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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Public records suit shows value of media

What if newspapers and broadcast outlets suddenly vanished?

One answer is that people would volunteer to fill the breach with blogs, websites and social media. And that might go along fine until some offended party with deep pockets filed a lawsuit. Good luck fighting back without an attorney or the wealth needed to absorb a possible defeat.

Many citizen journalists would become former journalists.

Small newspapers already face this threat. Just ask the owners of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon (population about 1,900). A state agency sued the small weekly newspaper over its request for public records. The Enterprise, which covers Malheur County, just west of the Idaho border, has a circulation of about 1,400.

It also has a publisher who wasn’t inclined to back down. Still, Les Zaitz, a longtime journalist, had to start a legal defense fund to cover the $20,000 needed to join the legal battle.

The controversy began when the newspaper sought records on the state’s handling of a psychiatric patient, Anthony M. Montwheeler. As the paper explained:

“The state agency for 20 years had jurisdiction over Montwheeler, 49, after he was declared guilty except insane in the 1996 kidnapping of his wife and son. In December, it found that Montwheeler had been faking mental illness to avoid prison and ordered him discharged. The next month, he was charged in Malheur County with aggravated murder, kidnapping and assault for a Jan. 9 episode. He is accused of kidnapping and stabbing to death his ex-wife, Annita Harmon, and killing a Vale man, David Bates, and injuring his wife Jessica when he collided with their vehicle while he was eluding police.”

It’s reasonable to wonder how this could’ve happened, but the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board said the records couldn’t be released because of privacy concerns. The state’s attorney general disagreed, saying the newspaper had demonstrated a compelling public interest in seeking the information.

But rather than comply, the board hired outside counsel at $400 an hour to sue the newspaper. Under state law, if an agency disputes an attorney general’s opinion, it must sue the requester to get a judge’s opinion.

So here was a public agency using taxpayer dollars to sue a small newspaper. It looked bad, and Gov. Kate Brown knew it. On Tuesday, she pressured the agency to drop the lawsuit and agree to turn over the records.

While this turned out well, the point remains that many publishers might have dropped the request to avert the legal costs in this case or others like it. Furthermore, if organized media outlets didn’t exist, government, corporations and wealthy individuals could sic attorneys on citizen journalists and shut down the flow of information.

It’s something to consider when pondering the worth of media institutions, or a world without them.

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