Gov. Crist Regrets the Error, I'm Sure
The governor's office accidentally e-mailed mainstream media outlets a round-up listing "all inquiries by reporters to state agencies.
You can bet the statehouse reporters consumed every word of this missive with zeal and I'm assuming (because New Times didn't receive the e-mail) that there's some interesting info.
On the Miami Herald's brief politics blog post about it, a commenter called "JB" brings up an interesting issue:
"Any reporter that makes a public records request for this item is a desperate traitor to his or her craft."
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That is so full of (unintentional) irony, you almost expect it to slide off your computer screen. Reporters, at least good ones, spend their days digging up information through records requests on everyone, but if they use the state's laws to dig up information on what other reporters are working on, they're "traitors."
And I have to say that I largely agree with JB, absurdity and
all. A standing records request for all reporters' requests to a particular governmental body, for instance, is tacky and unprofessional. No doubt about it, that reporter would deserve to be despised. And running around trying to scoop other reporters by throwing around such requests is also in extremely bad form and shouldn't be done.
But to say carte blanche that it's out of bounds under all circumstances is something no good, or smart, reporter could possibly believe. At least once in my life I've asked for recent records requests from a governmental body. Why? Because I was in cutthroat competition with another newspaper on the same longstanding investigation. And it was me against two of them. Everywhere I went, I'd see Frick and Frack around the corner, lurking. I'd invested weeks of my time and wasn't going to get beat. So I asked to see what they'd requested to make sure they didn't have something I didn't.
What I found wasn't very useful (other than to rest my concerns) and I beat them not because of the mostly insignificant records request, but because I worked faster (and New Times' attorneys worked faster vetting the story, as well).
Was the request dishonorable? Hell no. It was smart business. The same thing has been done on me before, and what did I do, cry and whine? Hell no. You shake your head, call them sonsabitches, and move on.
So what about this particular e-mail from the governor?
Would it be traitorious to request it?
No. It's not only public record but it's news.
Would it be traitorious to publish its contents?
Yes and no. There might be some funny things on there worth mentioning, a look at the making of sausage. But to use it to try to scoop other reporters would be bad form. There's got to be some damn professional courtesy in this business. Any reporter who would spoil another reporter's investigation -- by tipping off the world to what he or she is doing -- deserves to be drummed out. It's the opposite of what many of us reporters got into this thing of ours to do.
On this blog you might see a preview of another reporter's work, as in, "I understand the Miami Herald is going to break a big story about such and such this weekend, so look out for it." But that's about as far as I'll go. If I hear another media outlet it about to come out with some breaking news about something that is near and dear to my heart, sure, I'll try to get the goods and beat them to the punch. That's just good competition. But I won't do it through a stinking records request to see what they've asked for. It's just too sleazy. You do it via reporting.
A recent example was the Judge Robert Zack story done by Channel 7's Carmel Cafiero. I heard it was coming out and I tried to get the goods. But the main source for the story told me he couldn't talk about it because he'd made an agreement with Carmel. Of course, I respected that and I moved on because I didn't see any other way to get the story on my own. I did, however, plan to preview the story on the blog on the day it was to air, basically to say to watch out for a story on a Broward judge by Channel 7, but it got lost in the shuffle.
I think the moral here is that, yes, you should be competitive and you should go to extreme lengths to get a good story. But you should do it with the same semblance of class and integrity you expect from the people you cover.
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