Malheur County residents lose when government blunts the media

The Facebook post from Congressman Greg Walden caught my attention because he was in the neighborhood.

“Thanks to the farmers, ranchers and community leaders who joined me for a conversation on trade, the farm bill and other issues impacting those who grow our food,” the Hood River Congressman said, posting photos of him meeting with local industry and government leaders.

The meeting was on Monday, July 2 – in Ontario.

Usually, members of our congressional delegation are keen to alert the media when they’re in town. They usually encourage press coverage about whatever issue brings them to town. The staff of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley are diligent about alerting the local press, often making the senators directly available for interviews.

And the Walden meeting seemed especially important for the community to learn about. Congress is hashing out the annual farm bill, which has enormous influence on agriculture around Malheur County. On trade issues, the escalating tariffs imposed by President Trump were alarming enough to prompt Walden a couple of months ago to warn of “unintended consequences.”

The people of Malheur County would have been interested in what their congressman, one of the most powerful in the U.S. House, had to say on these issues.

Seeing that Facebook post, I asked around our newsroom. No one had been told of the meeting by Walden’s office. I double-checked our email. Nothing there either.

So, I shot an email to Justin Discigil, the congressman’s communication director for the past year. “Was there notice to the press that Greg was going to be in town?” I asked. He responded right away.

“I noticed the local newspaper for Ontario – the Ontario Argus Observer – that Greg was going to be in Ontario,” wrote the government spokesman. “When Greg is in Vale, I will be sure to notify you in advance.”

This was a head scratcher. We cover all of Malheur County. We are especially attentive to the area’s agricultural economy. Why would Walden want to freeze us out of a meeting precisely on that topic? There was nothing secret going on in there, of course, because the Ontario paper was alerted.

Discigil’s explanation was nonsense and I told him so in another email.

He coolly responded that leaving the Enterprise out “was not meant as a slight” and he “just wanted to reach out to the local newspaper per usual.”

That, too, was nonsense. The next day, the congressman was over in Rufus, meeting with local farmers. Rufus is in Sherman County. At least one newspaper was told of the meeting – the daily in Pendleton. I checked a map. Pendleton is 100 miles from Rufus. Based on Discigil’s definition, the East Oregonian is no more a “local” newspaper in Rufus than the Enterprise is the local paper for Salem.

So, I wondered, what’s Discigil’s game here? I’ve known Walden for years and years. He is a decent public official who works hard to serve his constituents. The Enterprise is one of those constituents.

I can’t say for sure, but I’m betting Discigil’s snub was payback for asking him and Walden some challenging questions earlier this year. 

During some routine reporting, we learned that the congressman a year ago had gone overseas at taxpayer expense over the Fourth of July holiday. He went to Iceland, Sweden, and Norway. A primary duty of the press is to hold public officials accountable for how they use your money. To me, it seemed appropriate and fair to ask about the trip, especially since the congressman has long worried about federal spending overall.

Discigil did share that the congressman had gone to be briefed in Scandinavia about global energy issues and then national security issues in the Arctic. But Discigil went silent when pressed for more information: Who did the congressman meet with? What did he learn? Did he craft legislation as a result to fix an energy problem?

When he didn’t respond, I wrote the congressman directly, noting his practice of transparency for years and asking would he provide the information. Seven months later, and no response has arrived.

Meantime, the U.S. Air Force responded to a request for information. Government records showed that Walden was part of a congressional delegation that used the Air Force to get overseas at a cost of $154,000. That doesn’t count other costs, such as security and hotels.

Foreign travel by congressmen can be valuable. This is a small planet. But such travel should clearly benefit the people of Malheur County, the Second Congressional District, and the country. What’s more, the people footing the bill for such travel ought to be clued in on those benefits.

When government officials act to control the press, by manipulation or by playing favorites, the losers are Americans who deserve to know what they’re doing. We’ll keep asking questions, sometimes tough but fair ones, on your behalf. Clearly, that’s not always going to make us friends with those in government.

Les Zaitz is the publisher and editor of the Malheur Enterprise. Reach him at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.