I’ve been thinking about the relationship between local newspapers and town leaders and wondering if what happens in small towns bears any resemblance to what’s been going on (and not going on) in Washington, D.C. for the last few years.
I remember President Kennedy seeming to enjoy the give and take with reporters at press conferences. The Trump years saw reporters mocked, threatened, and vilified as “the enemy.” Some of that antagonism is natural when people in authority are questioned, and I know reporters can be annoying. But I also see signs of something worse — a kind of contempt for the press by people who are, in fact, public servants and ought to know that asking them questions is not out of line.
Last week one of our reporters suggested that it was time to follow up on the town accountant story in Wellfleet. We knew that the previous accountant had been dismissed (no one would say why), and there had been a cash flow problem requiring short-term borrowing. It’s our job to ask: is there a story there?
We heard that a new accountant had been hired a month ago. It made sense to find out something about this new person. The reporter who was on that beat called the town administrator to ask for the accountant’s resume.
But she had no luck on that front. The administrator, Maria Broadbent, who has been in town less than six months herself, said she didn’t think the resume was a public document and the newspaper couldn’t see it. The reporter was pretty sure that was wrong but asked me to confirm her sense that the resume was a public document. After explaining that it was, I couldn’t help myself. I picked up the phone and called Broadbent.
I repeated what the reporter had told me. “Oh, no, I didn’t tell her that,” said Broadbent. “I just said I would have to tell the accountant first. It didn’t seem right to give it out without telling her.” Our reporter had misunderstood, Broadbent suggested, because she was “very young.”
I’m not sure what gave Broadbent that idea, but it is true that this reporter is unfailingly polite. Maybe that made her seem young. I know she is honest.
What’s striking here is that Broadbent seems to have assumed that, when a young person tries to get involved in civic life, it’s an opportunity to withhold facts that should be public. Elders like me often talk about how important it is for younger residents to get involved in town affairs, volunteer for committees, and run for office. To do that, they have to start by asking questions. And we have to be willing to give them honest answers, not a runaround.