Even in an era of perpetual you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up “news” reports, a recent story out of the Badger State may have reset the bar.
Apparently, at a Lafayette County Board meeting in southwestern Wisconsin, chairman Jack Sauer was “threatening to throw out critical members of the public, complaining about Facebook posts and accusing attendees of being Democrats,” according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.
The cause of this outburst: Coverage of an August report on contamination in private wells in a three-county area that includes Lafayette. Criticism of the media’s coverage of the study included claims that news reports were unclear and oversimplified the report’s findings.
Some officials involved advocated for a resolution that said journalists would be prosecuted if they didn’t repeat, word for word, what was said in news releases when they covered the issue. There also was an effort to punish officials who talked publicly on the subject. Thankfully, the board eventually walked back on both ill- advised efforts.
“Do I think this is a flagrant breach of the First Amendment? Absolutely,” Supervisor Kriss Marion told the Journal Sentinel. “When you become a public official, you don’t suddenly become, you know, hamstrung as to what you can talk about.”
The absurdity of prosecuting journalists and placing a gag order on local officials was not lost on many.
“The whole reason we have independently elected public officials is so that we have the benefit of their perspective,” Bill Lueders, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council president, told the Journal Sentinel, “not that they’re put in a chair somewhere and told to shut up.”
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This was an attack on the rights of free speech and the press laid out in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is not the job of the media to regurgitate news releases from government or other entities, and local government officials can, and should, be able to voice their perspectives.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported that Tom Ellefson, a self-described “old farmer” from the town of Lamont, called the proposal “draconian.”
“We’re talking about our water,” he said. “Why would you want to stifle the scientific data that’s coming from this survey, that by the way, taxpayers paid for?”
Journalists make mistakes but strive to avoid them. And, when an error is committed, responsible members of the media take great efforts to correct the record.
The proposal to prosecute offending journalists was shelved and the gag order, according to the State Journal, was amended to read: “While individual board members as elected representatives retain the right to freely speak to the press, no statements which have not been formally reviewed and acted upon by the county should be considered the official position of the county.”
On a lighter note, requiring journalists to run news releases verbatim would be an affront to grammar as well. Many are well-written and accurate, but others are decidedly less so — barely decipherable and biased in their approach.
Nevertheless, balance is not the writer’s priority in getting out a business or organization’s message via a news release. It’s our job to dig deeper.
— Liam Marlaire, assistant editor