By Shereen Siewert, Editor of Wausau Pilot and Review
In January 2015, terrorists walked into an editorial meeting at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and started shooting. Twelve people died.
The world was outraged, and rightfully so, finding such a horrific attempt at media intimidation completely unacceptable. But there remains a far more acceptable form of intimidating the media that many journalists find themselves operating under every day. Anyone who has spent time watching shows such as West Wing or Veep will know immediately what I’m talking about, as watching the politicos try to manipulate journalists makes for great drama. But it’s all more real, especially on a local level, than what you might want to believe.
Let’s be clear. Local reporters are rarely threatened with violence. Instead, the techniques are more subtle. And because of that, those techniques can sometimes be even more effective. People in power will sometimes threaten to block a reporter’s access to sources and scoops if the reporter doesn’t tell the desired story. Personal relationships are exploited as some journalists are made to feel part of the inner circle: invited to the right social events, but only if they play along. In today’s newsrooms, there are frequent threats and attempts to get reporters fired. And fighting back isn’t for the faint of heart.
While no one at Wausau Pilot and Review has been physically harmed, it’s no picnic to be shut out by city officials who are upset over something we’ve published. It is frustrating to see open records requests go unfilled for more than a year, or feel the subtle, but definite pressure to capitulate and play the game.
More than a few readers and public officials have relayed to us comments they have heard Mayor Rob Mielke make at public events about our publication. One reader relayed a Facebook message from the mayor that stated he will “no longer try to work with” us, citing concerns over the way his administration has been portrayed. And just this week, five city officials attended a neighborhood meeting at which I was the guest speaker. When asked a question by a resident at the meeting, the mayor answered by pointedly referring to “misinformation” in the media, dismissing our coverage in a very public way.
I stand by the reporting this newsroom has produced on the many serious issues this city is facing. As always, we pledge to correct any inaccuracies in our reporting and always strive for the truth. But intimidation based on how a story is framed, or because a story reveals uncomfortable truths isn’t just unacceptable. It threatens the very fabric of our democracy.
Certainly, Mayor Mielke is not the first official who has tried such bullying tactics. Journalists in local newsrooms around the country are well acquainted with these types of intimidation strategies. But despite these efforts, it is our practice to resist attempts to influence our coverage.
When intimidation is physical and violent, it is easy for us to rally and pledge not to be intimidated. But when it is more subtle, we unfortunately don’t always feel compelled to take a stand. We stay silent. We learn to go along.
Government accountability is one of the most crucial functions of the press. Freedom of the press is based on the first amendment to the Constitution, a freedom guaranteed by our government. We exist as a check on those in public office, a watchdog tasked with preventing those in power from overstepping their bounds.
A May 2018 Notre Dame study took a hard look at what happens in communities where newsrooms shrink or go away completely. Without journalists, the study found, municipal borrowing tends to skyrocket. There is a higher likelihood of corruption and increased government inefficiencies due to a loss of monitoring. This leads to deteriorating economic conditions for everyone. In a best-case scenario, local officials use what journalists uncover to create better systems and make better decisions for residents. They don’t let pride get in the way.
Without local journalists dedicated to covering local government, stories are not told. Government waste is not revealed. Dangers are not identified in time. Local elections are held in which we are choosing candidates about whom we know very little.
When government is held to account, all citizens benefit. Unfortunately, many journalists and news organizations do give in. They know they need the access to keep their jobs and keep food on their tables, so they watch what they say.
A variety of sources, over the years, have been quoted as saying, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.”
Wausau Pilot and Review is not in the public relations business. We are journalists. And we will continue to uphold our mission — to serve as a watchdog for local government and keep the public informed — for as long as we remain in publication.
Top photo courtesy of Metaphoto.com
Editor’s note: Reader opinions are always welcome. Share your letters on our opinion page by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters of any length are accepted. Anonymous letters are not published.