RGJ does not own the openness franchise

On July 25, this was the lead sentence in the top front page story in the Reno Gazette Journal: “The Washoe County School District does not want you to know the findings of a $50,000 investigation of its special education department, despite a court order.”

Our business often loads the scales in our own favor.

Imagine that lead like this: “The Washoe County School District wants the privacy of people drawn into a $50,000 investigation of its special education department protected, and is appealing a court order to that end.”

Or this: “Privacy and transparency are in conflict in a dispute between the Washoe County School District and some parents over a $50,000 investigation of the district special education department.”

Openness is not an unalloyed good and it should not be considered in isolation from other factors. RGJ’s attorney Louis Bubala said, “Privacy is a concern everybody has, but that doesn’t mean government gets to hide behind some shield to prevent the public from knowing what it’s doing.”

Yes, it means exactly that. There is an array of government records that cannot be disclosed for privacy reasons. Raw police investigative files, for instance, are full of unreliable information like rumors and are exempt from the public records law. Since this dispute involves an investigation, there may be every reason for withholding them. The Nevada public records statute reads that everything “not otherwise declared by law to be confidential” is open. But there are hundreds of exceptions scattered through Nevada Revised Statutes declaring various records to be confidential. Bubala’s sweeping statement is simply inaccurate.

The RGJ was handicapped by the insufferable refusal of school district lawyer Neal Rombardo to comment, but other sources—on or off the record—could have been tapped to fairly explain the district’s view. And where does the newspaper get off mind-reading motives in this lead?

Over the years, the RGJ has devoted a lot of money to protecting public access to meetings and records. We are very grateful. But it has not always been right. In the 1970s, the Nevada Legislature accidentally enacted the toughest open meeting law in the nation. It was so severe that it created a threshold of evidence problem that made it impossible to bring a single complaint to a successful resolution. The RGJ kept opposing amending the law back to something that would work again and years went by without an effective law.

We’ve commented before of the dispute in which the RGJ created such a furor against the WCSD that Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto was too craven to stand up to the newspaper and enforce the state policy against prosecuting public officials for following their lawyer’s advice. As a result, her successor—the bumbling Adam Laxalt—built on her precedent and now public officials no longer know when they will or will not be prosecuted.

The self-righteousness that accompanies the very fallible RGJ’s openness efforts is a mistake. The late Sen. William Fulbright, a friend of journalists, once wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that “journalists might try to be less thin-skinned. Every criticism of the press is not a fascist assault upon the first amendment.”