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Downtown

Wannabe newsies just don't get it

Ashland City Councilor Jack Hardesty arrived at a public — meeting that he and several other local residents were holding in a publicly — owned building at Southern Oregon University and quickly conferred with — one of the event organizers, who in turn, promptly asked a reporter from — the Ashland Daily Tidings to leave.

The reporter had to decide to obey the request or challenge — the decision on Freedom of Information Act law that would suggest she — had every right to stay. In the end, she opted to leave.

And the purpose of this civic venture that is starting — out behind badly closed doors? The formation of a rival newspaper in Ashland — that endeavors to develop, "a high-quality local news service with integrity — and articles that actually inform people," according to an Ashland Community — Action e-mail dated Thursday, Feb. 3.

Thus, the first act of this "high-quality local news service — with integrity and articles that actually inform people," is to stomp — on FOI laws that are essential to the efficacy of a free press and to — shroud its activities from the scepter of public reporting.

A less than auspicious debut for a so-called news organization.

The sCOOP

The tentative working name of this group is called the — AshlandNEWScoop - the capitalization intended to highlight the goal is — both news, and coop, as in cooperative. The organization hopes to draw — reporters and editors from the community at large, willing to donate their — time (and probably money) to the upstart news service.

So far, this cadre of unbiased, dispassionate pros who — will "actually inform" and provide "nuanced coverage of local civic issues" — includes Hardesty, environmental activist Eric Navickas, local Green Party — organizer Pam Vavra and former planning commissioner Colin Swales to name — a few.

I may be wrong - this is an opinion column after all - — but on the surface this group represents some of the most biased, passionate — and determined activists that this community has to offer. And, I say — that with all due respect.

From city councilors to activists to party organizers, — each has already played a significant role in the shaping of this community. — Collectively, they have been involved in most local critical issues, widely — reported by the Tidings and other local news sources. But apparently now — they are no longer content to make the news, they want to write it as — well.

Report from within?

The can of worms that has been wrenched open for Hardesty — is just beginning. To understand it requires some understanding - apparently — unknown to Hardesty and his fellow organizers - of basic laws of journalistic — fairness.

Simply put, if one reporter is given access to a government — meeting, everyone gets the same access. One of the biggest stories I was — ever involved in breaking, an international crisis related to an Avian — Flu outbreak, started for our news team because the Washington Post lawyers — got the confidential files released. It's not just choice, it's the law.

As a co-founder of a budding news organization, Hardesty — now opens the door to any meeting he is involved in regarding city business — to all other news organizations. This likely grants not only the Tidings, — but the Tribune, Sneak Preview, Jefferson Public Radio, local television — news and perhaps any fly by night Internet "news" source, virtually unlimited — access to city government. If Hardesty is there, we get to be there too.

Most likely someone - perhaps Mayor John Morrison, or — City Attorney Mike Frannell - will pull Hardesty aside in the days to — come and apprise him of this sticky wicket. He may even take their advice — and issue some type of press release or statement saying he never intended — to actually volunteer to work for this news organization, that he was — only there to show support for the grass roots effort or some other type — of political spin.

But the question of influence will always be a point of — contention. His role in this organization from its outset was made very — clear. He was the first name on the memo announcing its formation, and — the person who at least had some say on the decision to toss a reporter — from the meeting.

His influence is established. Once this news organization — starts reporting, whatever access he's granted has to be granted to the — rest of us.

The potential problems are endless. For example, just — how many votes will Hardesty have to excuse himself from because his newspaper — editorialized an opinion before the fair process of public hearing began?

In fairness, it is important to note that Hardesty is — not the first politician to try to shape the news that he also helps make. — Why shouldn't he do it when the Bush administration is paying columnists — to tout its policies? It's just that even the White House isn't pretending — to be unbiased.

Just the facts

It's just too easy to poke fun at the idea of unbiased — news on the Mt. Ashland ski area expansion, by AshlandNEWScoop staff writer — Eric Navickas.

How can you not laugh at the idea of Hardesty voting no, — and then turning to fellow councilor Chris Hearn and asking for comment — on why he voted yes? "Can I quote you on that councilor?" he would ask. —

How about a story on downtown development by former planning — commissioner Colin Swales? Swales is certainly an expert on planning - — by all accounts he was an arduous student of planning laws and ordinances — - but he is anything but unbiased.

For those who support his effort to curtail growth in — Ashland, that is something to be applauded. But for he, or any of those — listed as organizers, to now step out of that role and take on the role — of objective reporter is about as unlikely as President Bush suddenly — bringing home the troops from Iraq.

This is not to say that Navickas or Swales intend to actually — report. Perhaps their involvement in this venture is simply to control — those who report, not report themselves. But we don't know what their — intent is because they tossed out the reporter sent to find out their — intent.

These people may cry foul today that I didn't call them — to comment on this column, but when given the chance to allow a reporter — to report, they chose to throw her out. That's a resounding no comment — if I ever heard one.

Actually our decision to cover the story reveals much — about the ethics of journalism that we practice everyday.

The question was raised by the editors as to why we would — give free press to a potential rival (Oh, what the heck, I'll confess, — it was me. I am the only editor that cares about the business side of — this whole thing). It was decided that since we reported on a group's — effort to form an independent radio station that rivals Jefferson Public — Radio, in fairness we had to report on those who similarly wanted to take — us on. So it is ironic that in the end, we were thwarted from doing a — story that wasn't really in our best interests.

But this does crystallize just how little basic media — ethics and practice this so-called news organization really knows.

Nevertheless, this whole episode is symbolic of a growing — national and local concern about "the media," whatever one determines — that monster to be.

While we say we want an unbiased and balanced news service, — we really want to shape that news service to report and support the things — we are most passionate about - even if it means that we eventually grab — the reporter's notebook away and write the damn stories ourselves.

For civic leaders, shaping the community and making the — news is always the objective. For news reporters the only objective is — to tell the story, not be a part of it. Sadly, more and more people are — failing to note the difference.