I hate closed doors. I get claustrophobic behind them and suspicious outside of them.
News reporters who cover government encounter a lot of closed doors — both literally and figuratively — and it’s hard not to jump to the conclusion something’s being hidden in such cases.
Of course, that’s not always true. Sometimes the person a reporter is trying to reach is screening calls and stonewalling because they don’t want to be thrust into the middle of a controversy, or they think they’ll be misquoted with the same unpleasant result. Sometimes they truly are busy like their office receptionist says, and sometimes they’re taking sadistic pleasure in being obstructive simply because they can.
Yeah, I just said that.
Whatever the case, it’s not supposed to be this way in a democracy. You always hear political candidates talking about the need for government transparency, accountability and accessibility, yet we’ve all seen more than a few instances where those ideals aren’t adhered to by a candidate after getting elected.
Even well-meaning lawmakers and public administrators can fall into this mindset when there is really nothing illegal or unethical to hide. As the saying goes, it’s not always pretty to “see how the sausage is made.” Still, we’re talking about the public’s business, darn it, and voters have a right to know what’s going on and what their representatives think about it.
Toward this end, the phone numbers of most elected officials are provided on the websites of the entities they represent. However, a listed phone number is one thing, a voice on the other end of the line is another.
I teach news-writing at USU, and the other day I thought it would make a good class exercise to have students phone local elected officials to get a taste of how this open government thing works. Each student was assigned an official to call, and once contact was made, I wanted them to solicit their subjects’ opinions on a selected issue.
Students are generally reluctant to call “important” people on the phone, and this little exercise was going to force them to get out of their shells and accomplish something real-world reporters must do often.
It turned out to be a valuable experience, but not in the way intended. Out of 15 students, only three got an answer or a callback. So although these budding young communications professionals didn’t learn anything about interviewing public officials, they did get a valuable lesson on how things work in the realm of officialdom.
Stated as politely as I can phrase it, that lesson was that elected representatives, even on the local level, aren’t always so accessible.
Stated less politely: Bug off, kid.
Of course we can’t know for sure why most of the calls were ignored, and there could have been a couple of instances where students fibbed about actually making a call.
I don’t think my Gen Z class was too disappointed with the outcome of the exercise since they didn’t have to put themselves out there and face possible embarrassment or intimidation, but I was pretty disappointed, and I honestly wanted to hear how our local leaders would respond to the questions.
The topic was vaccination passports and mandates, and in addition to getting officials’ opinions on both, students were going to ask if the officials themselves were vaccinated.
I wondered if the last question might be a little intrusive. We talked about this in class, and the collective opinion was no, it isn’t, not on a subject so relevant in our society right now.
The list of officials to call included all members of the Cache County Council and the Logan Municipal Council, along with all Cache County legislators.
Only two students got an immediate answer on their calls, which is understandable because everyone these days is reluctant to answer a ring from an unknown number. But after leaving voice messages, just one student received a call back.
The two officials who answered their phones were Logan Councilman Ernesto Lopez and Cache County Councilman David Erickson. Lopez readily answered the questions. Erickson said he was busy but agreed to talk later that night. A third official, Rep. Dan Johnson, phoned back at night, but the student assigned to him was getting bad reception at the time and never made the connection.
As a newspaper editor and reporter, I’ve been calling elected and appointed officials for years, and my impression is it’s becoming harder and harder to get them on the phone. As stated above, some will say they don’t talk to reporters because they’ve been misquoted or misrepresented in the past, and I’m not going to say this doesn’t happen, but some never do talk to reporters, period.
This creates a Catch 22 because if nobody will talk, it’s hard for reporters to paint an accurate picture of what’s happening. Then they’re accused of not getting the whole story.
Last month I wanted some information from a certain Cache Valley town and phoned and left messages with both the mayor and City Council chairperson. Crickets. The same thing happened when I called two members of a local planning commission after stating clearly on their voicemails that all I wanted was a simple clarification on a vote taken by the body
Another member of our staff recently couldn’t get past the receptionist for a small-town city manager no matter how many times he called, and his messages went unreturned. Finally, the staff member made the 10-mile drive to the manager’s outlying town. Left with no escape, the guy finally agreed to answer a few basic questions about a planned housing development.
I don’t know what’s going on or who is ultimately to blame, but it’s not healthy. Adequate ventilation requires open doors.