By Reggie Connell
It’s been a tough year for journalism.
When a presidential candidate calls the media “the lowest form of life”, and phrases like post-truth, fake news, and alternative facts become a significant part of the American political language, then it’s clear the role of journalism as the fourth estate, the first draft of history, and the voice of the voiceless, has taken a significant hit.
But that is a national media problem right?
In my assessment, the media’s relationship in Apopka is cordial. It’s fair to say that tensions occasionally arise between Apopka journalists and elected officials, City staff, police and fire departments, but mutual respect is by far the prevailing trend.
However, that trend took a distinct detour last week.
During a workshop meeting at City Hall last week, City Attorney Cliff Shepard took aim at journalism several times in his 60-minute refresher course on the Sunshine Law for the Apopka City Council, the CRA Board, and the Planning Commission.
Several of his remarks I take significant exception to.
It started with Shepard complaining about an editorial published by The Apopka Chief almost two years ago. Shepard said that The Chief failed to contact him before publishing their editorial. He went on to say that The Chief did not change a single word despite his complaints. And while it is common practice to treat an editorial (opinion) article different than a news article where a journalist would reach out to subjects in the article, I will let The Apopka Chief defend itself. It has been around 100 years after all, and that is not where his attack on journalism ended.
Shepard created a hypothetical situation for his audience, and how they should handle this scenario with an aggressive reporter.
“When a member of the media calls you and asks you to comment on something you are about to deliberate, you say no. What are they going to say? ‘Oh, no you should tell me so I can put your response in the newspaper before you deliberate and do what you’re supposed to do. I want to see that article. That’s stupid. You don’t do that.”
Later he looked at the media table and said this…
“My friends over here (at the media table) think I’m chastising them. I’m not. I was a member of the media. I was a journalism major before I went to law school and tried to figure out how to make more money. So the reality is I understand it’s a difficult job and I know they require all of this stuff. But they will have no hesitation to make your life miserable if they think you’ve infringed on it in any way. That’s sort of what their job is. But it doesn’t mean you have to fall for it. You shouldn’t. I’m just saying what’s real.”
I do not speak for all journalists, but I can say for myself that I have NEVER written a critical word about anyone without significant hesitation beforehand, and without first giving that person an opportunity to tell their side of the story. I will also never try to trick a person into violating a Sunshine Law or try to make someone “fall” for anything that might embarrass them.
That sort of tactic is for unethical broadcast celebrity “reporters” and it does not advance the truth, which good journalists are always in search of.
In the last minute of Shepard’s presentation, he closed his thoughts on the media with this surprising metaphor in dialogue with Mayor Joe Kilsheimer.
“It’s been said the media’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Kilsheimer said.
Shepard responded with this:
“Or to shoot the survivors of the battle.”
Outside of a similar quote by Ernest Hemingway about critics, I don’t understand the metaphor of shooting the survivors of the battle as it applies to journalists, but I do know this…
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that since 1992, 1,228 journalists have been killed as a result of their efforts to bring us the news. That figure includes 800 that have been murdered. The most common subjects covered by them? Politics, war, human rights and corruption. These journalists shined the spotlight on the most egregious abuses in our world, and they paid the ultimate price for doing so.
I am not a war-time journalist and I do not fear for my life reporting the news of Apopka. I respect everyone I report on, and I have been treated with respect, but in honor of those journalists that are in war zones, battlefields and have been killed on the job in an attempt to report the news, I could not let the words of the City Attorney go unanswered.
I believe that excellent journalism, published independently and accurately, can help a community prosper and a municipal democracy flourish. I do not report on the news of Apopka to “catch” elected officials and attorneys in Florida Sunshine Law technical breaches, and I do not ascribe to the “gotcha” stereotypical caricature of journalists that The City Attorney is describing. I will go a step further and say that no one that I work with at The Apopka Voice, or sit with at the media table during City Council meetings does either to the best of my knowledge.
It is my belief that an attorney who counsels elected officials on the intricacies of the Sunshine Law, who is precise with his word choices, and who warns our city council that “when it comes to the Sunshine Law, you can never be too careful” should be more careful in his word selection, descriptions, and opinions about journalists.