Jeff Farrell: Getting official response for story becoming harder

Aug. 03, 2013 @ 11:04 PM

“Transparency” is a word we seem to hear an awful lot.

For example, politicians often talk about how if elected they will make their administration more transparent, while reporters often talk about how a given administration is anything but transparent. Usually while slamming down a phone in disgust.

To borrow a line from “The Princess Bride,” we might say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

My latest encounter with the issue came from calling the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) about its letter reprimanding Sheriff Ron Seals for violating the Hatch Act.

We’d been sent an email with a digital photograph of a letter to John Meyers, who had filed a complaint with the OSC. Because the email didn’t come from Meyers, I wanted to get some independent confirmation the OSC sent it.

By July 19, I had talked to a spokesman for the OSC. He told me that they couldn’t confirm or deny the letter, and that the contents would be considered private.

So, this is what I had: A federal agency might or might not have sent a letter to a local, elected public official chastising him for violating a federal regulation. But if they sent a letter to that official, it was private.

At the same time I’m wondering whether the National Security Agency was listening to the conversation because, well, there seems to be some confusion on whether private phone conversations are private or not.

If you’ve been reading our paper, you know Sheriff Seals eventually sent me his own copy of the letter. I got a phone number for Meyers, as well.

But before all that happened, back on July 19, I sent a Freedom Of Information Act request to the OSC. Under their own rules, they have until Aug. 16 to respond. While I got the letter through another source, I’m curious to see whether they still say the letters are “private.”

To further illustrate how often his happens, I’ve been calling the Knoxville FBI office and the Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights regularly about some investigations we know they started — the investigation into the death of Pamela Ross, started at the request of her daughters; reported investigations into deaths at the jail; and an investigation into swastikas and racist graffiti in a Seymour neighborhood. As I write this Friday, a public affairs specialist in Washington is checking on those cases again.

We have reasons to believe some of these are closed; if not they have gone on for a long time. But we’re told they’re ongoing and, therefore, we cannot have any information.

Likewise, we’re told we can’t get the full report on last year’s fatal wreck on the Spur because the investigation isn’t complete yet.

The issue isn’t limited to the federal government, or state government.

Being a reporter increasingly seems to mean writing stories about local issues while talking to people who don’t live here and aren’t particularly accountable to people who do live here.

For full disclosure, my first exposure to the problem came within months of becoming a paid, professional reporter. A train crossed a residential road near a new floodwall for one town I covered, and the gate the trains would pass through blocked visibility of the oncoming trains. There were no railroad crossing arms at this location, and residents understandably felt like it had become a very dangerous crossing.

To get a comment from the rail company, I started with a local number, was told to call representatives in other cities and then in other states. Eventually I was assured by a spokesman who’d never been in town that engineers had approved the design so it must be all right.

In their defense, weeks later one of the people I’d called showed up at our office, rode over with me and acknowledged the crossing might need more safety features. I moved on to another before hearing out what final action was taken; it was still being considered months later.

For years, I used this as an example of how giant companies are just as inefficient and unaccountable as the federal government.

But when I started out, I could still walk into a local department store and speak to the manager about a local issue. Now, we often find ourselves talking to someone in another state.

Local managers, more and more often, are instructed not to talk to the press about anything. So, for a lot of chain stores, when you call and ask to speak to a manager for a news story, you’re told to call somewhere else and talk to a person who’s paid to talk to reporters at length — many times without giving any relevant information and often because they have no actual knowledge of the local situation.

With fewer mom-and-pop style stores, this type of thing makes it that much harder for us to get local people talking about local issues.

So when you do see a prompt and full response to a local issue, especially from a local person, take time to appreciate it.

— Jeff Farrell is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 216, or e-mail to jfarrell@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @jeffmtnpress.