Oregon Sheriff Declines to Investigate Local Paper for Basic Reporting

Publisher Les Zaitz looks over mug shots for a story with reporter Jayme Fraser at the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Ore., on April 16, 2018. Journalists in Oregon and beyond have risen in defense of a small newspaper that is being investigated by a county sheriff for trying to get comments after business hours for an investigative story. Staffers at the Malheur Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in the remote eastern Oregon town of Vale, say they are just doing their job. (E.J. Harris/East Oregonian via AP) /East Oregonian via AP)

(CN) – The sheriff of a remote Oregon county closed an investigation Wednesday that began when local officials accused newspaper reporters of harassment for emailing them after office hours.

Sheriff Brian Wolfe, of rural Malheur County, told the Associated Press the Malheur Enterprise reporters had broken no laws by asking the county’s director for economic development to comment on claims from owners of a car wash who said the county promised a hefty tax break and failed to deliver.

Malheur County, in the southeast corner of the state, has a 27.4% poverty rate – the highest of any of Oregon’s 36 counties, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. New employers are big news, so when an Idaho company announced plans to build a car wash in the area, Zaitz said the Malheur Enterprise paid attention.

Enterprise reporter Pat Caldwell discovered that the company, Bluebird Express Car Wash, didn’t qualify for a five-year tax exemption totaling nearly $335,000 in tax breaks promised by the county, Zaitz said. So Caldwell emailed and called county officials, including Greg Smith, Malheur County’s director for economic development. But Smith, also a Republican in the state House of Representatives, refused to respond. Zaitz said he emailed Smith a third time, as he edited the story over the weekend.

“It’s pretty fundamental blocking and tackling of journalism,” Zaitz said in an interview. “Ask questions, try to verify information and give the subject of your reporting a chance to respond to make sure they aren’t blindsided.”

Smith didn’t respond to requests for comment until after the paper published its Aug. 14 story, Zaitz said. Then, he issued a statement that claimed that the paper had harassed him for six months with “emails at all hours of the day,” among other things.

Zaitz said Smith’s statement “publicly chastised” the paper for giving him a fair opportunity to respond to the paper’s investigation.

Malheur County Counsel Stephanie Williams then stepped in, asking Sheriff Wolfe to investigate whether the reporters’ use of standard methods to gather information from elected officials constituted harassment.

Sheriff Wolfe told the Associated Press on Wednesday he had determined that it was no such thing. Wolfe did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Without the Enterprise investigating this, the county would have been able to keep secret its incompetence,” Zaitz said.

Zaitz, a two-time Pulitzer finalist who retired from a career with The Oregonian to found two local papers in Oregon – The Malheur Enterprise and The Salem Reporter – added that the incident was a symptom of the erosion of public trust in the media.

“Because of the erosion of the public’s trust, and because of the president’s tone toward the media, my sense is public officials are feeling more empowered to not provide information, to not provide docs and to not provide the public with the information they deserve,” Zaitz said. “It’s very troubling and that’s why we’re going to stand strong and not be bullied, period.”

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