Charlie Mitchell: Community reporters do the legwork for democracy

August 26, 2013 9:28:54 AM



OXFORD -- In Mississippi, people paid to influence legislation (lobbyists) must register. They must file reports when they feed and otherwise entertain public officials. 


In Mississippi, candidates for any public office must file reports showing every campaign gift (cash or in-kind) worth more than $200. 


In Mississippi, members of the House must seek the blessing of the "Management Committee" any time they wish to travel or be entertained with someone else picking up the tab. 


All these and many more "good government" provisions (though there are big gaps in most) have been enacted in fits of pique, usually the next session after a legislator or other official has engaged in some shameful act. Lawmakers, as a whole, seem determined to demonstrate a commitment to purity, to "transparency." 


So, hundreds upon hundreds of public records created every day. 


The question becomes, "Who looks at them?" When a town gets a $250,000 grant to build a new playground, who tallies the price of everything purchased and installed to see if things add up? 


The answer, historically, has been community journalists. 


Along with recording births, marriages, deaths, reporting festival dates and covering high school sports, community journalists have historically accepted the role of local watchdog. 




The philosophers who launched this experiment called America didn't know if people could handle self-governance. Their plan was purely theoretical. What they did know and had plenty of evidence to support is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 


So they insisted on a free press. It wasn't because media corporations had good lobbyists who could obtain comfy laws. No media corporations existed. It was because the press could be expected, as it had been before and during the Revolution, to be a broker of information. Perhaps not always an honest broker, but a non-government broker nonetheless. 


Now, back to Mississippi in 2013. 


A coalition of what might be called pay-day lenders -- folks who think nothing of charging 99 percent interest so their customers can keep their lights on -- held a tete-a-tete for about two dozen Mississippi lawmakers at a resort in Destin, Fla. The coalition, as required, reported the tab -- about $26,000. 


Separately, some lawmakers filed for reimbursement for travel to and meals at the event. 


So how would the public know about this? Who obtained and compared, asked the lawmakers about their expense reports, causing the lawmakers to assert their purity, insist there must be some confusion? 


It was a journalist, in this case Geoff Pender of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. 


Taxpayers and voters would never go to the Capitol, mine records of different types and pair them for overlap -- then follow up. The information was there, but obscure. 


Similarly, down on the Gulf Coast, The Sun-Herald has several reporters whose appearance makes officials shudder and whose basic reporting put the brakes on millions of dollars being spent for questionable purposes -- or just disappearing. In Greenwood, a publisher, Tim Kalich, has pointed it out when public school officials' words don't match their deeds. 


While there is some derring-do, whenever the topic is "investigative journalism" I think not of Woodward and Bernstein, but a retiree who lived in small-town Louisiana. She was a part-time reporter for larger daily papers in the area. When her town did, in fact, get a grant for a playground, she noticed that a concrete slab went down and a basketball hoop went up -- but nothing else. Doggedly, over many months, she gathered documents showing that 10 percent of the grant was spent on equipment and 90 percent went to "administration." 


Not a trained journalist. Not Watergate. No books. No movies. No glory. Just a little old lady with a press pass who wanted nothing more than for her local officials to be honest. 


Right now, Mississippi is fortunate to have several journalists and newspapers and at least one television station (Dan Modisett at WLBT in Jackson) that are not passive about good government. They are still filling their traditional role while all around them "major media" outlets shift to aggregating news, pack journalism, celebrity hype or depending on opinion and commentary programming to fill their pages and air time. 


More power to them for swimming against the current. 


People don't seek public office to betray the public's trust, but the temptations are plentiful. A free press was ordained as a fourth, unofficial branch to help democracy succeed. It's really not optional. 


If no one is doing the legwork, looking at the records, communities will suffer.