United States Project

Press freedoms under attack: CJR correspondent revisits stories of the past year

December 28, 2017
Grand Junction, Colorado. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

OVER THE PAST YEAR, as a correspondent for CJR’s United States Project, I reported how a local new outlet was fighting to gain access to public text messages of rural sheriffs in North Carolina, and how a publisher in Colorado pledged to sue a state senator for defamation when the politician called his local newspaper “fake news.” During a year of bloodletting for alt-weeklies, I wondered whether the sale of one Montana alt meant it could no longer serve as a watchdog over its new corporate owner. On the press freedom front, a reporter for a then-obscure wire service was arrested for asking a Trump official questions in West Virginia, and, in South Carolina, a political blogger who was sued for libel nearly went to jail when he wouldn’t rat out confidential sources.

In a year that saw press freedoms under attack across the nation, it wasn’t all doom-and-gloom in every corner of the local news industry. As we move into 2018, here’s a look back at our coverage of those stories, which touch on critical issues facing local news orgs, and an update on where they stand now.


That lawsuit over “fake news” never happened in Colorado

In February, I interviewed Jay Seaton, publisher of The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in Colorado, about his plans to sue state Senator Ray Scott for libel after Scott called The Sentinel “fake news” on social media. The newspaper lost subscriptions, said Seaton, who is a former commercial litigator. “I’m accustomed to resolving business damage in the judicial system,” he told me at the time. “So I don’t view this really as any different.”

Seaton said newspapers have taken it on the chin for too long. “And now we get diminished as fake news, going to the core of what we do,” he added. “And we don’t push back. Well, I’ve had it. I’m not going to take it anymore.”

The potential for a judge to define “fake news” in a court case between a local newspaper and a lawmaker might have been consequential. It wasn’t to be: In April, the crusading publisher chose not to file suit after he learned Scott could ask for legislative immunity and tie up the courts for years while taxpayers picked up the tab.

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“I just wasn’t willing to do that,” Seaton says now.

Maybe we all appreciate the role of a free press more when it’s under siege.

He’s also somewhat relieved about his decision for another reason.

“If you can reflect back all the way to February of 2017, the words ‘fake news’ still carried their objective meaning—a deliberately fabricated news account for the purpose of deceiving the public,” he says. “Just 10 months later, that phrase is completely meaningless. The president has abused that term almost daily, so now it’s just an exclamation you use when you don’t like something. When I tell my kids they have to eat their green vegetables, I get ‘Fake news!’ I don’t think a jury today would find that phrase defamatory, even as applied to a responsible news organization.”

Seaton says the dustup in Grand Junction had a silver lining: it sparked a local conversation about the role of a free press in society.

“It got people reflecting on why the first thing the Framers did after assembling the apparatus of government was create the First Amendment,” he says. “Maybe we all appreciate the role of a free press more when it’s under siege.”


ICYMI: ‘I’ve had it’: Family-owned Colorado paper threatens state legislator with lawsuit


Has the Missoula Independent preserved its independence?

The year was a dreadful one for alt-weekly newspapers. The Village Voice, around for 60 years, ended its print edition; so did The Houston Press. Seattle Weekly and The Stranger cut back. The Baltimore City Paper shut down completely. (A hearty welcome, however, to Baltimore Beat.) LA Weekly was sold to a mystery buyer and then gutted like a freshly caught trout. And then, sneaking in just under the wire of 2017, The Washington City Paper slashed staff salaries almost in half as it struggled to find a buyer.

But in April, in the small mountain college town of Missoula, Montana, The Independent met a different fate. The decades old alt-weekly was taken over by the state’s largest newspaper chain, Lee Enterprises. At the time I asked in CJR whether The Indy could still be a watchdog on The Missoulian, the local daily also owned by Lee.

I’m certain that we covered everything we would have covered [even] if they weren’t our owners, and we haven’t gotten any blowback from them.

So far, it seems like it has. A month after the sale, The Indy challenged a congressional endorsement by the daily, likening the paper to a “mean uncle who can’t pull his head out of Fox News long enough to notice that his party has devolved into the shameless enabler of a tin-pot dictator.” The alt-weekly covered an accusation that the daily colluded with a local official in campaign coverage, and reported on Lee’s corporate cutbacks of statewide news staff.

“I don’t think we’ve changed any of our coverage of The Missoulian,” Indy editor Brad Tyer told me this week. “I’m certain that we covered everything we would have covered [even] if they weren’t our owners, and we haven’t gotten any blowback from them.”

And while Tyer, who says he’s a “constitutional pessimist,” doesn’t see many arrows pointing in the right direction for continued health of the alt-weeklies of the world, in Missoula he thinks his paper might be insulated by having a more stable owner. “So far that hasn’t come home to roost in any negative way for us,” he says.


Folks of FITSnews didn’t go to jail. What now?

Around this time last year, polarizing political blogger Will Folks of FITSnews in South Carolina was wondering whether he would go to jail for contempt after he defied a judge’s order to identify confidential sources in a deposition tied to a libel lawsuit filed against him by a former lawmaker.

In June, on the eve of a court hearing in the case, Folks told CJR he was “honor bound” to keep his word to his sources. “So that’s what I’ve done, that’s what I’m going to do, and if I have to go to jail as a result of that, that’s fine, I’ll do that,” he said. At the hearing, a judge said he would think about it before ruling.

And he did. For three months. Then, in September, South Carolina Circuit Court Judge William Keesley ruled he would not lock up the blogger. Though it wasn’t a flat-out win for Folks— the judge said Folks wouldn’t be allowed to rely on his unnamed sources if the case goes to trial— some in South Carolina saw the decision as important for journalists seeking to protect confidential sources in the state.

Here’s part of the judge’s ruling:

The press has legitimate, essential, and beneficial reasons for gathering and disseminating information from confidential sources, particularly concerning persons in power and those who hold positions of public trust. The claim that confidential sources were promised confidentiality related to the articles in dispute is credible. The refusal by the defendants to comply with [a previous judge’s] directives is willful in the sense that it involves a conscious decision to disobey a court order. It is willful in that the defendants have a true choice, as discussed above. This is not a situation, however, where the defendants are ignoring the court. The refusal is based on articulated reasons, components of which deal with difficult, but very real and important decisions associated with the use of confidential sources. 

A lawyer for the lawmaker filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider his ruling, and Folks’ lawyer filed a motion in response. (That motion cited a CJR story on the case as its only exhibit.)

The judge ultimately didn’t change the major substance of his ruling, and the case could still go to trial.


The charges against Dan Heyman of Public News Service were dropped

In May, headlines whirled around Dan Heyman, 54, a reporter arrested at the West Virginia capitol for “causing a disturbance.” Heyman tried to ask Donald Trump’s then-health secretary, Tom Price, questions about pre-existing conditions under the new GOP healthcare plan. When people accompanying Price blocked Heyman from doing so, Heyman told the AP he reached his cellphone recorder past Price’s staffers. Police said Heyman was “aggressively breaching” Secret Service agents, and charged him with a misdemeanor for “willful disruption of governmental processes,” then released Heyman on a $5,000 bond.

One condition of my bail was that I had to keep away from the state capitol—having access is part of my job.

We used the opportunity to put a spotlight on the kind of obscure organization Heyman works for, Public News Service, a for-profit newswire with a budget of about $1.2 million founded in 1996 and based in Boulder, Colorado. PNS works with a network of journalists around the country to provide content to 8,000 media outlets in at least 37 states, according to founder and editor Lark Corbeil. In an interview at the time, Corbeil said coverage surrounding the arrest of one of her state-based independent contractors led to a surge in donations.

So what happened with the case against Heyman?

Four months after Heyman was arrested, the county prosecutor dropped the charges against him after a “careful review” found the reporter had not acted unlawfully. “I’m very relieved. Facing six months of jail time for asking a question as a journalist was pretty troubling,” Heyman said in a statement. “In fact one condition of my bail was that I had to keep away from the state capitol—having access is part of my job.” For her part, PNS founder Corbeil said, “The First Amendment was tested, and, thankfully, our system and democratic values withstood the challenge.”

Last week, John Nichols of The Nation magazine recognized PNS with an honor for “Most Valuable Media Intervention” following the arrest incident. Heyman, Nichols noted, is “still on the beat” in West Virginia.


WBTV-Charlotte still hasn’t gotten those documents, but…

Over the summer, a pair of rural sheriffs offices in North Carolina found themselves on the receiving end of open records requests by WBTV-Charlotte reporter Nick Ochsner. The sheriffs pushed back. In a public meeting, one of them characterized the WBTV inquiry as a politically motivated fishing expedition, expressing frustration that “an outside reporter from Charlotte” is “investigating the sheriff’s office.”

So WBTV sued one of the sheriffs. The director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition told CJR at the time he believed the TV station’s open records lawsuit for text messages was the first of its kind in the state.

This case is a long ways away from being over, but we’re already seeing results from our months-long push for records.

Fast-forward to October: One of the sheriffs was indicted for how he handled the TV station’s inquiry, the station reported. “The six indictments handed down by the grand jury on Monday specifically relate to [the sheriff’s] efforts to investigate county employees who were trying to fulfill WBTV’s records request,” wrote Ochsner for WBTV. The station then sued that sheriff and other county officials, saying they still hadn’t produced records the station believes should be public.

“This case is a long ways away from being over, but we’re already seeing results from our months-long push for records,” Ochsner tells CJR about where things stand now. “The district attorney’s decision to bring criminal charges against [the sheriff] over his mishandling of our records request should send a signal to all public officials that following the state’s records law is not optional.”

ICYMI: Local TV station records lawsuit underscores North Carolina’s text message troubles

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.