Our view: Liddell and Smith unavailable for comment

January 30, 2013 10:56:15 AM

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Ultimately, it is a matter of accountability. 

 

On two separate occasions over the past week, officials have bitterly complained about news stories we published. While The Dispatch stands firmly behind each of the stories in question, we readily admit that each story would have benefited from the insights of those same officials. 

 

In each case, the official making the ex post facto criticisms was given every opportunity to contribute to the story. If the story in question lacked balance, failed to include relevant information or mis-characterized the position of the officials in question -- charges we do not concede -- those perceived flaws would have been easily avoided had those officials responded to the reporter's request for comment prior to publication. 

 

In Friday's edition, we reported on a bill presented in the Mississippi House of Representatives by representatives Gary Chism and Jeff Smith, both of Columbus. While Chism responded to interview requests and was quoted liberally in the story, Smith declined to answer or return phone calls before the story was published. On Sunday, Smith responded with an email to The Dispatch with a statement on the legislation, explaining his motivation and taking issue with the way the bill was characterized. 

 

In Sunday's edition, we reported that the Columbus Municipal School District is considering a move that would freeze all non-essential spending -- potentially including things like athletics travel -- beginning Feb. 1. We raised the possibility that athletics funding could be cut because that possibility was raised by a board member during a Saturday board meeting. 

 

CMSD Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell did not respond to a call for her input on the story. 

 

A day later, Liddell sent an email to The Dispatch to clarify her position on "non-essential spending," disputing the possible effects on sports teams. In the email, she suggested the story sought to sensationalize the situation by contacting one of the school's coaches.  

 

Board members did not know what was considered "non-essential spending" -- a fact they readily admitted while discussing it between themselves. In fact, Liddell seemed to be the only one aware of what the cuts would entail. Given that the cuts will be implemented within a matter of days, one would think Liddell would understand the importance of being able to clarify the situation. Board members, staff, teachers, parents and taxpayers have every right to know what cuts will be made.  

 

In each case, both Smith and Liddell were given every opportunity to make their points. In each case, they declined to do so.  

 

Who, then, really bears responsibility for a poorly-informed public? 

 

Would it not serve all parties' best interests for those public officials to be accessible?  

 

The public, which relies on the media to keep them informed, has every right to hear from public officials on such issues. Public officials should not be accountable to the public as a matter of courtesy; they should be accountable because it is an essential requirement of their offices. Denying access to the media is denying access to the public. It is the means by which officials can most effectively interact with stakeholders.  

 

Yet, some officials are consistently uncooperative. 

 

It is a charge that applies specifically to both Smith and Liddell, both of whom have repeatedly refused to be interviewed for news stories that involve their official duties. 

 

Email responses delivered after publication are a poor substitute for being accessible as the story unfolds. A reporter cannot ask an email to clarify a position or answer a follow-up question. In many cases, communicating by email should be viewed as little more than an effort to "manage" information in a way that serves the official, often at the public's expense. 

 

Such a pattern suggests either an arrogant indifference to their stakeholders or a basic lack of confidence in their command of the situation as it unfolds. 

 

We make no specific assumption as to why Smith and Liddell consistently refuse to be interviewed for stories that concern their duties. 

 

All we know is that they refuse.