Des Moines Register. September 20, 2016
Blurring the lines between news and public relations.
It’s easy to see why the city of Davenport elected to bypass the local news media to spread the word about some of its operations.
These days, many local news outlets have too few resources to effectively cover City Hall. In many communities, the county boards, school boards and city councils haven’t had a reporter covering their meetings in months or even years. And when reporters do cover these proceedings, they are, for good reason, inclined to focus on issues of controversy rather than the “positive” developments public officials want publicized.
But rather than create a website to issue press releases or connect directly to the public, the city of Davenport went a step further, creating a site called Davenport Today and packaging the information as if it was independently produced journalism rather than information crafted and disseminated by the same public entity that was being “covered.”
Logistically, that was a small mistake, but it had mountainous ramifications. From the outset, Davenport Today was criticized for being nothing more than a taxpayer-funded propaganda machine - which it was. That meant all of the information it shared with the public, no matter how solid, was tainted in the eyes of some readers. Even the articles that appeared to present an unvarnished look at city operations were viewed as self-serving since they emanated from City Hall itself.
Fortunately, the city has taken down the site and Davenport Today is no more. But the city’s desire to provide a direct conduit of information between City Hall and the people of Davenport remains a worthwhile goal. Cities, counties and school boards need to do more to reach out and provide information not just to the media, but also to the citizens they serve. Davenport’s only mistake was in attempting to pass that information off as news - although, to be fair, the news media itself has often blurred the line between propaganda and news.
The Des Moines Register, for example, has at times published what appear to be news articles about the Des Moines Public Schools, written not by a Register journalist but by a “staff writer” for the school system’s award-winning public relations team.
Unfortunately, that sort of thing is becoming more and more common, and it’s getting to the point where the average person may find it impossible to differentiate between independent journalism and government self-promotion produced at the taxpayer’s expense.
That has profound implications not just for the future viability of the news business, but for the nation as a whole, which needs a vigilant, independent press to oversee government operations and keep the public fully informed.
One of Davenport Today’s photographers recently told the Associated Press’ Ryan Foley that the website’s shutdown is a loss to the city.
“Local media like to report on planes that crash,” David Cross told the AP, using an old analogy about the way the press defines the news. “We were reporting on the planes that land.”
There’s no harm in government officials sharing factual information they feel the media has ignored. But government and the media must be mindful of the fundamental difference between journalism and state-sponsored public relations.
If they lose sight of that difference, the public will, too.
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. September 21, 2016
Hart, Trelka can forge change.
When the dust swirling around the employment status of Waterloo’s director of safety services finally settled, Dan Trelka was still standing as leader of the Waterloo Police Department.
It had been a tumultuous several days since it was reported last week Trelka had told some of his officers he had been asked to resign. Mayor Quentin Hart was out of town at the time, and when reached declined to comment on personnel issues.
It quickly became obvious Trelka had a lot of support throughout the community. There was an immediate outcry from residents who supported Trelka, much of it on social media.
We also have been supporters of the police chief throughout his tenure. The passion Trelka has exhibited in bettering community relations in Waterloo has been palpable since his arrival in 2010.
During a press conference Monday, Hart said Trelka was being assigned for the next year to focus solely on police issues, removing him from his dual role of overseeing Waterloo Fire Rescue as well. This may have been a good face-saving move for both men, but we feel it’s also good strategy. Let Trelka focus on the police department and let Pat Treloar, director of fire services, handle fire issues.
In recent months, the city’s police force has faced complaints of racial bias and accusations officers are not being held accountable for their actions. An officer’s recorded comments disparaging a homicide victim were exposed during a murder trial that ended in an acquittal. Video was released of another officer pulling the hair of a suspect following a high-speed car chase and subsequent crash. And the city settled lawsuits from residents - one just 13 years old - who complained of excessive force. Those settlements have reached a total of $2.7 million.
If it is true Hart asked Trelka to step down - and we have no reason to believe it’s not - it was apparently done without conversations with City Council members.
We’re all aware of the high-profile instances of the mistreatment of suspects nationally, many of them minorities. High-ranking police officials have lost their jobs in some cases. Understandably, that may have played a part in Hart’s thinking. However, we don’t believe this was a situation that called for a unilateral decision.
In Hart’s short tenure as mayor, this was easily his most scrutinized hour, and the spotlight was shining directly upon him Monday.
Fortunately, Hart apparently took some time to comprehensively review the situation and came through with reasonable actions.
“I believe that Dan Trelka is the one that can help us to address the myriad of challenges internally and externally that we face,” Hart said at Monday’s press conference. “Chief Trelka and I, through community meetings, outreach, best practices, conversations and passion for this community have begun a process of a communitywide policing plan that will work toward regaining public trust that has been lost due to some of our shortcomings.
“But this just isn’t a plan to hold accountability to our public safety officials,” he added. “It will also send a message to any perpetrators of senseless violence that takes place in our streets that enough is enough.”
Trelka said he would be working with Hart.
“We’ve got some challenges we face, we’ve got some adjustments to make,” Trelka said. “We’re having great conversations. All of this is for the betterment of Waterloo, and I’m optimistic for the future of all of us.”
Even after the press conference earlier in the day, residents packed Monday’s City Council meeting in strong support of Trelka, some carrying signs stating “We got your six, Dan” and “Don’t scapegoat Trelka.”
One twist here is Trelka has been working to get body cameras on all police officers and working on a council directive to get cameras set up in parts of the city. We are behind those efforts because these devices help get to the truth in many sensitive situations. It would have been painfully ironic to send Trelka packing because cameras recorded evidence of a few officers’ actions. This gives him a solid base to work from. From here on out, we hope each and every officer also has “his six.”
We believe the city has the leadership to bring about positive change. Now it’s up to Mayor Hart and Chief Trelka to forge better relations between police and the community.
Quad City Times. September 23, 2016
Race, speech and football protests.
Six members of Rock Island High’s football team have seized their First Amendment rights and taken a knee. And, like any good protest, it divided the community and this editorial board.
Athletes throughout the country have started using the pre-game national anthem ritual as a moment to highlight racial inequality, a movement instigated by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Some have sat. Others kneel. The more optimistic have joined arms or raised their fists.
Through the simple act of kneeling, a handful of black Rock Island teenagers not only expressed their disaffection but did so through sport, a time honored tradition. Muhammad Ali wasn’t just a fighter. Jackie Robinson wasn’t just a baseball player. For decades, athletics have played an instrumental role in foisting contentious social issues onto a public that would just as soon ignore them.
The protests, one could argue, are that which have made sport relevant beyond a pastime.
But, as with this editorial board, the reactions ran the spectrum from frustration to full-throated support. The protests saddened one member of the editorial board, who considered it an unnecessary sacrifice of celebrating the best of the U.S. in order to highlight its ills. Another was ready to kneel alongside with the players in solidarity. Black Lives Matter critics demanded peaceful, non-destructive protests, he argued. Well, they got it here.
And it all comes as unrest grips Charlotte and Tulsa following two more police shootings of black men.
Seeking common ground, we debated. We sniped. Tempers flared. Statistics about police shootings were cited. So, too, were opinions about respect for law enforcement and for those who risked their lives for this country.
When it was all said and done, we agreed that, above all else, free speech is the very foundation of any free society. There are no legal protections from being offended. In reality, the most successful protests do offend because they hit home the hardest.
The students, who went out of their way to run the idea past their coaches and teammates, went about it as well as possible. And yet, thanks to our very same commitment to free speech, we welcome the anger aimed at the players and supportive administrators.
Free speech is a two-way street. It’s no doubt a lesson the players have learned in the past week. There’s no such thing as a constitutional protection from criticism.
That said, the effectiveness of their protest is undeniable. On Tuesday and Wednesday, six white, middle-class Americans on this editorial board spent hours arguing about racial inequality and patriotic symbolism. We’re sure that our discussion wasn’t an isolated event. These players, whether they meant to, sparked a Quad-Cities wide discussion that’s festered for too long.
It mustn’t end here. The players have made themselves a symbol. But symbols are only as powerful as the action they represent. School district officials took a strong first stride toward real action this week by supporting the athletes. Anything less would have been an unacceptable assault on free speech. Perhaps forums should follow.
Right or wrong, these high school students are speaking to a belief that people are targeted by society solely because of the color of their skin. Theirs is a complaint that’s reverberated through black America for decades. Both major political parties have recognized the failings of disproportionate policing and are rolling back draconian, targeted drug laws.
Locally, police agencies and politicians are improving outreach. But more must be done.
There’s a reason that black Americans are taking to streets in protest. There’s a reason lawmakers are dismantling the War On Drugs. There’s a reason that police agencies are reinventing their approach to their craft.
There’s a reason six black teenagers from Rock Island felt the need to defy the most hallowed patriotic convention in order to be heard.
They have our attention. Now let’s hash it out.
Sioux City Journal. September 22, 2016
Iowa should pass voter ID law.
Within today’s society, one needs some form (and, in many cases, multiple forms)of identification to conduct even the most mundane pieces of personal business.
Shouldn’t one of the most precious rights we Americans possess, the right to vote, be afforded a measure of protection from fraud equal to what is required for writing a check?
As we have said before in this space, we believe every voter should be required to show some form of identification before casting a ballot, and we’re not alone. In a Gallup Poll released last month, 80 percent of Americans supported voter ID laws.
Voter ID requirements vary from state to state, but 34 states have passed laws requiring voters to produce a form of identification, either with a photo or without, at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
It’s time for Iowa to join them.
We aren’t suggesting fraud is pervasive in Iowa elections, but we do not believe asking a voter for ID in order to make sure our elections remain honest is unreasonable. Why wait for voter fraud to take place before taking this prudent step to prevent it?
Perhaps a strict photo ID requirement for voters is too much, but no ID requirement is far too little.
In our minds, this isn’t complex. Proving you are who you say you are is a requirement for nearly everything we Americans do in our daily lives. Voting should be no different.
We urge the Legislature to revisit this issue next year with the goal of passing a law requiring voters in Iowa to produce identification before casting a ballot.
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