THE CALLER SAID the paper had made a mistake. She said we’d incorrectly reported that the Chatham Town Board had decided to eliminate the position of town assessor. She was right that we had reported exactly that. “Hold on,” I said, “you’re wrong.”
How could I say that with a straight face and a clear conscience? Isn’t that why there was applause when then presidential candidate Donald Trump demonized “the press”?
Our story was accurate. But it had the misfortune of appearing in print just before the Chatham board met again and reversed itself. What she read was out of date; it’s possible she read the story that prompted her call after the second Town Board meeting. It wasn’t a matter of accuracy. My scheduling this story a week after the first meeting messed with her expectations.
I explained that we had already posted a story on our website about the second meeting at which the board reinstated the assessor and that same story was already scheduled to appear in this week’s print edition. She paused briefly, said she wanted to be sure we knew about the second vote and hung up.
I take her at her word and understand why she called. In fact, I’m grateful she called. If our readers don’t alert us to errors or new information then we can’t do the job of providing them–you–with information we all need to know about our communities.
Still, I thought about the call while looking at the front pages of daily newspapers Wednesday morning. The papers said the race for president was still undecided. By then, everybody knew the outcome. Print newspaper seldom compete in the race for the latest breaking news story. That’s why we have websites, although we currently lack the resources to offer comprehensive digital news updates.
I make an assumption when I receive a call like the one about Chatham. It’s that even if readers don’t expect us to report quickly they assume we’ll do it accurately. Meeting that expectation is always critical, but especially so this time of year, when town boards are working on their annual budgets, determining how much to spend and where the money will come from. It’s our money they’re talking about, and in the case of Chatham, the board members were wrestling with the kind of hard decision they were elected to make.
At first they decided to lay off two town employees. The discussion about the positions–assessor and maintenance worker–and the impact they have on the tight town budget occurred in open session. We reported on that vote. Following that meeting both employees negotiated with town Supervisor Maria Lull and came to agreements on reduced salaries and benefits. Maybe not a happy ending but at least it was less drastic than the alternative. Online and now in print we report that too.
All parties involved deserve credit. The employees made sacrifices and the supervisor and board members acted with admirable flexibility. And none this would be a big deal if it weren’t for the timing during the climax of our presidential campaign.
Election Day, the day after I got the call about our Chatham story, I was in line at a local store behind a man eager to share his disdain about people who didn’t vote and complain that voting doesn’t matter. I nodded in agreement. He wasn’t finished. I went outside and he was right behind me, speaking in a growl, saying the country had better not elect anyone but Donald Trump or there would be a “civil war” over the Second Amendment, with “rivers of blood.”
He was not threatening me. He was venting and I was handy, though moving quickly toward my car. I hope he’s feeling calmer today. That kind of unprovoked outburst reminds me of threats by Mr. Trump to “punish” the press and his singling out reporters for derision at his rallies.
Maybe we’re too small to merit punishment and whatever that entails won’t be directed at independent newspapers like ours. But I’m not counting on it. We exist because there are enough people in the community who find something in our pages worth supporting. That’s how a free press functions. And just as I accept and respect the election of Donald Trump as president, I hope his administration will respect the rights of a free press. But I’m not counting on that, either.