FROM THE EDITOR: We press public officials, but with an aim for fairness, accuracy

Les Zaitz, editor and publisher, The Enterprise (Robert Quick photo)

Local people find their name on a ballot typically when they are running for office.

I’m not running for anything, but Ontario voters still will find my name on the ballot.

That’s as surprising to me as it likely is for voters considering a single question: Should Freddy Rodriguez be recalled from office as an Ontario city councilor?

Ballots went out last week for an election to be settled July 6.

Rodriguez had just 200 words to make his case to voters why he should be left in office.

He used some of his word limit to seemingly blame me as the publisher and one of our reporters for his troubles.

Our reporting got us on the ballot, so to speak, so this provides me an opportunity to provide understanding for how we do our work at the Enterprise.

One of our most important assignments for the people of Malheur County is to keep watch over public officials. They have been granted power. They control money. They control what does and doesn’t happen with the instruments of government.

In Malheur County, public officials for too long have been accustomed to no one paying close attention to what they do or questioning their performance.

That changed as the 111-year-old Enterprise has become more of a local watchdog.

We ask for public information contained in government records. We question government officials. We report in detail about what they are – or aren’t – doing. We report successes and on questionable decisions or conduct.

We are guided every single day by key principles – posted publicly on our website.

One of the most important principles is that we don’t serve any political party. We don’t represent private interests over public interests. We don’t push a “red” or “blue” agenda. We push a public agenda that best serves Malheur County.

Simply put, the Enterprise has no agenda when it comes to politics – except to insist on honesty from those in public power. For that, we make no apology.

We aim for fairness. Our reports are intended to be reflect facts, but also to provide context – why something happened or didn’t happen. Every government official and agency coming under public attention gets a fair chance to address information and provide comment.

Fairness doesn’t mean being wishy-washy. We use direct, clear language in our stories, especially investigative reports. We want you to know the facts and not have to guess at their meaning. We aren’t writing greeting cards here that you can read into what you want.

Always, accuracy is essential. We want to get the facts right. As I tell people, I don’t care if the news is good or bad – I just want the truth. Those who hide the truth earn extra effort on our part to find those facts.

We’re not perfect. Readers and sources are always welcome to call our attention to an error of fact. If we made a mistake, we fix it. Our mistakes are often the result of speed or confusion. They are never intentional. We lose too much sleep over the ones we do make.

All these elements blend together when we deliver tough investigative reporting that is too rare in rural America.

I am not surprised that public officials like Rodriguez or Greg Smith, the county’s economic development director, don’t care for such coverage.

Rodriguez and Smith take the path often followed by public officials questioned about their performance or conduct. They go personal. They attack reporters or editors not with criticism of a story but with snide and sometimes inappropriate remarks that deflect from the stories – and from the truth.

After 45 years in this profession, I’m accustomed to that response. I’ve been excoriated on the floor of the Oregon Senate. I’ve been pummeled before a gathering of thousands of devout Rajneeshees.  Once while sitting in a large community gathering in Keizer, I was publicly roasted by defenders of a local police chief.

So be it. Journalism is a very public profession. And getting a lashing, no matter how uncomfortable or distasteful, can be the result.

Those experiences taught me one key lesson: Stay focused. I try to keep my eye on what’s most important – accurately reporting the story of the day. None of our coverage is ever driven by a “get even” mentality. It is driven by the determination to not be distracted or knocked off a story by such personal attacks. The story must go on when it involves public officials and public business.

Attacks on the credibility of our reporting, however, do warrant attention. Rodriguez, for instance, wrote in his ballot defense that “my side was silenced by Les Zaitz.” That’s just flat out not true.

The Enterprise over the past few months has sent Rodriguez one set of detailed questions after another. Sometimes he responds. Sometimes he takes to Facebook to answer. When he does answer, we fairly report what he says.

Other times, silence is his response. That’s his choice, not the Enterprise.

Bottom line, at the Enterprise we report deeply and with care on public matters. We hear from readers every single week how much they appreciate this work, work that no one else does and that truly matters to community life. One reader donated $100 last week for that very reason – to encourage us to keep going.

We know we have to do the job right. By that, we have to behave in a way that earns your trust. Nothing – no award, no donation – is as precious to us as that.

Les Zaitz is editor and publisher of the Enterprise. Email: [email protected].


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