Year of Fear, Chapter 11: Transparency in a Time of Pandemic

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As I got ready to head out the door on April 1 to cover a McKeesport City Council meeting, I could tell my wife was worried. Over eight years of marriage to a part-time community journalist, she’s put up with a lot, including endless late-night meetings and noisy interviews conducted over speaker phones. Last summer, we were on vacation when my cell phone rang. It was an elected official who wanted to pitch an idea. 

“He just calls you on your cell phone, while we’re on vacation, and you answer?” she said. What could I do but shrug? I’m used to a lot of reactions from her when I’m heading out to cover a story—including encouragement and sometimes bemusement—but fear was a new one.

“Do you really have to go?” she asked.

PREVIOUSLY: Standing on sinking sand, living in limbo

A week earlier, Allegheny County was among the first in Pennsylvania to be placed under a stay-at-home order by Gov. Tom Wolf. The order—closing all non-essential businesses—was later extended to each of the state’s sixty-seven counties as health officials worked to slow the spread of novel coronavirus.

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By mid-April, there was some evidence that Wolf’s order was “flattening the curve.” As of this writing, there have been more than one thousand cases of COVID-19 reported in Allegheny County, including 55 deaths and 180 people hospitalized, but health officials say Pittsburgh-area intensive care units haven’t yet been overloaded like those in Detroit and New York City.

That’s not to say we’re out of the woods. Fire departments and ambulance crews are asking for donations of personal protective equipment of any kind, including face masks. At a nursing home in Beaver County, north of Pittsburgh, officials now presume that all eight hundred residents and staff have been infected with coronavirus after more than one hundred tested positive. A local ice-skating rink is being prepared for possible use as a morgue.

Unemployment is rampant. When the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, located across the river from McKeesport in Duquesne, began directly distributing boxes of food to needy families on March 30, cars lined up for miles. From the window of my home office, I could hear helicopters from Pittsburgh’s TV news stations circling overhead, filming the traffic.

I’m lucky. My day job allows me to work from home, while employees of accredited media outlets are exempt from the governor’s stay-at-home order. At the nonprofit community journalism website I run, Tube City Online, I laid down guidelines for our freelance writers and radio show hosts. At the radio studio, no guests are permitted until further notice, and all hosts are required to disinfect anything they touch on the way in and out, using hydrogen peroxide spray and wipes we’ve provided.

I also asked our freelancers to keep doing their best to cover our communities. “If you regularly attend a community meeting, and you feel safe continuing to do so, those meetings are still important—maybe more than ever,” I told them March 18.

“If you attend, practice good social distancing—avoid handshakes and stay at least six feet away from people,” I said, but added, “remember, in Pennsylvania, public meetings by government officials mean public meetings—you have a legal right to attend except in certain limited circumstances.”

Some of the communities we cover canceled their meetings. But a few, like McKeesport, had business that needed to be done. After promising my wife that I’d put my clothes in the washer as soon as I got home, and that I’d shower in the basement before I came upstairs, I went to McKeesport’s public safety building, wearing a windbreaker, nitrile gloves, and a face mask.

“Here comes the Orkin man,” joked one councilman when I entered council chambers. But they were taking social-distancing rules seriously. Just four council members—the minimum needed for a quorum—attended in person, and each sat six feet apart. Three others participated over the phone. Mayor Michael Cherepko submitted his remarks in writing. Only myself and Jeff Stitt, a reporter for the Mon Valley Independent, were in the audience. The workshop began at 6:45, the voting at 7, and I was showering in our basement by 7:30.

In any community, there’s a delicate relationship between local officials and members of the media, but it’s especially tenuous in a small town. A reporter in a large city can afford to be confrontational with officials, because if they won’t talk, there are plenty of other people who will leak information. But in a small town, there are fewer alternative sources to call on. There are social complications as well. A reporter who lives in the community they cover, as I do, is likely to bump into the mayor shopping at Giant Eagle or see a council member at church on Sunday. 

To be sure, I’m always concerned about becoming too chummy with the people I cover. But being completely aloof simply won’t work. Besides, even if I wanted to become more adversarial, Pennsylvania has some of the weakest open-records laws in the country. 

Take police reports. As a rookie reporter in the late 1990s, I had to follow up on the deaths of residents killed in car accidents in Florida and Tennessee. I was amazed when sheriff’s deputies and highway patrols would say, “Do you just want me to fax you the report?”

Such access simply isn’t granted to reporters by police in Pennsylvania. By law, the only document police are obligated to show us is what’s called “the blotter”—the daily log of people who were charged with crimes. Police aren’t obligated to show us any reports or statements from witnesses. Many departments, including McKeesport’s, do cooperate with the media, but some won’t even offer a “no comment.”

The state’s so-called Sunshine Act requires municipal councils and authorities to hold all votes and deliberations “at a meeting open to the public.” But there are broad exemptions to which topics must be discussed in public—among them hiring or firing employees, union contracts, and even planning emergency preparedness. No wonder the Center for Public Integrity gave Pennsylvania an “F” grade and ranked it forty-fifth out of fifty states for government accountability and transparency.

As a reporter for the former Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I once arrived at a borough council meeting in a well-to-do suburb only to be kept waiting in the hall. “We’re meeting in executive session,” the council president said. “For what?” I asked. “To discuss sewage,” she said. I was soon on the phone to the city desk, where an editor called the newspaper’s attorneys. The meeting was opened.

That was twenty years ago. These days, many local newspapers are barely covering municipal meetings, let alone keeping attorneys on retainer to file emergency motions on behalf of reporters. Tube City Online has needed the help of attorneys on a few matters, and most of them donated their time—but with a yearly editorial budget well under $20,000, we certainly don’t have someone on retainer.

The situation in Pennsylvania is further complicated by our fractious system of local government. Allegheny County, with 1.2 million residents, has 130 separate incorporated municipalities, ranging in size from the city of Pittsburgh (population 301,000) to Haysville Borough (population 70). Each has its own mayor or board of commissioners and most maintain their own police and fire departments.

Until the coronavirus pandemic, almost none of the local communities had ever attempted to stream a council meeting over the internet—meaning if you want to know what’s being discussed, you have to attend, even during a national emergency.

And because of coronavirus precautions, going to court to challenge efforts at secrecy is all but impossible. Many court offices are currently closed to the public, except for life-and-death filings. So too are municipal offices, which means I can’t even see the minutes of past meetings we may have missed.  

The natural instinct of many government officials, even during normal times, is to withhold information from reporters—sometimes for nefarious reasons, but often for innocent ones. In smaller communities, part-time officials may simply not know what information is allowed to be made public, or think routine business isn’t newsworthy.

But these are nothing like normal times. Officials withholding information is especially problematic during a crisis, when rumors and misinformation can spread quickly. 

I participate in a private online forum for local journalists across the United States. An editor in another state said recently their local health department is refusing to answer any questions about the spread of COVID-19 in their community, citing “HIPAA regulations.” When the editor asks how releasing the requested statistics would violate patient privacy, the department simply ignores her questions.

At the same time, we have a federal government run by an erratic and authoritarian president with a known habit of lying, repeatedly. Is it any wonder that some local and state officials might choose to follow his lead?

There is going to be massive fallout from this pandemic, beyond the human health impact (which is almost unimaginable in our lifetimes) and beyond the economic impact (which is going to make recent recessions seem mild).

But I also am afraid of another, less-obvious outcome: that many government agencies are going to use this pandemic as an excuse to do even more of the public’s business in secret. And I think a substantial percentage of Americans—many of whom have internalized President Trump’s message that reporters are “the enemy of the people” who concoct “fake news”—are going to let them.

I’ve recently seen people on social media complaining that they’re bored because they’re cooped up at home. Personally, between doing my regular 9-to-5 job and then trying to hold our website together at night and on weekends, I’m busier than ever. And when my work is done, in the wee hours of the morning, I sometimes lie awake in the dark, cycling from anger to panic to resolve to regret, and back again.

Bored? Really?

I think anyone who’s bored right now isn’t paying enough attention. 

Next Week, Chapter Twelve: Coronavirus has changed the way stories are reported at the border

ICYMI: A battered FOIA collides with the $2 trillion bailout

This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.

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Jason Togyer is a lifelong resident of the Monongahela River valley area of Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Denise, live just outside McKeesport. The founder of Tube City Online, a non-profit news website and Internet radio station, Togyer also serves as communications manager for a regional community development agency and previously worked as a magazine editor at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, and as a reporter for the Washington, Pennsylvania Observer-Reporter, McKeesport Daily News, and Greensburg and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.