Tiny newspaper bucks a trend

The Malheur Enterprise is a small weekly newspaper located in the agricultural town of Vale west of Ontario.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe effectively ended a broiling controversy last week when he announced that there would be no investigation of a local newspaper regarding alleged telephonic harassment of a local official.

The Malheur Enterprise newspaper in Vale reported county officials sought out advice from Wolfe about the possibility of opening an official inquiry of the weekly publication.

Officials assert that the newspaper crossed a line and potentially set itself up for telephonic harassment charges by making phone calls and sending emails to the county’s economic development director, Greg Smith, as it reported on economic development.

The Enterprise reported the story Monday in its online edition.

The timing of the move by the county is interesting — the Enterprise had just finished an investigative story about county economic development projects — but Smith’s involvement in the issue is troubling. Smith, who also represents Umatilla and Morrow counties in the Oregon Legislature, essentially complained the Malheur Enterprise was sending questions regarding a story to personal email addresses of economic development officials. Questions, it appears, Smith did not want to answer.

Smith, by the way, uses two email addresses to conduct county business. Neither one is secret or “personal.” In fact, last year Smith gave out his personal cellphone number to the public and told the audience at a government meeting he was available “at any time,” and they could call him directly.

So why is he complaining now about the Malheur Enterprise seeking information on a story in the public interest?

Using emails to send questions or calling public officials while working on a story is about as standard an operating procedure for newspapers as putting ink on paper.

It is a routine way for reporters to secure information from elected and appointed leaders so the public can be informed. There is no “harassment” about the practice.

At first glance the saga could seem to fit into a small box of modest face-off between officials and a newspaper in a far-off place.

Except it can’t be dismissed. When elected or appointed leaders try to intimidate — which seems to be the case here — a newspaper and its reporters from a story, average voters should give it their undivided attention. And they should be worried.

Thankfully, Wolfe made the right decision.

When public officials squawk about being asked questions, that should send up a red flag of warning to voters.

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