As It Is: Not getting the whole story

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By David Giuliani

Many people have left the journalism profession to get more money. I don’t fault them for doing so.

But it’s frustrating when they join government agencies and push for greater secrecy.

At newspapers, we admittedly have an agenda: Promoting governmental openness.

After all, taxpayers are footing the bills. They ought to know what’s going on.

Over the last seven years, many reporters have left the profession to become PR folks for various departments in Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration. We refer to them in stories as spokesmen. But their officials titles are “public information officers.”

But they often work for the opposite — to keep information out of the hands of the public.

Few things make me more angry.

Recently, the Albuquerque Journal reported that A.J. Salazar, the bureau of elections director in the Secretary of State’s office, resigned. The Journal reported that Salazar submitted a letter of resignation, accusing his boss, Mary Herrera, of soliciting donations from firms that contract with her office and ordering some employees to get signatures on petitions for her re-election campaign.

The Journal got that letter, but some other media didn’t. When The New Mexican asked for it, Deputy Secretary of State Don Francisco Trujillo II refused to give it up.

He used some lame excuse that the state Inspection of Public Records Act exempted the letter from disclosure because it involved personnel.

That’s bogus because Herrera is an elected official, not an employee. Besides, if Salazar left with a letter praising Herrera, Trujillo would likely have released it in a minute.

I called James Flores, the public information officer for the department, about the denial. I asked him if he was a former journalist. He said he was. So I asked him if he would agree that the letter was a public record. He declined to state a position.

Of course, Flores couldn’t depart from the company line, especially in an office where employees are told to refer to Herrera as “madame secretary.”

Flores is yet another example of a public information officer and former journalist keeping information from the public.

Very frustrating.

Recently, the state Department of Corrections issued a press release proudly announcing that its prison in Clayton got a 100 percent on its first audit. That’s great, but I wonder if the agency would have issued a release if it had failed. The department’s spokeswoman, Tia Bland, said she didn’t know whether her agency would have done a release if the opposite had happened. But she said the department had employees who will quietly call the media when such things occur.

She said her agency issues press releases when violence happens in state prisons, which she said doesn’t reflect positively on her department.

Here locally, the city government a few months ago spent thousands of dollars on a brochure to residents, supposedly informing them about what’s going on at City Hall. Unfortunately, it listed the city’s accomplishments, but didn’t mention any of the problems. It would have been more worth the taxpayers’ money if the city had given a full picture.

Of course, there is a natural incentive for politicians to talk about the positive of their administrations, but not the negative. So ultimately, the money to pay public information officers is often wasted.

Perhaps we could develop a system where public information officer were employed independently of the agencies they serve. For instance, the state auditor’s office could be in charge of hiring the PR folks. That way, the public information officers could give us the good, the bad and the ugly.

David Giuliani is managing editor of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 425-6796 or dgiuliani@lasvegasoptic.com.