Newspapers and other professional news organizations aim to factually report the news, which often includes shining light on the actions of public officials. That glare of public scrutiny doesn’t always set well with those holding office.
And it’s not only President Donald Trump who lashes out at media when questioned — although he has certainly taken it to new levels — but those elected at the local and state level.
An example of this has occurred in a small community in Eastern Oregon, yet it has gotten so contentious it has made national news.
The Washington Post last week reported that The Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon, spent months investigating a state lawmaker’s business deals and contract work. On Monday, it was reported that Malheur County wants to investigate the Malheur Enterprise for harassment — as in reporters making too many phone calls and sending too many emails.
That’s absurd. It’s the job of journalists to get the facts, and that involves communicating with people. As the First Amendment makes clear, a free press cannot be constrained by government restrictions.
But Oregon state Rep. Greg Smith, a Republican who serves as director of Malheur County Economic Development — the lawmaker at the center of the journalists’ investigation — doesn’t see it that way. He complained to the Enterprise, “It is not appropriate that you are sending emails to employees using their personal email accounts on the weekends,” and asked “to not have our employees contacted outside of their workplace.”
Now, to be clear, Smith certainly has the right to complain about the coverage and even the phone calls and emails. But it is just plain wrong to gin-up an investigation to stifle news coverage. On Wednesday, Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said an inquiry determined no laws had been broken.
“Suggesting that professional journalists are behaving as criminals in gathering vital information for the community appears to be an effort to silence and intimidate the Enterprise,” said Enterprise Editor and Publisher Les Zaitz, a Pulitzer Prize finalist while a reporter at Portland’s Oregonian. ” … Rather than provide information and truth, local officials appear more interested in criminalizing a profession protected by the First Amendment.”
Kyu Ho Youm, a communications law professor at the University of Oregon, said the Malheur County situation fits into a larger pattern of intimidation of journalists by government officials, notably the president. He went on to describe an “anti-press climate” that has emboldened local officials to take legally questionable action against reporters in the face of unfavorable coverage.
And that’s why this episode in is extremely troubling. Journalists should not be — and cannot be — kept from seeking the truth by officials using the government’s power to block their investigations.