|Les Zaitz talked about his open-records battle after accepting the Tom and Pat Gish Award at Lewis & Clark College.|
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
PORTLAND, Oregon – Small, rural newspapers can win open-records battles with state agencies and beat larger news outlets at covering big stories in their communities, says a journalist who spent most of his career at a metropolitan daily but has returned to the business of publishing a rural weekly.
Les Zaitz, publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon, made those and other points Thursday as he spoke to the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in Portland and accepted the 2018 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.
Zaitz talked about how the Enterprise pursued the story of a former state hospital patient’s involvement in two murders and an assault in Malheur County shortly after his release. The newspaper discovered that the defendant had been released after convincing state officials he had faked mental illness for 20 years to avoid prison, and after mental-health experts warned he was a danger. The state Psychiatric Security Review Board sued Zaitz and the Enterprise to avoid complying with an order to turn over exhibits that the board had considered before authorizing the man’s release. Zaitz started a GoFundMe effort to pay legal fees, but then Gov. Kate Brown took the rare step of interceding in the case, ordering the lawsuit dropped and the records produced.
He said lessons from the episode include: "Even if you’re small, don’t back down from a fight like this. . . . Success in a fight like this depends a great deal on your institutional credibility; they knew that once I sank my teeth into their ankles I wouldn’t let go, because of their experience in prior instances" when he was a reporter at The Oregonian in Portland.
Probably the most important lesson, Zaitz said, is to "bring your community along as the fight heats up. Let them know that we’re not doing it for journalistic prizes. … tell the reader, we’re doing this for you' this is information you deserve." He said the news media have done "a terrible job as a profession of bringing our community along and explaining the profession," but people are still thanking him for taking on the state.
"This fight, and the success and the propose of it, to me, was in the pursuit of the finest ideals of the profession, the pursuit of truth and justice," he said. "We have to always never, never relent in the face of opposition from government. If we don’t stand up to the government, who will?"
Zaitz said the board's new executive director is moving to again restrict access to such records, so "I don't know what kind of brawl I've got ahead."
He also didn't know what he was in for when armed militants seized the office of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on a Christmas-week Saturday, when it was unoccupied, to protest the convictions of two ranchers for arson on federal land. (President Trump pardoned them this week.)
"I was on a glide path toward retirement at The Oregonian and the last thing I needed was another major assignment," Zaitz said, but he lived in the area and was the natural point man.
The standoff lasted 41 days, and Zaitz led the coverage of it, but he said the experience has lessons for smaller newspapers like Harney County's weekly Burns Times-Herald, the paper closest to the refuge, which "decided to stay our of the coverage for the most part" though Burns was "overwhelmed" by the influx of militia types, news media and law enforcement.