A false character assassination that can’t go unchallenged
Thursday, February 16, 2017 10:11 AM
By Jay Seaton
The Daily Sentinel
Grand Junction, Colo.
The Daily Sentinel accepts its role as government watchdog with grave intensity. Indeed, it is the reason this newspaper exists. It is our job to discover facts and report them in a dispassionate, truthful manner.
This burden was placed on newspapers in this country by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The language is absolute: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.”
After setting up the apparatus of government, the Framers in their very next act immunized the press from the powers of that government.
They placed this right first under the Bill of Rights and they did it for a very good reason: When government controls the press, people living under that government cannot be free.
In order to give meaningful effect to the First Amendment, the federal government and every state have passed laws allowing citizens, including newspapers, to obtain from any level of government documents related to the workings of government. These are typically known as “Sunshine Laws.”
Over the course of time, the definition of “documents” has expanded from only paper to electronic files and databases.
Under existing law in Colorado, government entities may produce information in response to an open records request in any form they choose. That is, if information is maintained by the government in an Excel file or a searchable database, the government may produce that information in the form of hundreds or thousands of pages of paper.
This practice happens far more frequently than you may suspect, including for example by our own school district. (And with that needlessly burdensome volume of documents comes a bill for 25 cents per page.)
In addition to the cost and burden, when taxpayer-funded entities control the manner in which they reveal public records to the public, they control the narrative.
Over the course of the last year, a bipartisan task force of government records custodians, citizens’ groups and news organizations collaborated with the assistance of the Secretary of State’s office on a law to fix this problem. The task force’s solution amends the Colorado Open Records Act, known as CORA, requiring government to produce documents in the form in which they are held by that government. If the information is held in a searchable format, it must be produced in a searchable format.
This bill, Senate Bill 40, was scheduled this week to come before a Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction. Scott, without explanation, canceled that hearing.
Last week, The Daily Sentinel opined in an editorial that Sen. Scott should give the bill a hearing and pass it on to the full Senate for a vote: “SB 40 deserves a fair hearing before the full Senate. We call on our own Sen. Scott to announce a new committee hearing date and move this bill forward.”
Our own Sen. Ray Scott responded on Twitter:
“We have our own fake news in Grand Junction. The very liberal GJ Sentinel is attempting to apply pressure for me to move a bill. They have no facts, as usual, and tried to call me out on SB 40 know [sic] as the CORA bill. They haven’t contacted me to get any information on why the bill has been delayed, but choose [sic] to run a fake news story demanding I run the bill. You may have a barrel of ink, but it just splashed in your face. ?@foolstask@fakenews.”
Setting aside for the moment the mischaracterizations and mistakes in Sen. Scott’s tweet, (though it is true we were not able to reach him about why he canceled the hearing) the concern for me is the allegation that the Sentinel peddles “fake news.”
True, this term has become part of the national vernacular as some kind of general pejorative, but I take this allegation from Sen. Scott very seriously. It attacks the very reason for our existence.
Again, the role of newspapers under our system of government is to hold government actors such as Sen. Scott to account.
A tried-and-true method for avoiding that accountability is to undermine the credibility of the speaker. When Sen. Scott asserts that The Daily Sentinel is “fake news,” he intends to diminish The Sentinel as a purveyor of reliable information.
It is important for newspapers to have thick skins, to absorb criticism when it comes our way and not respond to every slight, real or perceived. That said, there is a difference between criticism of a news story, editorial stance or perceived bias and what Sen. Scott has done. His tweet is patently, provably false.
Worse, he made his false statement knowingly for the purpose of diminishing the only real asset this newspaper has: its credibility.
Imagine the backlash if this newspaper publicly assailed someone based on no facts and invented things out of thin air for the purposes of impugning their character. We could be sued — and we’d deserve it.
I don’t think I can sit back and take this kind of attack from an elected official. We are brokers in facts. Words have real meaning in this business. Sen. Scott has defamed this company and me as its leader.
To borrow a phrase from another famous Twitter user, I’ll see you in court.
Jay Seaton is the publisher of The Daily Sentinel. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.