Modesto Bee columnist Jeff Jardine took on City Hall last Saturday. Unfortunately, he did little to improve our local political climate and a lot to harm it.
Jardine was agitated about a City of Modesto policy for dealing with media inquiries. The policy requires city employees to notify superiors when they’ve been interviewed by members of the media. Then the interview has to be vetted by higher ups in the administration.
Let’s all agree that censorship and prior restraint of anyone’s freedom of speech is bad, and it’s especially bad when media can’t deliver news about government to the citizenry. But since when have government employees ever had freedom to talk about the specific details of their jobs? For that matter, since when have employees anywhere had such freedom? The boss and the company always have to be taken into consideration.
Jardine blundered: He confused government officials with government employees. He wrote, “Government officials…are expected to do the public’s business in public.” Government officials are by definition elected or appointed. Government employees are hired. It’s a big difference.
Jardine’s confusion about the difference between officials and employees was bad enough. Then he compounded his error. He wrote the following:
“Let me get this straight: The same city officials who frequently refused to respond to Modesto Bee inquiries during the Stanislaus Community Assistance Project [SCAP] and Archway Commons fiascoes now are taking the high road and portraying themselves as victims?”
In fact, the only “same” city officials serving now who were in office during the making of policy on SCAP and the Archway Commons project are Mayor Garrad Marsh (then a City Councilman) and City Councilman Dave Lopez.
And here’s the kicker: Dave Lopez delivered the SCAP story to the Bee on a silver platter. It was Lopez, aka a, “city official,” who tipped the Bee off about SCAP. Not only did he not “refuse to respond,” he did his civic duty and communicated the problem.
That’s not all. In continuing to blame current city officials for the sins of past city officials, Jardine maintained the Bee policy of giving former Mayor Jim Ridenour and his administration a free pass. SCAP and Archway Commons occurred on Ridenour’s watch, and anyone who witnessed his spluttering anger whenever SCAP came up at City Council meetings has to know how much he resented Bee coverage of the issue.
But Ridenour needn’t have worried: SCAP has now been laid on the likes of John Gunderson, Bill Zoslocki, Jenny Kenoyer and Dave Cogdill, none of whom were in office when the SCAP policy was established.
Jardine ended his diatribe with some revealing comments:
“One other thing: A reporter, whether working for The Bee or one of the TV stations, takes the initiative to investigate, research and report a story…But with the flick of a mouse, the city pre-empts the issue before all the facts emerge.”
Huh? Exactly how does “the flick of a mouse” stop an investigation? In the long history of journalism, many of the sources for investigations have been anonymous. In fact, journalists go to great lengths to protect government sources, as Jardine doubtless knows. No way the City policy kills stories. Government employees have always known there’s potential trouble when dealing with journalists; that’s nothing new.
So what’s his real problem? Most likely his anger stems from having to face the realities of new media. Jardine admits that the City policy says, “All entries will be placed on the city’s main web page under ‘Media Flash’ and automatically uploaded to Facebook and Twitter.” He then concedes, “That means every word of every inquiry.” So where’s the censorship? Where’s the spin?
For too many decades to count, the Modesto Bee was the only game in town. Now it’s got competition. Jeff Jardine is worried about government officials spinning the news, but anyone who thinks the news doesn’t also get spun by journalists has been living off-planet.
All citizens of the United States have the right to present their versions of the news—especially elected officials. All new media have done is distribute the power to disseminate information more democratically. Locally, that means the Bee monopoly is over—and that’s good news.