The Marin Post

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Media Foundation of W.A.

Marin IJ must use Public Records Act requests more

The following letter has been sent to the Publisher and Editors of the Marin Independent Journal.

Dear Marin IJ Political Staff,

I have been reading Marin IJ political articles for several years now and I have noticed a conspicuous lack independent research, third party documentation, or other references that would typically result from fundamental investigative journalistic methods or Public Records Act requests. The Public Records Act, in particular, allows anyone to receive all government records and documents, including emails, related to any subject or governmental action.

With these documents in hand, one can accurately report on the inner workings of government, based on facts rather than personal opinion, and in doing so increase our understanding of how our elected officials are conducting the “people’s” business. A PRA is a tremendous journalistic tool that, as far as I can tell, has been underutilized by your organization.

Let me point out a couple of examples of the lack of depth of reporting that IJ readers often see. Matthew Pera recently published a piece entitled, Corte Madera’s Tam Ridge traffic minimal, study says. In it, he wrote,

“The whole thing [WinCup] has turned out just fine,” said Councilman Bob Ravasio, who was a member of the 2012 Town Council that gave the project a green light. “It’s remarkably good,” he said. “It’s kind of a testament to smart planning.”

A politician praising his own decisions is about as common a fender-bender. But is this biased opinion news-worthy or is the IJ just reporting spin? It certainly does the Councilman a favor in his vote-based profession.

As another example, in Marin water officials concede flawed rollout on rate hike, Will Houston wrote,

Director Cynthia Koehler thanked the public and district staff who worked on this proposal. “We’re not going to make everybody happy, but I think there’s been an unusual, extraordinary effort to accommodate all of the issues that have been raised,” she said.

Why report the one-sided spin of an incumbent politician, who has been heavily criticized for years as being out of touch with the residents her agency serves, instead of the digging into the proposals and ensuing record of events themselves? It often seems as if the Marin IJ is afraid of offending political officeholders, perhaps because that might mean losing special access to these officeholders. But in any case, simply collecting quotes from various stakeholders is not journalism, no more than a weather report is journalism.

Doing “independent” research (as the Marin Independent Journal’s name implies) by making a Public Records Act can uncover an enormous amount of information that often leads to new revelations.

An example of this is Community Venture Partners’ PRA requests to the County of Marin regarding the Bob Middagh Trail, which inadvertently uncovered clear evidence of a questionable, ongoing slush-fund like entity called the “The Marin County ‘Community Service Contracts’ Program.”

It’s true that the filing of Public Records Act requests can add extra work to overburdened public employees, and it can sometimes even generate animosity against the filer. But, is it more important that our local newspaper maintains good relations with local government by refraining from the use of PRA requests or should they take the risks that we would expect of the 4th Estate?

The Journalist’s Creed asserts that “suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.”[1]

[1] In 1914 Walter Williams wrote the Journalist’s Creed which rings true today.