(Editor’s note: This editorial about the role of newspapers in covering government boards in a democracy was written by Steven M. Pappas, editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald. Excerpts are reprinted here with permission.)
Have people (in Montpelier in particular) forgotten the role of newspapers? We are not a propaganda machine. We are the watchdog. We are working in the public interest. We are holding officials and boards accountable for the decisions they make and the actions they take. We are the eyes and ears of the community at large. And, by the way, we have the constitutional right to do so. (And in case anyone wants more clarity on that: “Freedom of the press in the United States is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment is generally understood to prevent the government from interfering with the distribution of information and opinions.”)
Facts almost always never work to everyone’s satisfaction. Quite the contrary, facts and truth often get in the way of motives, slowing down progress. But it makes the process more pure. That’s why we shine lights on dark spots of democracy. That’s why we ask: How is that in the public’s best interest? That’s why we stand up and say, “Can you please explain why you are doing that?”
And, predictably, many people don’t like to be asked; they are smug enough to just think they can.
Do we get things wrong? Sure. And we correct our errors. But mistakes often happen when public officials are not being forthcoming, or they are being coy with the truth, loose with the facts, or furthering their own agendas – which almost always have something to do with saving face, not the public’s interest.
I was not irritated by the ridiculous accusation — again — of leading a conspiracy against the City of Montpelier. I was irate that someone who had consumed our news coverage would not be tweaked by the facts that we had done our job. In this age of people, groups and bodies taking cover behind the Swiss cheese shield of “Fake News,” complaints about the media are now being picked up and worn like badges of honor by reporters and editors.
Without question, we take pride, every day, in the work that we do to serve the public’s interest and defend our democracy through the Freedom of the Press. Elected bodies like Montpelier’s school board ought to spend more time focusing on serving its constituents in a manner that doesn’t call its integrity into question and less time conspiring to dodge ownership of its role in this mess.
By the way, we’ll be covering your meetings still, whether you want us there or not. Because the true fact of the matter is: It’s our job.