February 2, 2013 8:58:52 PM
Early last week I sent Jeff Smith and Martha Liddell an email. Neither had taken nor returned calls from our reporters who were working on stories in which each of them was a principal player.
We had tried to reach Rep. Smith for a story on the now-infamous House Bill 490, which he co-sponsored with fellow Representative, Gary Chism. City schools superintendent Liddell had released a spending-freeze directive at a school board retreat, which she did not attend and which none of the board members could explain.
Both stories ran without the benefit of their insight. And both Liddell and Smith emailed us their criticisms and comment afterward. This wasn't the first time. Both Smith and Liddell are notoriously elusive when it comes to speaking with our reporters.
While this may sound self-serving, taxpayer-paid public officials have an obligation to be forthright and accessible to their constituents. And, the most common way this "accessibility" occurs is through the media. We expanded on this idea in an editorial we published Wednesday.
Before that, though, I had sent Smith and Liddell a personal email expressing the same sentiments.
I got two very different responses.
Here's my rather preachy email sent to Liddell (a similar version was sent to Smith):
Below is part of an email I sent to another disgruntled public official, who like you, is rarely available when we need clarification on an issue.
To any elected official I would say the best way to head off a misinterpretation of a bill or action is to be available for comment at the time of the story. Reporters are often asked to grapple with complicated issues, best explained with the help of those involved. All too frequently, we hear from the newsmaker afterward, who is unhappy with an interpretation that could have been more accurate had they been responsive when we were writing the story.
Our only agenda is a fair and accurate delivery of news relevant to our readers. We believe it is the responsibility of public officials to help us (as well as other media outlets) meet that objective.
Hope you're well.
Here was Jeff Smith's response:
I agree. Not complaining. Always call my cell ... Jeff Smith.
Liddell had a very different take. Here's an unedited version of her response:
Birney, I once truly believed that you were an honorable man willing to judge individuals on the content of their character. However, your actions and the actions you've guided your staff to take with regard to being fair to Columbus Schools and to me as its leader has convinced me otherwise.
I had to admit to myself first that your actions, bullying pulpit tactics, personal hate filled attacks on my leadership are the actions of a racist individual.
It breaks my heart to have a admit a man I once admired has shown himself to be another bigoted racist concerned only with perpetuating the good ole boy system where other hard working, dues paying Americans of color have to be treated as though they don't deserve the opportunity to lead.
The articles and opinions that heavy laden in the archives of the Commercial Dispatch you have written and influenced are a sad testament to you as someone who claims to be a God fearing Christian.
I don't appreciate how you've treated me and I won't stand for it any longer. This email regarding a public official you've sent today has nothing to do with me.
You have not reached out to me or have sincerely tried to reach out; because your intentions are not pure. They are hateful. If it's not me you're attacking it's Nancy Carpenter. You cannot cloak your prejudice "as responsible journalism."
Granted Mrs. Carpenter (n)or I are flawless and above criticism, but neither are you. We are female leaders and it seems you and the Commercial Dispatch have serious issues and agendas against female leadership.
I also don't know how it feels to live a life of privilege. I assume it makes you feel like God and the keeper of everyone's truth and morality. I just assume be humble and live as a faithful servant to the teachings of Jesus Christ. ...
I realize from some unfortunate rumors I've heard that you feel a need to protect and coddle my former Superintendent's legacy. I also know this is part of the reason you are always harassing me in your paper. I don't necessarily believe the rumor mill; because as disappointed as I am to learn you are a racist I do believe you have dignity.
It would be nice to be able to have a local paper that was willing to fairly report the joys and pains of all the school districts in its jurisdiction, but I can see that's not going to happen.
I also want to know why you refused to print my response letter to you and Carmen's article from Sunday.
I suppose I could try to rebut the letter -- we have criticized County Schools Superintendent Lynn Wright for once being inaccessible, praised Allegra Brigham's leadership as interim president of Mississippi University for Women and Alma Turner's life of service as an educator, and despite plenty of negative press, Nancy Carpenter has, to her credit, remained accessible to the media -- but that's hardly the point here.
That a person entrusted with the management of our public schools -- an official whose job it is to foster a spirit of inclusiveness, who is entrusted with the education of the next generation's leaders -- would launch such an invective, one that includes the race card, speaks volumes, none of it good.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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