Hold newspapers accountable, yes, but see social media spin for what it is

When Langley Mayor Tim Callison sent the South Whidbey Record a $64 bill last week for time a reporter spent interviewing the city attorney in February, it was to get Editor Justin Burnett’s attention.

That’s what Callison said Monday — but only after regional TV reporters, the Seattle Times and even the Columbia Journalism Review jumped on the story.

On Saturday night, though, Langley’s finance director and city clerk emailed a response to Saturday’s article on Callison and laid out a much different thought process that led the mayor to personally email the bill to The Record.

“If I had a legal dispute with one of my neighbors and my other neighbor wanted to know what was going on and called my attorney to get information and I was billed for that time, I would be understandably angry,” said city employee Debbie Mahler. “That is why I took the issue to Mayor Callison for action.”

“To then write a one-sided story in the paper was pure sensationalism to sell more papers and keep controversies stirring in the community,” Mahler wrote. “It is a wonder that we can still get people to run for election and serve.”

Mahler’s letter doesn’t make it sound like the bill was intended to be merely an attention-grabber.

Nor did it seem the mayor was kidding when he personally emailed the invoice to The Record, and said, “Please remit the amount of $64 to the City,” followed by, “as a reminder, the City Attorney works for the City of Langley and is not a free public resource.”

In fact, Callison doubled down over the weekend with a Facebook post on his personal page criticizing The Record and Burnett and justifying his decision to send the invoice. Callison’s post led to a bevy of responses, mostly from supporters, including former mayor and businessman Neil Colburn. Colburn accused Burnett of taking “cheap shots” and “attacking” Callison. Among the 50 people who liked Callison’s Facebook post were Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson and state Rep. Dave Hayes, neither of whom weighed in on the debate.

It’s apparent that Callison now understands that billing The Record was wrong and a violation of press freedom. Instead of admitting it, though, he contends that he never meant for the newspaper to pay the bill in the first place.

I don’t take issue with newspapers and reporters being held accountable for their reporting, they should be. Burnett concedes his biggest regret is not picking up the phone and calling Callison before Saturday’s story ran. A lapse in judgment on his part, yes. Taking that one step would have closed a point of attack by the mayor and his supporters. However, there was no reason to doubt that Callison was anything but serious about billing the newspaper.

Everyone, elected officials included, has the right to complain online that they are being unfairly criticized by the media and to present their own version of a story. To that end, social media has become a place for what sometimes amounts to seriously calculated campaigns to discredit newspapers and journalists. We see this not only happening locally, but across the country and even in the White House.

It makes a reporter’s job more complicated, to be sure, but it let’s them know their work is under scrutiny, and that’s a good thing. It means they better double and triple check their facts, ensure their sources are credible and spelled every name correctly. Reporters understand that even the smallest mistake or omission may be used to call into question the veracity of their entire article.

With social media now playing an undeniable role in newspaper reporting, we’re seeing a stunning evolution in how we respond to attacks on our credibility. With the election of Donald Trump, there came harsh criticism of the national media for not questioning absurd statements and obvious falsehoods presented as facts during the presidential campaign. Fact checkers now quickly work to verify whether the remarks of the president are true and to inform the public right away when they aren’t.

When the integrity of a journalist and newspaper are being grossly disassembled and savaged on social media as part of a purposeful agenda, silence on the matter is no longer the option it once was.

Readers have a responsibility to take into account the entire picture. Social media has a place, but it must be recognized for what it is — a public relations tool that can be used to deliberately alter the facts or shift the focus from the more serious issue at hand.

In the case of Callison and his $64 bill, that bigger issue was freedom of the press.

At the same time, this newspaper’s reporters and editors must be accountable. If they make a mistake, and we all do, we should own it and correct the record.

And if I go out on a limb to publicly defend my newspapers’ editors and reporters’ reporting — and I will — their work better be defensible.

To that end, this team of journalists has never betrayed that trust.

Editor’s note: Keven R. Graves is executive editor and publisher for the Whidbey News-Times and South Whidbey Record. He can be reached at kgraves@whidbeynewsgroup.com