Knowing your elected official

A reporter friend writes: Nothing like waking up to an email sent at 2 a.m. from an elected official who is so angry about my reporting of a fact that he states at least five times in an email sent from his government email address that he isn’t talking to me anymore and then includes quite a few adjectives to describe me.

Every news reporter worth a damn has gotten an email or a phone call or, sometimes, a face-to-face dressing anger-filled dressing down from a government official. Sometimes they are laced with profanity. I got them as a reporter and as an editor. When you write about issues they don’t want you to write about or fashion the issues in a way that bothers them, then you’re open.

Most journalists think it’s part of the job, listen, respond and then forget about it (assuming they didn’t make any mistakes). I know that’s what I did.

But what if you reported on the outburst? What if you let the taxpayers know a facet of the official’s personality that they probably rarely see? Or, posing the question more like an independent journalist, why wouldn’t you? Ah, the transparency of it all.

It’s hard to say the conversation is private, unless the official requested an off-the-record conversation, which isn’t usually the case. Besides, coming from a government email address, it’s a public record. Would reporting it ruin the person as a source? Maybe, but, really, who cares, especially if he’s promised not to talk to you again. Does it make the reporter appear as if he or she is at the center of the news, rather than an outside looking in? Perhaps, but again, so what? It’s about him, not you.

As everyone discusses and dissects the issue of whether a journalist should be a truth vigilante, I say publish the email in paper, online or on the air. Maybe the crowd at a South Carolina debate will applaud the public official, but again, so what? It reveals the character of someone elected to represent the people. They deserve to know.

Update: Shannan Bowen, reporter with the Wilmington Star-News, decided to write about it. She includes the email the official sent, complete with misspellings, grammatical convolutions, straight-out denials of information clearly in the public record and angry attacks.

Well done, Shannan and Star-News.

4 thoughts on “Knowing your elected official

  1. In 2005, the meme was “don’t blog while drunk.” This is the same thing, only the 2012 version. An elected official who writes angry email and hits the “send” button ought to (a) know better and (b) be prepared for results when it’s sent from an official public-record account. I’d like to know if my elected official blasts reporters in 2 a.m. email OR if that official calls the reporter and discusses the facts of the article (and I a reporter could defend her facts). The issue is always muddied by votes on motions that contain complex issues (“Did that raise taxes or did it not?” and “What does ‘is’ mean?”).

    But jeez, get a Gmail account, genius.

    • You’d really be amazed how often public officials say things that are way out of line to reporters verbally, but don’t leave any written record.

      My last couple of years of political reporting have shown me that anything that is said to me by a politician verbally can and (sometimes,= even when it’s mind numbingly low of them) will be denied the moment it becomes inconvenient for people to read that they’ve said it.

      Insults they never intended anyone but you to hear? Forget about it…

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