Journalists and official secrets: An unhealthy alliance

Written by Jayson Jacoby December 10, 2010 05:39 pm

By JAYSON JACOBY

Journalism, despite its occasional intellectual pretensions, is a blue-collar job.

You don’t need a license to practice it.

You don’t have pass a test or fill out a form or in any other way satisfy the edicts of government or industry before you gather information and then convey it to an audience.

It’s sort of like carpentry, except you hammer together clauses instead of boards.

This is as it should be.

True journalism can thrive only in the rambunctious atmosphere of a society where humans’ instinctive curiosity is a quality not merely tolerated, but is extolled as a virtue.

Any attempt to throw up boundaries round this raucous scene, whether by public or private interests, taints the work of journalism with the indelible stain of propaganda.

I don’t mean to suggest that journalists ought not to care about the quality of their work.

In fact their standards must be of the highest order — absolute honesty, and a ruthless reliance on facts which can withstand the cruel glare of scrutiny without going weak in the knees.

What I’m getting at is my belief that almost any earnest person can perform an act of journalism.

(Although journalists, except perhaps those who labor in the visual media, would do well to avoid thinking of their work as performing.)

Which is why I harbor an innate distaste for one aspect of Oregon’s public meetings law, an otherwise admirable piece of legislation that was enacted in 1973.

That aspect is the executive session.

These are sometimes called “closed” sessions, which is apt because the doors of the meeting room are closed, and the public sent outside.

City councils and school boards and other public bodies that must comply with the law (which includes most boards whose members are elected or appointed) can convene in executive sessions to discuss certain topics.

A few common examples are meeting with a lawyer, considering the hiring or disciplining of a manager, and talking about buying real estate.

Boards can mull over such matters in executive sessions, but the law forbids them from making any final decisions inside that closed room and outside the public eye.

But there’s a twist to the law.

Although boards can ban citizens from attending executive sessions, journalists get to stay and listen.

They’re just not supposed to report what they hear.

This arrangement, which is unusual and possibly even unique among states, bothers me because it gives journalists, a tiny percentage of the population, a privilege which is denied the great majority of the citizenry.

And that privilege is no trifling thing.

Journalists, by virtue of nothing more than having a byline in a newspaper or a microphone on the evening broadcast, are allowed to watch elected officials as they conduct the public’s business.

And not just ordinary business, either, but rather the stuff so sensitive (hence important) that it must be dealt with behind a locked door.

Trouble is, those officials are supposed to represent everybody, not just the handful of us who have a press pass.

The relationship that Oregon’s executive session law has nurtured between media watchdogs and the officials they’re ostensibly watching (or dogging, if you prefer) is even cozier, though, than what I’ve described.

As I mentioned, journalists are supposed to stay mum about what they hear during executive sessions.

The idea is that reporters who attend closed sessions can gain vital background — details that will help them write more thorough and accurate stories when the board, as the law requires, takes a vote in an open session.

Yet that law, contrary to a common misconception, doesn’t prohibit journalists from reporting, verbatim, the entirety of an executive session.

In fact the public meetings law, for the obvious reason that such limits would violate the First Amendment, in no way restricts what journalists can report.

The law, to put it another way, applies only to the officials who attend public meetings, not to the people who report on those meetings.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of journalists voluntarily respect the spirit of this arrangement, and don’t report on discussions which deal with any of the topics listed in the executive session exemptions.

I understand why this is so; I’ve done it myself dozens of times.

A journalist who repeatedly reports about executive sessions isn’t likely to get any juicy tips from the board members.

This tacit deal between journalists and public officials is, then, a sort of blackmail.

Reporters agree to keep the officials’ secrets, at least temporarily, in exchange for the on-the-record interviews and other access to information that journalists depend on to do their jobs well.

Which is precisely the sort of backroom conniving that watchdogs are supposed to expose, not join.

Nor is there reason to believe that the proliferation of technology — and in particular the blog — will infiltrate this cordial wall that journalists and public entities have erected in Oregon.

A group of media and government representatives recently drafted a model policy that boards could use when deciding who qualifies as a journalist and thus is allowed to attend executive sessions in Oregon.

The model includes a two-part test.

The first part requires that the would-be journalist regularly report on the activities of the board or committee in question.

That’s reasonable.

It would be a travesty to allow someone, under the guise of journalism, to attend executive sessions merely to gather information with the intention of embarrassing, or worse, a member of the board.

The second part, though, reads to me like something that might have passed muster in the Kremlin during the heyday of the Warsaw Pact.

The policy blatantly discriminates against a lone blogger — indeed, against any individual who wants to know what his government is up to.

To get into executive sessions, a person would have to work for an organization that has “multiple personnel.”

Further, the board could require qualifying “journalists” to sign a form stating that they agree not to report on executive session discussions.

In other words, keep quiet, you, or we’ll revoke your pass to the club.

This is an unhealthy affiliation, it seems to me.

Journalists, as a rule, ought to avoid joining government-sponsored clubs.

In particular they should decline membership in anything which requires they take an oath to conceal from the hoi polloi that which they know to be true.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.