Transparency in our age

Published 7:09 pm Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Short Rows Header

Several of us from The Smithfield Times recently attended the annual meeting of the Virginia Press Association in Richmond. We’re active participants in the association and have been for decades. The organization does important work not only for its member papers, but also for the general public, particularly in its unflinching support of transparency in government.

Transparency is under attack these days, most prominently in Washington, where newspapers are infuriating our new president and his supporters for being — newspapers.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

This is nothing new. President Barack Obama worked harder than most previous presidents to seek out and prosecute whistle blowers. He hated leaks with a passion and worked vigorously to control the flow of news from the White House.

Now, President Trump and his immediate circle seem bent on taking matters to an even higher level with their love of alternate facts, a general unconcern for the truth and their declaration that legitimate journalists are “enemies of the people,” a phrase that sounds frighteningly like something you would here in Russia or China.

Do not think, however, that this attitude is unique to Washington. It can be found in localities all over the country wherever newspapers, small or large, attempt to report what’s happening in their communities.

Remember the fight with Isle of Wight County over legal notices a couple of years ago? It had nothing to do with cost savings because former County Administrator Anne Seward was perfectly willing to double the county’s legal advertising costs in order to avoid putting notices of budgets, public hearings and other vital information in the two local newspapers serving Isle of Wight.

Was it to deny that information to the public? There may have been a bit of that, but more to the point was anger with this newspaper over the stories and editorials we had published about Isle 2040, the Norfolk Water Deal and other items that were not to the liking of some supervisors or to the county administration.

More recently, some of Smithfield’s elected and appointed officials became quite upset because we insisted on seeing, and then publishing, drawings of the proposed large events center that is included in the Windsor Castle Park proposal sent to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for approval.

We were told that the drawings weren’t plans, though they were sent as such to the state, and that we should not have shared them with Smithfield residents until town fathers (and mothers) had made a final decision to build the facility.

Well, that’s not how that works. When the Board of Supervisors or Town Council begin discussing a major initiative, shame on this newspaper if we have not told you about it when it was still possible for you to have an opinion. A combination of reporting and those legal notices place matters in the public sphere — precisely where they belong.

A newspaper certainly exists to report what has already happened. It is, as has often been said, the first draft of local history. But it also exists to report what is being considered for the future so that the community has an opportunity to support, oppose or ignore that direction. That, in fact, is probably our highest calling.

The times when someone should be angry with us are those instances when we have failed in that responsibility, and that anger should come from readers who depend on us. And, yes, there have been a number of those instances, usually because someone in government has successfully managed to accomplish some controversial action behind closed doors and we have only found out about it after the fact.

For those instances, and to the extent we may have been less than vigilant, we apologize.

But for those instances where we got it right, and told you what your elected and appointed governmental representatives were considering doing in the future, we make no apology.

That kind of reporting, in whatever community it occurs, will continue to upset people in power and will continue to cause some level of friction between the press and government. But heaven help this nation if that friction ever ends.