Reporting What’s Said: “Stop Doing It!”

Bob’s former Home Page Essay, July 12-25, 2019

The Washington Post proclaims, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  Wednesday, July 10th, I witnessed the sun setting early at the Enfield Community Building.

I’d just delivered prepared remarks to the Enfield Town Board addressing potential changes in town cemetery management policy.  What followed blindsided me, as Town Supervisor Beth McGee, and then Councilperson Michael Carpenter, seized the moment to criticize my reporting—and my quoting of McGee’s public comments—at this website.

For absolute accuracy, I have transcribed the exchange from the audio record:

Supervisor Beth McGee:“I’d actually like to request that you stop putting words in my mouth, especially when you write it online and not put quotes around things I don’t say or conjecture in parentheses in the midst of what you say.  Stop doing it!”

Robert Lynch:“Madam Supervisor, I’m trying to quote you accurately, and I took your quotes at various meetings, and I stand by what I reported.”

Supervisor McGee:   “[Unintelligible]… For what you thought I said.”

Robert Lynch:   “I quoted it down on my notes, and I can show you my handwriting.”

Councilperson Michael Carpenter: “I think…  One of the issues, Bob, is that when you… whether or not the words are accuratein terms of what Beth said and what you said; when you quote part of what somebody said and take it from a discussion, and basically… it could be in context; it could be out of context.  I think what Beth is asking for is that you don’t do that kind of thing because nobody can really know if it’s in context or not in context because of the whole meeting, that’s the whole long topic of discussion about this issue.  So when you just pick out one thing and say this is what somebody said, it tends to be inflammatory.  And there’s really no way of knowing if it was, if… if the intention of what you think she’s saying, Beth said, was what her sentence really was without knowing what the rest of the conversation without [sic] the context.”

Robert Lynch: “Mr. Carpenter, with all due respect, there’s only one person in this room who’s worked more than ten years as a broadcast journalist, and I am that person.  I stand by how I report news.  I reported it on WTKO for nine years, just like this.  And this is the first time that anybody ever complained about something being taken out of context.  And in due respect, I would argue that the only reason the complaint is being lodged is because I am a political candidate, and the Supervisor is a political candidate, and she knows that I got more votes for Town Councilperson than anyone else did.  And I think that’s the problem.  Alright?  I don’t want to violate the Civility Resolution…”

Supervisor McGee: [Cuts off Mr. Lynch in mid-sentence; terminates his Privilege of the Floor.]

If you elect me to the Town Board in November, I promise to be an independent voice, not a rubber-stamp.  I also seek to be a bridge-builder on your behalf.  But bridges are tough to build when there’s scant solid land on the opposite shore.

In none of my various stories on Enfield Government, reported here, did I ever knowingly misquote Supervisor McGee or take her publicly-stated comments out of context.  Rather, I condensed the discussion of often hours-long meetings into newsworthy stories of reasonable length, making their content digestible by the average reader.  I winnowed the wheat from the chaff.  It’s what professional reporters must always do.  The more salient—and yes, at times, the more insightful and provocative—quotations are repeated.  The remainder, sadly, must be discarded.  That’s the news business.

Reporters are nonstop mental editors, not court stenographers.  If a town officer wishes her comments not to be construed as “inflammatory” when reporters edit them for length, perhaps they should not have been uttered in the first place.

Both the First Amendment and the New York Open Meetings Law safeguard reporting the words of governmental officials at public meetings.  I intend to continue my reporting on these pages.  The Law permits me to repeat what I hear, providing I do not libel under the heightened standard applicable to public figures.

Frankly, I wish I did not have to write these stories.  But somebody must.  At one time, inquisitive journalism resided here.  But the Tompkins County media, print and broadcast, has rotted away.  Forty years ago, I never imagined that a weekly paper and its online appendage would stand as the best we’ve got.  So I must write… and post, only so as to inform you.

But my greatest fear is this:  Those who strive to consolidate and amplify their power prefer to labor in the shadows, whether at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or at 182 Enfield Main Road.  When we, the people, vacate the public square, special interest activists, who represent only a minority viewpoint, fill the vacuum like raccoons invading an abandoned attic.  They prefer darkness.  My Town Board candidacy to advance Old-Fashioned Representative Democracy is designed most importantly to prevent a minority, no matter how politically savvy, from dominating the majority… you.  I cannot succeed in my mission alone.  I need your help.

By their statements of July 10th, some in Enfield government have made it clear they’d prefer an uninformed electorate, or else a public subjected to hours of boring minutiae rather than to concise, informative summaries.  But maybe—with your votes this November—I can help usher in a new era, even as a minority of one.  Then, maybe only then, will cleansing sunlight stream through those tiny raised windows on the Enfield Community Building’s second floor.  Yes, even on a Wednesday night in January.

Bob Lynch