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Teachable Moment: ELGL Journalist Trio Weighs-In on #KirbyDelauter

Posted on January 8, 2015


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imagesBy Bridget Doyle, Sam Taylor and Patrick Rollens

Earlier this week, a Councilman named Kirby Delauter from Frederick County, Md. threatened a local reporter with a lawsuit for using his name without permission (note: the threat was posted on Facebook). In its response to the threat, the Frederick News-Post released a witty editorial chastising Delauter and using his name 30 times—if you include the first letter of each paragraph spelling out his full name.

The Internet blew up and the story went viral, particularly among journalists and local government professionals. As the three of us (Bridget, Sam and Patrick) have worked in both spheres, we saw this train-wreck story everywhere. The story even kicked off a nationally trending hashtag (#KirbyDelauter).

Delauter has since apologized and the buzz has started to fade, but as local government professionals, this an extreme example of local government putting up artificial walls with the media. The entire controversy speaks to some important truths about being a public official and interactions with journalists. To start off, some sound advice from Sam:

  1. Understand that journalists are simply trying to seek truth and report it. No, really. Having any other mindset about the role of a journalist puts unnecessary barriers between you and the media, and creates immediate tension between you. My philosophy is this: Do good work on behalf of the public and be honest and you’ve got nothing to worry about;
  2. Consider treating a journalist like any other member of the public – kindly. They are sharing public information with a mass audience to help inform your community. In my view, a more informed community can help your elected officials and staff make better decisions on their behalf. That’s the beauty of public service.

The three of us each chose to weigh-in in the Kirby Delauter issue in a different way. After reading, we hope you’ll help us continue the discussion on Twitter by tossing out your thoughts to @ELGL50.

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Sam Taylor, Assistant City Administrator for Ferndale, WA

“Kirby Delauter-gate” reiterates for me some of the most basic lessons I learned as a journalist and what I try to share with my fellow government staffers now.

In my past life I wrote a story of a mayor – kind of a grouchy guy I’d been told by members of the community when I had first arrived – who I had found ordering staff members to ignore basic rules of seeking building permits for a business owner he wanted in town. Those basic rules were important for the preservation of basic life safety of people who would shop at the business.

When I called the mayor up for comment at his home (because he had provided us with his home number, explaining he wasn’t always in his City Hall office), he got upset at my questions about the emails I’d found via public records request and told me to never call him again. Of course, he threw in a somewhat minor expletive (“G*& D*&$ it!”) at the end, but being a family paper, we couldn’t even censor it, so the quote ran this way: “Don’t ever call me here again,” he said, ending with an expletive.

Of course that allowed the public’s minds to run wild with the quote. But we were a family paper and editors believed it was inappropriate to share the full expletive while also saying it was important people knew I’d been cussed at, because it also showed the decorum of the exchange.

That mayor would go on to hold a press conference literally and specifically about me. It was the most odd affair. Several of my peers from local news outlets and I all dutifully showed up, and I even asked the mayor for a written copy of the speech so we could post the entire thing online. He was overjoyed at this opportunity. Because, you see, he thought the story should be about the journalist – and not about trying to address what he’d done in the first place.

This mayor would go on to lose his re-election bid by what many believe is the largest margin in our state’s history, with his challenger (and, full disclosure, my current boss) receiving a whopping 83.6 percent of the vote that year. That’s unheard of.

Patrick Rollens, Social Media Coordinator for Oak Park, IL

g3mcbThe larger issue here seems to be a troubling ignorance by elected officials of the basic functions of a free press. Even an entry-level college course – or a quick waltz through Wikipedia’s hallowed halls – would have informed Delauter that, by virtue of being an elected official, he doesn’t have the same expectations of privacy that the rest of us enjoy.

It’s even more distressing that he seemed to think of his wrongheaded position as red meat for his supporters on Facebook – as if he could drag them along on his fool’s errand while he cast himself as the champion of the people. It is as much an insult to the constituents of Frederick County than to the embattled editors at the local newspaper.

And finally, our collective hearts are bursting with pride here at ELGL for the plucky staff of the Fredericks News-Register. They didn’t back down, and, indeed, managed to craft an Onion-worthy editorial that briefly blew up the Internet. High five to them!

Bridget Doyle, Community Relations Director for Sterling Heights, MI

Upon first read, I guffawed at this story and even countered on Twitter by posting that having this type of PR glitch was my “personal government communications nightmare.” The staffers at Frederick County likely had to go in damage control mode with Delauter while also using kid gloves, as he is still an elected official and in-office. Tough situation.

No-Free-PressBut the coverage of the massacre of 12 people at Paris’ Charlie Hebdo’s office this week made me think really hard about the power of a free press and how Delauter’s comments can be so harmful to how the general public views government. As a nation, we need our governments of all sizes and jurisdictions to promote the First Amendment. Which, as a reminder says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

We are all human, and therefore have emotions that can be hard to mask. And especially since our career in government is so much in the public eye and subject to unending scrutiny, it can be hard to stay level and rational. However, I had to learn early on to either get thick skin or to leave this profession. If you are making decisions and using taxpayer money, your choices are open to both applause and criticism from press and the general public.

What we should stand for and promote as local government—whether elected or staff—is the most open and transparent government possible. This means our daily activity and the reasoning for our decision making is available for public viewing, comment and coverage by the press.

For the most part, I am so proud of our country’s press and its fight to stay alive even as revenues and readership continue to fall. Sure, editorials can be detrimental and some *achem* slanted media outlets will skew coverage. But overall, the press is one of the strongest pillars of democracy and serves as the watchdog to make sure everything we do as governing bodies is fair, just and in the best interest of the people. No matter how you consume your news, we should all be supporters of an unbiased and critical press. It is what our country is built on.

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