OPINION: Surprises In The Mail
Like, I’m sure, every other Trempealeau County resident, my mailbox has been filled with fliers telling me who I should vote for. And, like I’m sure most Trempealeau County residents, those fliers have been going directly in the garbage.
But, you can imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I saw the Trempealeau County Times logo on one of the fliers. Let me be clear: The Times had absolutely nothing to do with that flier being sent out.
The flier included the Times logo and headline from our Sept. 20 story regarding state senate candidate Dave Estenson. The flier also included a QR code that allowed anybody who received it to read the story by using their phone to scan the code. While we stand by our reporting in that story, we had nothing to do with it being used for a political advantage.
As it says on the top, the flier was paid for by the Wisconsin State Senate Democratic Committee as an in-kind donation to Together with Jeff Smith. Smith, of course, was Estenson’s opponent in the Nov. 8 election.
There really is nothing we could’ve done to prevent the story from being used in this manner. Once the ink is dry and people have access to stories, they will use them as they see fit. I once was asked by someone seeking a local office if they could use one of our stories when they went knocking on doors. My response simply was: There’s nothing we could do to stop you.
Predictably, the story blew up when we published it and I have tried to remain quiet despite numerous accusations being thrown my way. I’m not going to get into the details of the story, but I do think explaining the process might be important to some.
Just like the Times had nothing to do with the fliers being printed and mailed out, the democrats had nothing to do with the publishing of the story. I received a tip from a Whitehall resident and discussions with more area residents led to a Freedom of Information Act request. The request was sent in July and a response was received on Sept. 16.
As the American Press Institute says, the purpose of journalism “is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments.” That story was merely information, I contacted the subject, ran his full statement and portions from what he told police at that time. I thought the only fair way to handle such a story was to tell the stories of all involved.
As I have told almost everybody who I have spoken to about the story, I admire the way Estenson handled the days leading up to the story being published. He seemed to have a strong understanding that this was part of the deal when he chose to run for public office and I was just doing my job. When I spoke to him on the phone the day before the story went to press, he seemed to know that, regardless of if we published a story, this information would get out. Readers have probably seen the commercials and other fliers that contain excerpts, not from our story, but from the report itself – the Times was not the only entity that filed an open records request.
I wanted to wait to publish the story, but thought the best thing would be to get it out with Estenson’s statement since I knew other outlets would not provide him the same opportunity.
Every election season seems to be more volatile than the past and I knew this wouldn’t be any different. Publishing that story was the Times doing its job of informing the public, though I do wish it wasn’t used for political advantage.