Sunday, February 3, 2013

Not With A Bang

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

            The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot

Let’s start with a simple premise, one with which, I would hope, all can agree:  In any form of government, there must be some means that holds public officials accountable for their words and deeds.  In the U.S., the press, protected by the First Amendment, has served that function, acting as the canary in the coal mine.  To fulfill this duty, members of the press often have to walk a narrow line.  The press must develop sources in public office that will trust them and speak candidly to them off the record, and yet not become captured or manipulated by the public official.  The press must have access to information, exercise its own independent judgment, question, and challenge everything that comes out of government. The press must be independent.  Otherwise, the press is little more than a propaganda ministry.

Under a strong mayor form of government, the mayor of Colorado Springs has enormous power to limit and control the message that comes out of city hall.  Every evaluation of a potential course of action gets stamped “work product for an elected official” and, thus, becomes exempt from a Freedom of Information request.  Any employee who nonetheless leaks a report or speaks frankly to the press, or anyone outside City Hall, is fired.  (The mayor only has to make an example of one or two people to get the message across to all other employees.)  As a consequence, the discarded alternatives never see the light of day, nor do the cautions and cons of the selected course of action.  The public is all the poorer in evaluating the actions of city hall.  Without public scrutiny, those in City Hall suffer a much greater susceptibility to the dangers of group think.

Over the past few weeks some very interesting disturbing frightening items have come to light. We have known for some time that City Hall has clamped down on access to and distribution of information.  We have seen career employees fired on questionable grounds.  But the press has remained independent, striving to do its job under changed conditions, pursuing accountability in City Hall.

Until recently.

A couple of recent incidents make one wonder whether City Hall is trying to rewrite history, 1984 style.  Daniel Chacon has been the Gazette’s principal City Hall reporter for many years.  He has also maintained a blog at the Gazette’s web site for stories and short pieces that do not make the print edition of the paper.  In recent months he has written some posts more critical of the current mayor.  In December he called out the mayor for trying to rewrite history concerning the concept of a baseball stadium on the Drake Power Plant site.  Although the Gazette denies it, Mr. Chacon may be suffering the consequences of doing his job.  Within the past few weeks, the mayor has again tried to rewrite history, as reported in the Independent’s city blog.

Controlling the information disseminated from city hall is to be expected.  Changing one’s position and then denying it in the face of numerous recorded reports to the contrary is inept at best and political suicide at worst.  But a politician, who attempts to control the press and succeeds, is frightening and dangerous, and makes the rest of society little more than hollow men and women.

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