EDITOR’S NOTE: The Price of Silence

By on September 7, 2016

160907EditorsNoteJACKSON HOLE, WY – After a particularly grueling day at the office I often detox with the steadfast wisdom of late journalist Ben Bagdikian. The former dean emeritus of UC Berkley’s School of Journalism penned The Media Monopoly—the book that sparked my allegiance to independent media.

In his first and second editions, Bagdikian unearths the insidious forces of corporate owned news. He exposes the five corporations that control more than 90 percent of newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, and how limited ownership unhinges a democratic society; how these outlets, obligated to their corporate sires, stifle the voice of the people.

Today, it is one of Bagdikian’s most basic mantras (seemingly overlooked by a broad swath of media professionals), which I recite in my head and repeat to my reporters. “Never forget that your obligation is to the people,” Bagdikian said. “It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public.”

Last week the News&Guide decided it was in the public’s interest to publish a story detailing a pending investigation of Jackson mayoral candidate Pete Muldoon. What’s in question is whether Muldoon has a 20-year-old felony on his record—which would disqualify him from running—for writing bad checks as a college student in Louisiana. It is unclear how the newspaper got word of this pending investigation. It is also unclear why instead of waiting for the results of the investigation, the paper saw it fit to print a story that speculated on Muldoon’s eligibility. While a storm of online commenters have questioned the paper’s protocol reporting on Muldoon, it is also the information that the newspaper apparently deemed not in the public’s interest that should be examined.

Recently local media outlets were provided with an unsigned lobbying contract between developer SR Mills and incumbent Jackson Mayor Sara Flitner. The contract was dated before Flitner took office. When PJH reporter Jake Nichols contacted Flitner, she acknowledged fielding calls from the News&Guide about the contract. Later she told Nichols she does not believe the revelation is newsworthy and that the N&G reporter she spoke with agreed.

The document in our possession had a seven-month timeline that expired just before Flitner took office. It remains unclear whether the two parties actually entered into a contract; Flitner maintains they did not.

What we do know, however, is Flitner worked with Mills before taking office. Then recently, she voted in favor of a regulation before the town council that ultimately benefits Mills’ 185 North Glenwood project. At a June 20 Jackson Town Council meeting, Mills estimated a profit of up to $3 million dollars on that project alone. The area is a source of contention among Jackson’s working class and housing advocates who say the downtown core is bloated with commercial development.

While the News&Guide has yet to report or discuss any details about that lobbying contract, in the race for mayor, Flitner’s opponent has not enjoyed the same luxury. Instead, Muldoon asserts a N&G reporter contacted him as her deadline neared with questions that are 20 years old and half a continent away from Jackson Hole. He had little time to defend himself as that paper went to press.

This situation compels discussion on what should be the single greatest tenet guiding elected officials and media outlets, the key tool in fighting corruption: transparency. So in the spirit of transparency, PJH has given Flitner the opportunity this week to respond to allegations about her professional ties to Mills in The Buzz.

Also in the spirit of transparency, I will readily admit that Pete Muldoon happens to be a friend of mine. We are friends because,—aside from everyone knowing everyone here—we share certain values. We share values concerning the middle class—that they have a right to plant lasting roots in Jackson Hole. That people who work full-time or work multiple jobs—like the folks featured in this week’s cover story—shouldn’t struggle to put food on the table or to pay rents or mortgages. We also share the belief that our greatest strength, not only as a nation but also as a global community, is our diversity.

These values are expounded on in The Planet’s August 31 cover story, “The Lasting Bern,” which happened to feature Muldoon, along with the slew of other candidates inspired by Bernie Sanders to run for local office. Indeed, no matter which side of the aisle you stand, there is no denying the story’s newsworthy element—Sanders has emboldened people to take political action in their communities. He has compelled folks to register to vote and to carve inspired new paths into politics. If any other person or party had a candidate that compelled people to action in the way Sanders did, we would find that newsworthy too.

In being transparent about my belief system—which I encourage all media outlets to do—it’s worth noting that the values I share with folks like Muldoon do not assure my vote nor do they mean candidates with differing ideals will be silenced or ignored here. Instead The Planet aims to provide readers the unadulterated tools to make their own informed decisions.

After all, no American citizen, Bagdikian once wrote, can vote intelligently without knowledge of the ideas, political background, and commitments of each individual candidate. He also noted, however, that this hinges on local media, that national papers and broadcast stations cannot adequately report the issues and candidates in every one of the 65,000 local voting districts.

“Only locally based journalism can do it,” he wrote.

But if local journalism fails at this, Bagdikian warned, then voters become captives of the only information available, of paid political propaganda, or they become captives to no information at all.

I hope you find the information on the following pages useful when making your decision. PJH

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine and former editor of Planet Jackson Hole. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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