When the Morrison County Record decided to assemble an ECM Editorial Board I was kind of excited. I thought that the local paper was finally considering folding in a broader perspective. As a former news correspondent for the Record, I was keenly aware of what segments of my news stories were blotted clean so the reading public only knew what the editors wanted them to know and nothing more.

In one instance I included a blurb in a council meeting report where an elected official refused to read and review the town’s new zoning ordinances. The city clerk pushed the ordinances to each council person only to have the one member push the pile right back and say, I ain’t reading that. The clerk pushed the papers back and the council person returned the gesture more than twice. Since it happened during a public meeting I included the mini tug-o-war in my report. In the end the city clerk prevailed but the council person made it clear that he was only bringing the documents home he would not read them. In my story on the meeting I handled the skirmish with humor saying that the council person brought the ordinances home like an ill favored homework assignment.

My point wasn’t to embarrass the man; it was to offer the public an accurate snapshot of what took place during the meeting.  What’s more, I think anyone who knew the man would have assumed that he wouldn’t read a stack of ordinances. He was the sort of person who made no bones about what he would and wouldn’t do, my guess is that his “tell it like it is” qualities were what got him elected to public office in the first place. Naturally, all references of the incident were blotted by the papers assistant editor, even though he later transferred to a different ECM office, his actions spoke volumes.

The final straw was when I submitted a story on a local school district that went into Statutory Operating Debt (SOD). After writing a seamless and fluid story about the Department of Education’s (DOE) visit to the local school board meeting to discuss the implications of their SOD, I was mortified to find my story on the Records website completely altered. While I made a point of including the strengths that the DOE noted, I also highlighted the weaknesses that were identified during the meeting. For the most part the DOE’s financial officer couched his critique in sarcastic humor but on very specific issues he delivered very harsh, pointed criticism regarding the districts superintendent and school boards fiscal decision making. The story that posted on MC Records website had been wiped clean of negative reference. By pulling the negatives out of the story the financial officer from the DOE was made to sound like a cheerleader who rolled into town to say wow, you guys got a raw deal, bummer that this happened to you.  

I was furious because anyone who attended the meeting and read the story would know that it was kissed up and factually incorrect., worse yet my name was on it. On this occasion I called the assistant editor and said you can’t print that because it is incorrect.  The 2 assistant editors spent what seemed like several hours negotiating with the former editor in chief; eventually my original story was reassembled.

What astonished me was the amount of debate that ensued over the content; it was almost a framing session that encompassed…how do we want to make them look. To Assistant Editor Joyce Moran’s credit, she really went to bat for presenting news as opposed to framing the news to control public perception. Since the publication of that story it has appeared to me that Moran seems the most willing to add a quote to her news stories even if content doesn’t flatter the owner.

In the end the majority of what I originally wrote was put back into the story but stray words from the previous version were missed in the editing process and the final printed version that showed up in the paper was a messy and stilted rendition of the work I originally submitted. This was a tremendous disappointment because it was the biggest story I ever covered for the Record. I still cannot figure out why they didn’t just paste the original document back in. The disjointed flow of the story and stray words compromised the appearance of credibility and I had to wonder if maybe that was the point. It was the last time I wrote anything for the Record.

As I exited the Record, Tom West entered and the editorial board was formed in quick succession. I hoped that some of the issues I had with content censoring would become a thing of the past. With the institution of an editorial board I held great hope that a broader dialog could be adopted to offer the readership a broader context for the issues that touch everyday life.

Now that the editorial board has been in place for sometime, I confess that I’ve developed a Pavlovian gag reflex to their contributions. Instead of broadening the dialog the editorial board acts as the second defense line in the bid to sway public opinion and advance the agenda’s of those who are already being insulated by the paper. If our public schools look bad, Joe Nathan or the editorial board churns out a story blaming federal funding or pointing the finger at poor families for low test scores. What a sham. For that matter, what a shame and a sham. 

Here is last weeks contribution from ECM Editioral Board, as well as my commentary regarding that pile of horse hockey.

With Gills Gasping for Fresh Air,

Olive Rockfish

Advertisements