Failure to communicate:

What happens when local elected officials refuse to comment to the media? Nothing good

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Working with the media is an integral part of being an elected official. At least it used to be. Now, with social media serving as an unchecked medium through which politicians now share their thoughts with constituents without vetting or fact checking, many local elected officials have all but done away with communicating with local reporters. This is a problem.

Over the past five years, I’ve watched as the divide between the media and those elected to represent us has widened to the point of dysfunction. Detailed questions are emailed in vain by reporters who resend them a day later, resend them again on deadline day, then end up writing the same line you’ve no doubt read a hundred times in the Reader: “So and so did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.”

The relationship between politicians and reporters has always been complicated — and that’s for the good — but lately it has been especially flawed; so much that I feel compelled to write this editorial sharing our frustration in the hopes of improving relations in the future.

To start with, neither of our jobs are easy. Politicians are elected by the people, and as such they have a duty to speak with their constituents about matters important to their community, whether that be a city, county, state or nation. Sometimes those communications are not pretty. Constituents can be mean, petty, self-serving, and downright vicious in their emails and phone calls. It’s an unfortunate part of the job.

The flip side is that reporters have many of the same responsibilities, except we are not elected by the people. We do serve a vital need, though: Our readers depend on accurate information, insightful commentary and fairness. When they don’t believe we’ve delivered those commodities, they let us know about it. And trust me, they do.

One would imagine that there might be some mutual respect between the media and elected officials, since we both deal with many of the same issues from constituents/readers (they are the same people, after all) who are sometimes unable to listen to reason. But in recent years, as everyone from President Donald Trump down to local officials have made it their mission to denigrate the media — that is, all media deemed “unfriendly” — as “fake news,” the empathy has broken down.

In reality, there has always been an adversarial role between the media and politicians, as there is in any relationship where one serves as a check upon another. Again, this is a good thing. Reporters, by nature, are not supposed to be friends with their sources — but that doesn’t mean the relationship has to be unprofessional and strained.

Reporters aren’t always angels, just as politicians don’t always have your best interests at heart. We journalists are human beings, which means we are susceptible to the same biases and conflicts of interest as anyone else. However, we go out of our way when writing news stories to make sure our individual biases are not driving the coverage. Most of the time we succeed — sometimes we fall short. But never in my tenure as a journalist have I ever seen a news writer at the Reader make up quotes or deliberately take something out of context with the goal to discredit a source. That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen.

I can’t speak for the partisan corners of the national mediascape, but I take offense when our president labels journalists as enemies and liars. It’s quite the opposite. Most reporters get into the business because they are passionate about the truth. They want to shine more light, not take it away. They’re not in it for the money, that’s for sure.

Yes, sometimes we ask tough questions — it’s our job to speak truth to power. The role of the media is not to lob only softball questions or accept statements from elected officials without question. A reporter who challenges politicians with difficult questions can “cut through the noise” and get to the marrow of what’s really happening, because transparency in government is a goal most people agree is important. Rarely do you see a candidate running for office urging less transparency in government. Like it or not, we all want to know what they’re doing, because they represent us.

How can people find out what their officials are doing? Sure, you can read an emailed newsletter or Facebook post directly from the source, but don’t you see the problem with relying on single-source, self-interested information as gospel? There are folks out there hollering about “tyranny” in our government, but they don’t bat an eye when their elected representatives completely ignore participating with local news organizations when asked about a story — essentially establishing a form of state media. If tyranny did descend upon us, it wouldn’t be announced on a politician’s Facebook page.

There are some bright notes. Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald has been vocal on social media about his distaste for the media, including the Sandpoint Reader. I have had some unpleasant conversations with McDonald, usually after I had written something in my “Bouquets and Barbs” column that he felt was unfair or incorrect. I often have to hold my nose while reading some of his social media comments. One recent example: When a Bonner County resident asked on Facebook about whether a local gym had opened for business before Gov. Brad Little’s plan called for it, McDonald replied, “There is a hotline to turn your neighbors and businesses in. It’s 1-800-IMA-NAZI.” 

McDonald later pointed out that he was being “tongue-in-cheek” but seriously, is this really how we should be responding to constituents with legitimate questions?

All that aside, McDonald regularly and punctually returns requests for comment from our newsroom, and makes himself available should the media need more clarification on a particular topic. Yes, some of his responses have trod into gaslighting territory, but others are extremely helpful and explanatory. 

I appreciate the fact that McDonald recognizes that communicating with the media is an important part of his job as commissioner.

The same goes for District 1-B Rep. Sage Dixon, who has also been critical of the Reader in the past. Dixon understands that speaking with the media is one of the many ways he reaches constituents to better explain his position on the issues. 

When Dixon attempted to introduce several bills restricting the citizen ballot initiative process in Idaho during the 2019 legislative session, I called him with a list of tough questions in the midst of a busy session. Dixon made time to speak with me, and answered the questions both in detail and with respect, which I, as well as our readers, no doubt appreciated. 

Whether or not I personally agree with his answers is immaterial — what matters is the fact that he respects his constituents enough to provide them with answers to their questions and recognizes the central importance of the free press is helping convey those answers.

District 1 Sen. Jim Woodward always returns calls and emails, as did his predecessor Shawn Keough. For that matter, the offices of U.S. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, as well as Rep. Russ Fulcher, usually reply in a timely, detailed and forthright manner to emailed requests for comment — even to a small outlet like ours. 

Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad is equally as responsive to emails, phone calls, texts and face-to-face meetings whenever asked.

Those are the bright spots. Then we have District 1-A Rep. Heather Scott. Since she took office in 2015, Scott has styled herself as a political maverick who regularly targets the media — and anyone who doesn’t share her ideology — as a threat, refusing to participate whenever asked for comment. 

Her voting base has applauded her in this effort, parroting her rhetoric on a variety of issues. Scott even went so far as to post a warning on Facebook hours before a candidate forum hosted in 2016 by the Sandpoint Reader and Sandpoint Online, urging constituents to boycott the forum because she believed it was a “trap” meant to ensnare conservative candidates so their words could be twisted and taken out of context to further a liberal conspiracy against her. 

It should be noted that Scott had been invited months before the forum, and had yet to attend a forum hosted by the Reader and Sandpoint Online. Encouraging voters to boycott a forum is the exact opposite of transparency in government, which she regularly touts as an important part of her platform.

Or take Bonner County Commissioner candidate Steve Bradshaw, who did participate in a virtual forum held on April 28, but ignored emails with questions for our guide to primary candidates. After multiple emails, a deputy clerk from Bradshaw’s office finally replied, stating that he declined to participate. 

These were straightforward questions and answers without any commentary. Yet, Bradshaw claims in a bio on the Bonner County website that, “County government demands leadership based on facts and findings, commonsense and fiscal responsibility, coupled with truth and transparency.” I’m curious how not participating in an election guide read by thousands of his constituents furthers the cause of transparency.

There is also Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler, who picks and chooses when to participate with local media. In August 2019, when the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office announced the arrest of a suspect in the Shirley Ramey murder, Wheeler had no problem communicating with the media. He gave an in-depth press conference for news outlets from Sandpoint to Spokane, standing in front of the cameras and outlining how the suspect was apprehended. 

We were happy to attend the conference and share with our readers the outcome of this case, as it hopefully brought some justice to those who have been following the story. 

More recently, he penned a letter on April 2 to Gov. Brad Little, calling the governor’s stay-at-home order “unconstitutional.” The letter received national attention, as it landed right in the midst of some of the hardest days yet of the coronavirus pandemic. 

When emailed questions about the letter he declined to participate, instead sending a press statement that specifically addressed an editorial written in another newspaper — in effect, refusing to speak to any of the questions the Reader had asked. A follow up email was left unanswered. 

When he was sent questions about a particular issue to do with Bonner County’s ongoing lawsuit against the city of Sandpoint over The Festival at Sandpoint’s no-weapons policy, he directed the Reader to review the documents and offered to answer any further questions. Later, when he didn’t like the content of the reporter’s follow up questions, he declined to answer. 

Wheeler’s assistant finally emailed a Reader reporter, claiming that the sheriff had “no further comments — the documents speak for themselves.” 

As a self-appointed plaintiff in the lawsuit, his input regarding several claims made in court documents was paramount to telling a complete story, but his voice was conspicuously absent from the article.

At the heart of these latter examples is a central theme: fear. I’m not talking about the Stephen King kind of fear, I’m talking about fear as an abstraction. 

By inducing fear that “gun grabbers” will take away Idahoans’ Second Amendment rights or that the governor is tyrannizing Idahoans by his stay-at-home order or by issuing a blanket statement that the media is corrupt, these elected officials are relying on constituents to abandon reason and rely on fear to guide them.

The best weapon for fighting irrational fear is truth. The truth takes us out of our own heads and plants us back on the terra firma of reality. One way to get to the truth — especially when it comes to politicians, who don’t have the greatest track record when it comes to telling the truth — is to read it in your local newspaper. 

Remember, for all the flak that the media gets about “fake news” and the like, if we willfully publish something that we know isn’t true, we can be sued and lose everything. That’s not the case on Facebook, which is a dumping ground for rumor, false equivalence and hen-pecking. 

It’s worth noting that for all the times people have accused the Reader of “fake news,” when asked to specifically address the incorrect line or false quote, the accuser is either unable to do so or claims that the falsity or bias stemmed from what wasn’t written or what wasn’t covered. 

As always, if we make a mistake — even a misspelling — you’ll find it in the corrections box at the back of the issue.

The media is not the “enemy of the American people,” nor is it the enemy of elected officials. But we are not their friends, either. We may ask tough questions, but that’s no reason for them to stick their heads in the sand in the hopes that the article we called or emailed about never gets written. It will, because it’s our responsibility to our community to keep it informed to the best of our abilities. 

It would be much better for everyone involved — the media outlets, the politicians and especially the readers — if instead of ignoring requests for comment, those elected officials who prefer to operate without the give-and-take of the free press simply emailed back like professionals and added their words to the conversation. After all, if they believe so strongly in a particular point, why shroud their answer in mystery? Wouldn’t they want to make sure we were reporting on them accurately?

I’m not about to tell anyone who to vote for in these pages — that’s not my job, nor do I want it to be. Our job is to provide you with the information you need to form your own opinion. But if the candidate you support claims they value “transparency,” hold them to it. Ask them why they didn’t comment for a particular story or why they didn’t answer questions in a candidate’s guide or why they don’t want people to attend a forum.

Remember, elected officials work for us, not the other way around.

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