciate having hard-working journalists called “the enemy of the people” or accused of creating “fake disgusting news.”

But we also recognize that, while Trump’s rhetoric is particularly aggressive and even abusive, it is pretty common for governments to use various means to resist reporters’ attempts to uncover the truth and to point to problems in government.

The Obama administration was known for targeting journalists working with whistle-blowers and for troubling practices under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). (Alice sued Obama’s FDA and Office for Human Research Protections under FOIA to get materials legally owed to her for a national investigative health project.)

Moreover, ELi is not like the Boston Globe. We are hyperlocal – we’re pretty sure President Trump doesn’t care what we think about him – and we are not a conventional news organization. ELi produces news of the people, by the people, and for the people, employing regular citizens as embedded local reporters, specifically providing East Lansing a dedicated, high-quality, nonpartisan news organization it would otherwise lack.

So we want to take the opportunity of a "Your ELi" column today – this one – to tell you about what it’s like doing hyperlocal news here, to draw some contrasts that might be fruitful and illustrative.

First off, note that not only is the only dedicated press in this town “of the people,” so is our City’s government, truly. Rare it is to find on our City Council someone who is a career politician. Just as the ELi reporter who is bringing your Wednesday morning breakfast news of City Council is a neighbor, so are the City Council Members and City employees being reported on.

Perhaps that is why we are more inclined than some news organizations to recognize that, when we run into problems getting information for you out of our government, it’s in all likelihood not because of any local conspiracy, collusion, or cover-up. It’s more likely to be about busy, overworked people trying to be careful about getting their jobs done in a way that minimizes trouble.

That said, we do get frustrated sometimes with lack of transparency in our City government. For example, we run into situations where boards or commissions are reviewing “public” documents for approval even though the documents haven’t been made public.

Last-minute, major additions to agendas regularly prevent us from advising readers who might want to weigh in before a decision is made.

We also run into situations where our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are delayed without cause – for example, when we request a single document that is easily locatable, yet it takes 15 business days to be provided (the maximum wait allowed by state law).

And in some cases, our FOIA requests are monitored and commented upon by people who have a pretty clear conflict of interest, because what will be provided in the FOIA response will open those individuals to criticism or question.

Some people in City leadership, including on City Council, also maintain a “don’t talk to ELi” policy.

This is not true for the vast majority of City employees, who are highly responsive to our questions. The Police Department, the Department of Public Works, the Parks & Rec Department, the Finance Department, the City Clerk's Office – again and again, managers and workers in these and other departments promptly and patiently talk with us, help us find information, and work with us as we fact-check.

But there are pockets within the City government – including, oddly, the Fire Department – that appear to think talking to our reporters can only be bad.

This leads us sometimes to have to make hard editorial decisions. Do we constantly say, “ELi asked so-and-so questions but received no response,” or does that sound like we’re criticizing that person over and over? How long do we wait for an answer, particularly in a case of having asked someone who never responds to our reporters? When a City official purposefully waits until our article comes out and “answers” us five minutes later, what do we do with that response – especially when we know this game gets played over and over again by that person?

Those are our problems, so we generally don’t bother you with them. But we wanted you to know, on a day when news organizations nationwide are denouncing one particular government leader, what you should realize is that the press and government officials are always going to be in a tense dance.

Their job as government leaders is not our job, and our job as free-press reporters is not their job. We can and do try to get along, but sometimes each of us doing our job is going to involve argument, silence, and misunderstanding. In a small town like ours, that’s uncomfortable at best, and excruciatingly painful at worst.

At ELi, we believe that the more people we engage in news production, and the more people we convince to engage in City government, the better off our community will be. A free press is a critical part of a free society – but a free society is the ultimate goal. So, the more we can do to encourage civic engagement and transparency by doing our jobs, the more we meet our nonprofit, nonpartisan mission.

Listen: This has been an expensive month for us. Our ongoing two-week Summer Youth Journalism Program has nine (!) East Lansing High School participants and one great director, teacher Cody Harrell – and we pay them for participation. We have had to invest in some new computer hardware, and the election plus a lot of other local activity has meant paying a lot of reporters for a lot of reporting.

If you believe in what we’re doing for East Lansing, now is a really good time to step up and pitch in to help us keep it going. A functional free press isn’t actually free, and we could use your help paying the bills.

Thank you for all of your support, patience, advice, and participation. You make this work possible.

 

INN Executive Director Sue Cross gave East Lansing a shout-out in her editorial today! Check it out.

 

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