The race for the truth is on
A friend who’s employed by Guilford County Schools lamented to me on Sunday that he thinks the steady reduction in staffing and mandated furloughs at the News & Record have critically compromised the daily newspaper’s ability to perform its essential watchdog function on his employer. As a result, he said, democracy withers. We both agreed that, whatever the News & Record’s faults, a daily newspaper is an essential and irreplaceable institution for a city such as Greensboro, even if weekly newspapers and blogs are picking up some of the slack. I had to acknowledge that YES! Weekly doesn’t have a reporter covering school board meetings, not to mention the Guilford County Commission or High Point City Council. The lone reporter in our Forsyth County bureau keeps up with Winston-Salem City Council business, but coverage of the county commission and school board are hit and miss. I mentioned to my friend that I paid a visit to the NC General Assembly in February. Important and juicy stories were jumping out at me, and notwithstanding the good work being done by correspondents from the Associate Press, WUNC News and the News & Record’s solid Mark Binker, it seemed to me that the capital press corps was operating as a skeleton crew. My host that day, Sen. Don Vaughan (D-Guilford), urged me to return for Gov. Beverly Perdue’s March 9 state of the state address, but I had to tell him that I couldn’t fit it into my workload for the week. Every day in the news business feels like a race in which the truth is perpetually trying to catch up with outright lies, self-serving distortions, uninformed presumptions based on willful ignorance and miscommunication borne of mutual distrust. In state government alone, we’ve got a budget that is catastrophically short of needed revenues, a mental health system that is criminally unequipped to serve our state’s most vulnerable citizens, and major corporate interests slathering elections with cash and a body of lawmakers that tend to be wealthy, retired lawyers whose mindset is stuck in 1973. It’s a small and intimate world. Corporate lobbyists conduct research and provide talking points for lawmakers, doting on them and giving them the kind of validation that motivates their public service. The business interests that ply their influences in Raleigh typically comprise the business of state government. It seems that the business of the people only occasionally intrudes, and constituents typically have little idea what their elected representatives are up to. It wouldn’t be fair to say that lawmakers are hiding from the press; to the contrary, many of them are gratified by the attention. While I was shadowing Sen. Vaughan, Rep. Maggie Jeffus (D-Guilford) approached me, eager to talk. Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) shoots back e-mails dense with detailed information after midnight and returns calls on her way home from Raleigh or just before going into session. Republicans such as John Blust from Greensboro and Laura Wiley from High Point also graciously provide information and outline their positions on various topics. I think that’s because they remember that they serve at the pleasure of the voters, and their activity in Raleigh is our business. On that note, I’d like to make a plug for the public records request. Every state has some version of it. In North Carolina, it says that any record “made or received pursuant to law or ordinance in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions” is a public record, which is “the property of the people.” That means the state of North Carolina, the city of Greensboro or the Greensboro Police Department. The fact that the state of Texas has a public records law means that I can request an arrest record from the Big Spring Police Department, and in about two weeks they’ll send them to me without complaint. The fact that we have a public records law on the books means that we can pick up the phone and let a government employee know we’re requesting such and such information; it’s generally to everyone’s benefit to comport oneself in a friendly and courteous manner. We don’t have to resort to “would you please,” “if you don’t mind” or “I’d appreciate it if you would.” And it’s not just reporters who get to use the public records law; every citizen has the right to request public records. If you run into resistance from public officials, you don’t have to be a lawyer to pursue release of legitimate public records. The statutes are posted on the NC General Assembly website for anyone to see. The public records law is right there under Chapter 132. We in the business bear a lot of the responsibility for the decline in journalism: Lazy reporters and media corporations that put shareholder profit above its responsibility to the public begat the slide. The public, too, must hold up its end of the bargain by staying engaged in the issues of the day. We can all use the public records law to ensure that decisions by elected officials are made in the best interest of, yes, the public.