Thanks for the e-mail and the invitation to provide my perspective on the rapport that the city administration has with The Sun newspaper. At the outset, let me say that I have the highest respect for the journalism profession. I believe strong healthy media is crucial for our form of government in this country. Of course, my perspective is more focused upon local government where information is particularly crucial as we discuss and consider questions of public policy and its implementation.
By way of background, I have been in the business of local government for 31+ years during which time I have worked quite well with dozens of reporters. Many of these reporters have gone on to larger outlets and great success. During my time as Town Manager in Chelmsford I once had simultaneous coverage from The Sun, three weeklies, The Boston Globe Northwest, two radio stations and Lowell Cable News along with local cable access shows. The result of this coverage was a healthy distribution of information and news that clearly benefitted the citizenry. I didn’t always agree with positions that the media took on issues or its coverage of certain stories but I understood the job that needed to be done and respected these journalists on an overall basis as fair and balanced. During my time in Chelmsford I only filed one complaint with an editor for a story written by a reporter (the Boston Globe) and subsequently that reporter acknowledged the misunderstanding and has regularly contacted me for various stories in a very collegial manner.
Since becoming City Manager of Lowell I, along with members of the administration, have continued the practice of being accessible and available to the media, now adding local bloggers to the mix. We include The Sun in this accessibility, likely to a fault. Reporters from the Sun regularly contact us at all hours and on all days including vacations and holidays and we readily address their question whether related to Lowell or otherwise. The reporters that have been specifically assigned to City Hall have generally been excellent in their coverage by being fair and balanced. And, they have generally been experienced reporters with extensive knowledge of municipal government having covered smaller communities before being thrust into the 4th largest community of the state. The City of Lowell and its residents deserve the best possible reporter(s).
Unfortunately, the administration has not generally received positive reviews by the editor of the paper. This is unfortunate given that the same editor would regularly call me when I was the Town Manager of Chelmsford seeking my “municipal management expertise.” I’ll leave it to others to determine why the administration has received this treatment especially given the positive news that has occurred over the past five years in areas of local finance, economic development, improved management practices and public accessibility. The perspective of the paper has often reflected the editor’s negativity and done so through misleading stories and distorted editorials. As a result, I have occasionally sought redress from the editor and publisher.
Over the past 18 or so months I have generally taken a position of not expressing my concerns and instead accepting the coverage that was given and the editorial positions that were presented. Unfortunately, over the past six months I have noticed a ramp up in stories that are misleading and inaccurate, a shortage of stories that present the accomplishments of the administration and editorial positions that are often based upon erroneous information. As such, I have increasingly felt it necessary to speak out about the inaccuracies of its reporting and the apparent bias of the paper. I have also reached out again to the publisher of the paper and the editorial board in a letter written on September 14th. As of today, that letter has not been published in the paper. I did however reach out to the publisher to discuss these matters. I did receive some response to this request and am awaiting a follow-up to meet on the matter. I certainly recognize the busy schedule of Mr. O’Neill and appreciate the times that he has met with me in the past.
The thrust of my letter of the 14th was the characterization by the Sun in stories; editorials and a column that the City’s building inspectors were somehow unqualified as some were not yet certified by the state. The Sun’s coverage failed to note, for whatever reason, that the inspectors had exemplary construction experience and had been approved by the state as inspectors. The coverage also improperly conveyed the notion that the city inadequately inspected the porches of a building on Liberty Street that collapsed despite being told repeatedly that the inspection of the property was a standard five-year review of a multi-family structure which does not include structural items that are not visible. The story also did not note that the City had been failing for the past 10+ years to do these types of inspection and that we were making this effort a pro-active priority.
There are numerous examples of other faulty reporting. There are stories with characterizations that taxes and spending have skyrocketed over the past five years though facts tell a different story especially when contrasted with the prior five years. This coverage necessitated postings on my blog and yours to correct the record.
While other area communities have implemented the local option meals tax, only Lowell has received multiple articles and editorial opposition, and stories that seem to imply that the tax only exists in Lowell. I don’t believe Tewksbury’s recent adoption even received an article.
There have been editorials claiming that I have dragged my feet on finding health insurance savings by not simply joining the state GIC when such an option simply doesn’t exist. Up until now it has required union consent and even now requires City Council adoption of local option legislation. I hardly think the employees and retirees of the City would see my actions as foot dragging as we have aggressively sought savings through negotiations and support for plan design authority. Interestingly, Chelmsford’s adoption of the local option language received very positive coverage by the Sun. Lowell’s consideration has been lukewarm at best focusing upon union and retiree opposition with scant mention of taxpayer savings.
There have been multiple stories regarding the Arch Street police garage project. This is a simple case of the City complying with the low bid law and using good business judgement, saving the City some $500,000. Some employees wanted a more expensive option. I recognize that that might be worthy of a story but am bewildered why the issue has received numerous stories that seem to indicate that the purchase was wrong or inappropriate.
The coverage of complaints by a few library employees regarding work conditions has received multiple stories while the position of other library employees in support of the library has been essentially disregarded. And, the facts of safety at the library have been skewed to paint a picture that is inaccurate.
There are many other examples and numerous cases of misinformation over the past six months and cases where the comments of administration officials, and others, have been taken out of context or worse, seemed to be fabrications. A glaring example is a story regarding the City Solicitor’s work on an ordinance restricting access to the Library for Level 3 sex offenders. In that story the Executive Director of the City Solicitor and Town Counsel Association was quoted as disagreeing with the City Solicitor’s opinion. In fact, in a strongly worded letter sent to the Sun reporter the Executive Director disputed the story and the quote. A retraction by the reporter or a publication of the letter has not occurred. I have attached the letter.
Efforts to explain information is met not with a skeptical but open mind but with apparent suspicion that everything said is wrong or a lie. The result of this and the troubling use of selective quotes is increased reticence on the part of officials to respond to requests for comment. I see this as very unfortunate as it is counter to the goal of the administration to be open and accessible.
In the end, the people of the City lose out by coverage that is misleading and inaccurate or by City officials not being able to get correct information. As a result, we have sought other means of disseminating information and interacting with the public. We use the local blogs, WCAP, local cable and meetings with residents, businesses and other organizations and we are especially grateful to these alternative outlets.
We continue to respond to reporters from The Sun but are increasingly doing so in writing so as to establish a record that can reflect the full context of the responses given.
And, we are considering the posting of these responses on a webpage so that the public has full access to the back and forth between the reporters and officials.
In the past I have offered to meet on a monthly basis with The Sun editorial board to discuss anything they want. Unfortunately, that offer was not accepted. I stand by that offer and in fact think it would be an excellent opportunity for live-streaming per the new MediaNews approach to presenting the news.
In closing, I’m anxious to get to a point of solid reporting of stories that are accurate, fair and balanced. We don’t expect all positive stories and we understand that there will be stories we don’t like. But, the paper and the City can truly only do their job when both sides are open, transparent, respectful and at until proven otherwise trustful. I would like to get there.