By this, I mean that the media – newspapers, radio and TV stations, and other news outlets – have the right to report on the activities of public officials, even if it means delving into their private lives.
That may seem unfair to some, but that’s the price you pay when your salary comes from taxpayers’ dollars. It’s been that way for years.
Who are public officials? They could be a city manager, school superintendent or even a police chief.
Yes, the media has been much more diligent since Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal at the White House under President Richard Nixon. From then on, the media have kept a much closer eye on the doings of public officials.
There was a time when the media, especially newspapers, looked the other way when there were rumors of inappropriate behavior by prominent public officials. President Jack Kennedy’s escapades were seldom reported. Even famous sports figures were off-limits.
Sports reporters were befriended by Babe Ruth. They didn’t report his inappropriate behavior such as violating curfews.
Times have changed. Public officials have to be more careful now. Any wrongdoing is likely going to be reported.
The bottom line is that taxpayers have a right to know if a public official’s private life is interfering with his or her job performance. They also have a right to know why a public employee was discharged or resigned.
Media outlets can now file Freedom of Information Act requests seeking information on a public official’s job performance.
But public entities aren’t always willing to disclose why a public worker was fired or explain the reasons he or she resigned. Taxpayers should be allowed to know those details. It is their money, after all.
Yes, being a public official such as a city manager or school superintendent isn’t easy. Their jobs aren’t always secure. A city manager’s job tenure can be jeopardized quickly if there are changes on the city council. We’ve seen that happen in Grand Haven as several city managers were ousted from their jobs.
They also have to deal with the media, which sometimes questions their decisions.
I recently heard Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis explain in a WGHN Radio interview one of the reasons why he chose a career in public government. McGinnis said he always wanted to be involved with a community and its citizens. He said he enjoys interacting with the public, and he’s good at it.
Other public employees will tell you the same thing. They love helping a community grow and thrive.
But McGinnis, as well as others, knows that public service work can come with a price. They have to watch their steps. They are constantly being scrutinized for their decisions, which aren’t always popular.
The media won’t hesitate to report any wrongdoings by public officials. It’s their job.
When I was a reporter in Texas, I often butted heads with the city manager. I once wrote a story of how he circumvented the bidding process to award a job to a contractor. He had to rescind the contract and put the project up for bid after my story ran. I felt I was reporting in the interest of the taxpayers, trying to save them some money.
Newspapers play an important role in a community. You’re probably not always going to like what they write. You might even think they go too far sometimes by delving into private lives.
But when their private lives affect their job performance, then you should want to know about it. As a taxpayer, you should want to know how your public officials are spending your money.
I believe that newspapers are pretty good watchdogs.
— By Len Painter, editor emeritus