Premium Editor Colleen McMillar, left, listens to AJC reporter Tia Mitchell, as the two go over a story. RYON HORNE/RHORNE@AJC.COM

Opinion: Free press matters close to home

On Thursday, the day that hundreds of American newspapers editorialized about the importance of a free press, I had a conversation with one of our reporters that perfectly illustrated the point. I’ll get back to the bigger issue in a minute, but first follow me on a short journey with Tia Mitchell, our reporter who covers DeKalb County.

Tia was pursuing a story about Stonecrest, a new city in DeKalb.

It all started when she learned about a special meeting of the city council — called by Mayor Jason Lary to discuss several proposed changes to the city charter, including a pay raise he had long sought.

Mitchell’s attention was piqued because there didn’t seem to be a good reason for Lary to call a special session. City business could have been handled at a scheduled work session coming up within days.

So she wrote a short story previewing the meeting and later did what reporters do: Made the drive out to the city and sat through more than an hour of discussion and debate, making notes for her deadline story. As a reporter, it’s routine for her to monitor such essential movements of government as expenditure of tax dollars and more mundane stuff covered in that meeting, like changing a job title of the city’s accountant to city finance director.

The title change was approved. But the council decided against moving forward with Lary’s proposal to change the city charter to increase the mayoral salary to $75,000 a year from $20,000 a year.

After the meeting, Mitchell approached Lary and asked why he called a special meeting. He said it was because he would be traveling next week.

When Mitchell asked more questions, Lary told her to ask the city’s public information officer.

So Mitchell explained to the PIO that she wanted to learn more about how the meeting was authorized and asked to see the correspondence from Lary calling for a special meeting.

The PIO said if Lary sent it via email he would have no problem sharing it. But if it was a text message sent from Lary’s phone, that would not be a public record, the PIO said.

Mitchell then explained that Georgia open record laws classified text messages sent from personal devices as public records if they address official government business. Knowing the law — that’s also part of what reporters do.

Mitchell’s story ran inside the Metro section in Friday’s newspaper.

It said in part: “Some residents who attended complained after realizing the agenda did not allow for public comment. Others questioned why a special meeting was needed.”

This anecdote doesn’t end in some bombshell, and Mitchell’s story was routine. She’s not going to win a journalism award, and it doesn’t appear anyone has done anything illegal.

But, of course, the story could have broken a different way. Like a meeting Mitchell covered back in February, when the DeKalb Board of Commissioners voted to raise their own salaries by nearly 60 percent. The raise was quickly introduced and passed without going through a normal committee review process, or even being placed on an agenda for the meeting.

Mitchell also covered a ruling by Attorney General Chris Carr in June that the DeKalb pay raise vote from February was illegal – but it was too late to revoke the change, because the vote had happened more than 90 days before.

Carr said that in failing to publish an agenda announcing intent to vote on the pay change, the Board of Commissioners had fallen short on its duty to follow the law “designed to ensure that the public’s trust in its elected officials is not misplaced as they carry out the people’s business.”

Mitchell did what professional reporters do – observe, ask questions, challenge officials, inform the public. Hers is a duty established in the First Amendment, which guarantees the press freedom to hold government accountable on behalf of the people. In truth, any member of the public has the same rights as Mitchell to attend meetings, use public records laws to obtain documents, publish material that is unpopular with elected officials. Most citizens leave those duties to a free press but those rights belong to you.

As I mentioned, on Thursday more than 300 newspapers published editorials about the importance of a free press. The effort was coordinated by The Boston Globe, and was largely aimed at the strong and frequent criticism of the media made by President Donald Trump.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution didn’t participate.

I heard from readers on both sides.

One said:

“I am sorely disappointed that the AJC did not join a long list of newspapers from across the country which today ran editorials defending the vital role that a free press plays in a democratic society. Such cowardice, ignorance, and/or inattention does not bode well … The future of print journalism isn’t bright and its demise is only hastened when local papers, by their editorial spinelessness, contribute to their own demise.”

From another:

“I hope the AJC isn’t going to join the group of papers who are planning to write editorials against Trump for him attacking the media! The national media deserves all the negative comments they get from Trump and the public for their unfair and unrelenting nasty reporting against our president that millions elected, and especially in our state that went strongly for president Trump. If you do I will be cancelling my subscription to the AJC.”

And, of course, the President offered his views of the effort via Twitter. Among his comments:

“Now the Globe is in COLLUSION with other papers on a free press … THE FAKE NEWS MEDIA … is very bad for our Great Country.”

As I expected might happen, the discussion had become polarized, with people lining up on either side of our current divide.

So if the goal was to advance the respect and understanding of the necessity of a free press, the effort seemed to fall short. Few minds appear to have been changed.

To be clear, this newspaper and its leadership stand for the foundational American principle of a free press. We decry and are alarmed by any effort to weaken or undermine it.

We welcome debate about the media’s role in our country and society and regard the First Amendment and the press freedoms it protects as largely responsible for many of the great things the United States has achieved.

But I find the current debate almost always focused on the wrong things.

It’s tempting to highlight the press’s role played out in Washington, or on network news channels. And, of course, that’s not unimportant, though regrettably, not always as inspiring as I would prefer.

But I urge you to think about the role a free press plays here, close to home in metro Atlanta and Georgia.

It’s important and present in our everyday lives. That can be easy to overlook. But it’s crucial to our quality of life, and to the future of our community.

We’re not engaged in a shouting match with the President. We are working on stories like these:

  • The Atlanta City Hall corruption scandal. We have a group of dedicated journalists who have broken numerous stories around the federal investigation. At times, they appear to have uncovered documents and information before federal investigators. Without a free press, it would be impossible to know about the huge bonuses doled about by the previous mayor, and the questionable severance deal given to the fired head of the airport. The free press has forced an accountability for Atlanta taxpayers. Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore said on a local radio show: “All of the things that you’re seeing that are coming out right now are as a result of investigative news reporting. The media is now being able to get open records requests that they had asked for, and they’re doing their job and they’re reporting things.” Indeed.
  • When a man was shot and killed awaiting an Uber ride after a wedding recently, our reporters dug into the tragedy. They got their hands on court records, made phone calls and tracked down a troubling truth that was buried in the legal system. The teenager accused in the killing had been set free from prison, and handed over to a community program whose founder promised he would be supervised. Instead, he ended up accused of murder.

Such stories would be hidden from citizens without a free press, and the public’s support of it. These stories can be done because of the Georgia Open Records Act and other laws that are based on the principles of a free press.

The talking heads on cable television news channels suck up much of the oxygen, but the free press is most important in our backyard.

So as the editor of the AJC, I want you to value a free press. And I hope you will convince others to do the same.

I understand that we have to prove that value through our work each day. And I want you to think about the stories we do that you might not otherwise know about.

Our journalists spend their days digging out the things you need to know. It’s hard work. Often those stories are routine, but add to your understanding of what’s really going on.

So the next time you see the President and reporters shouting back and forth on TV, think about this:

Tia Mitchell will keep trekking out to Stonecrest when there is news to be covered. And if the mayor finds a way to get that pay increase, she’ll let you know. I promise.

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