Credit Where It's Due: Dickinson Press Stands Up For The Public's Right To Know

I often get accused of being too negative, of only writing about what’s wrong and not what’s right, so let me take a few moments of your time to applaud some people who are doing the right thing.

Earlier this week there was a shooting in the City of Belfield involving a law enforcement officer. We know now that the city’s police chief was involved, and that the person shot was apparently a mentally disturbed man.

But there was a major delay in getting that information to the public, and the Dickinson Press took to its editorial page today to chastise the city’s leadership for delaying the release of details to the public.

“The battle over public disclosure is a never-ending siege, a war of attrition, and the public (for whom this war is waged) ought to generally be on the side of disclosure and cooperation with the media.”

“It wasn’t until late afternoon Thursday that the media and public learned who fired the gun — the police or the suspect — what caused the shooting or if the man was even alive,” the Press wrote. “That’s because the Belfield Police Department, the lead agency on the case, declined comment and passed all calls on to city attorney Sandra Kuntz. It took constant badgering to finally get a media release, which arrived about 28 hours after the incident. Finally, we learned the suspect, Richard John Treff of California, charged at Police Chief Nick Barnhard with a gun. Barnhard protected himself by using reasonable force. Thankfully, both men survived. Barnhard has been placed on two weeks paid administrative leave, a common practice in incidents like this.”

Some important context to this situation is that the City of Belfield got a lecture from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem after illegally closing a meeting. It turned out the meeting had been closed to conceal from the public the fact that one of the city’s police officers was being fired for having sex on duty. With another city employee. In City Hall.

So the folks at the Press have good reason to be mistrustful of the City of Belfield’s reticence in disclosing facts to the public. The city’s leaders have earned it.

What’s remarkable, though, is that the Press is currently being pilloried by some members of the public on their Facebook page. The paper is being accused of “sensationalism” and worse.

That’s remarkably unfair, though it goes with the territory.

As someone who is very often engaged in fights with the government to release information, and who is very often criticized for my efforts, I can sympathize with the position the folks at the Press find themselves in. It’s not easy to demand inconvenient truths or uncomfortable disclosure. But what service would we be doing the public if we merely accepted what information the government chooses to release when they choose to release it?

It’s very easy to go with the flow. Don’t question. Don’t challenge. Don’t make waves. That sort of thing won’t inspire boycotts or harsh criticism or pulled advertising dollars.

Of course, it’s also not journalism.

In my eleven years of blogging one of the most startling realizations I’ve come to is how protective some people are of certain institutions. Most of my experience has been with the university system, where alumni groups and sports fanatics and even hometown media will not countenance any criticism, but small town governments and especially law enforcement often enjoy the same sort of knee-jerk support.

Which is so detrimental to the way our government is supposed to work. The battle over public disclosure is a never-ending siege, a war of attrition, and the public (for whom this war is waged) ought to generally be on the side of disclosure and cooperation with the media.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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