Keeping it real at the bottom of the journalist hierarchy

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Sometimes I am reminded about my low status in the local journalism hierarchy. Despite the growing clout of alternative news media with both readers and newsmakers, some public relations people still feel they don’t have to respond to us. The world of news media is changing, but that doesn’t mean everone has gotten the message.

I started this TC Daily Planet gig three years ago on a lark, writing a theatre review on spec and submitting to Jay Gabler, TCDP’s Arts Editor.  What started as a moonlighting hobby I did in my spare time has become a career, of sorts. 

I didn’t go to school for journalism. I have a master’s degree, but it’s in acting, not journalism.  Everything I know about writing I’ve learned from doing it, making mistakes and learning from them, with the help of a few essential mentors, such as Mary Turck and Jay Gabler.  

For many of the stories I write, I’m not inundated with competition because part of TC Daily Planet’s mission is to cover underreported news. But every once in a while, when I’m covering a major news story, particularly about government agencies, I realize that not all journalists are treated equally. 

There’s no law that says administrators have to talk to everyone equally. For example, this week I went to a press conference about a recent discovery by activists Mick Kelly and his partner Linden Gawboy that during the raids last fall, the FBI accidentally left documents behind that were very revealing about the raids—such as all of the names of the SWAT team officers, interview questions, surveillance photos, and profiles of the people being raided. 

After the press conference, I called Steve Warfield, Special Agent for the FBI, and asked if he would comment about the documents.  He told me that I would have to physically bring them into the FBI office so that he could examine them.  I told him that wasn’t necessary, as all of the documents were available online at FBI.net.  He repeated that he would only comment if I were to bring the documents to his office.  He said “others” had already been to the office and he had commented to them about the documents. 

“So you’ve already seen them,” I said. “Can you please provide a comment to me?” He told me “No,” because he would need to examine each packet of documents individually.  Even though the exact same ones are online. 

I fretted for a few minutes.  If I worked for a major news organization, perhaps there would have been another staff member who could have gone down to the FBI office and gotten a comment.  If I did it myself, I might not be able to finish my story in time to make it into TC Daily Planet’s newsletter the following day.  I kept writing the story, trying to decide what to do, when Warfield called me back, saying he had no comment. 

In a way, it was a relief, because I was off the hook. No point in going down there if he wouldn’t comment at all, but it was also disappointing that they had nothing to say.  A few hours later, I learned that Warfield had indeed provided a comment to the Associated Press. Amy Forliti, from AP, wrote: “FBI spokesman Steve Warfield said most of the papers appeared to be legitimate FBI documents and were left behind by mistake.” 

Now, it’s possible that AP may have been the first to go to Warfield’s office, and that is why he provided a comment to them. But since the documents were all online, why would he not speak to other reporters? If I were from the New York Times would he have spoken to me?

Another frustrating example of being ignored is the Minneapolis Public School contract story (supported through Spot.Us) that I’m working on. The Minneapolis Public Schools have not provided me with the data I requested in February. The request was made under the provisions of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, which means they are legally required to furnish the information. They haven’t done so. While they have provided a few items I’ve requested, I am still waiting for emails that, according to state statute, they are required to provide me.

It is hard for me to believe that it would really take this long to gather a group of emails around a particular subject matter. I can only come to the conclusion that they are deliberately stalling, perhaps hoping that I’ll eventually give up. Because despite my writings about their “foot dragging,” I don’t reach as wide a readership as the major publications.

If I was from the Star Tribune, or the Pioneer Press, or MPR, would it have taken this long?  I really don’t think so.  Back at the beginning of this story, the Star Tribune published MPS information that I had requested for an early article about this issue. MPS did not give me the information then, and still has not furnished it, despite repeated requests.

I haven’t given up, and I won’t give up. I appreciate the support and encouragement from TC Daily Planet readers. Sooner or later, we’ll get the information—which clearly should be public information—about how MPS awards contracts and pays out public money.

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