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Borough officials' attack on Press & Journal unfounded: Editorial

Posted 7/24/18

Note from the Editorial Board: Because the following editorial is about news coverage decisions made by Press & Journal staff, public members Susannah Gal and Jay Howes did not give input in …

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Borough officials' attack on Press & Journal unfounded: Editorial

Posted

Note from the Editorial Board: Because the following editorial is about news coverage decisions made by Press & Journal staff, public members Susannah Gal and Jay Howes did not give input in writing it.

The borough of Middletown recently decided to stop advertising in the Press & Journal. That means Middletown will no longer place the borough’s public notices — which cover meeting notices, budget hearings, liquor licenses and unclaimed tax refunds just to name a few — in its local newspaper.

According to pa.mypublicnotices.com: “Public notices inform you about government actions, environmental conditions and economic changes. Public notices alert you when the interests of your family, your neighborhood or your business are affected by what others do. Public notices invite you to participate in the democratic process and in business opportunities.”

Every government entity in the state is required to pay for placement of public notices, in a “newspaper of general circulation” in the area where the entity placing the notice is located. In a letter sent to the Press & Journal, the borough of Middletown stated it will now place public notices in “different, local news outlets like the Patriot-News.”

Press & Journal Publisher Joe Sukle recently asked the borough for its reasoning behind making the change. He received the letter below, dated July 17 and signed by Mayor James H. Curry III and council members Damon Suglia, Dawn Knull, Jenny Miller, Angela Lloyd, Ian Reddinger and Mike Woodworth. The seventh council member, Robert Reid, did not sign.

We encourage you to read every word of the letter, as well as our response, which we are publishing here for the first time:

Dear Mr. Sukle,

In response to your inquiry regarding notices for the Borough of Middletown being placed in the Patriot-News instead of the Press and Journal, this is a decision that was made on June 19th, 2018. The Borough Council, with the Mayor’s agreement, decided that it does not want to continue providing the Press and Journal with financial support by way of advertising, as part of our duty to responsibly spend this community’s tax dollars. Instead, we have chosen to fulfill our legal obligation to advertise applicable notices with different, local news outlets like the Patriot-News.

This decision was arrived at through discussion of a number topics that we feel have been detrimental to the efforts and initiatives of the Borough, including articles and editorials published in the Press and Journal over the past year. The topics covered include the Elks Theater, National Night Out, Police discipline, local campaign coverage and the Press and Journal’s attempts to help finance select campaigns, Borough ordinances affecting student housing, and the Borough’s litigation against Suez and McNees, Wallace & Nurick. Through these disheartening and demoralizing instances of distasteful sensationalism, misrepresentation of information and statements, unfounded speculation, questionable sourcing and observable bias, we feel that the Press and Journal is not entirely committed to presenting the news of our community with an acceptable amount of impartiality or accuracy of facts.

In addition to the innumerable hours that managing this borough and its business requires, this council takes pride in serving the community it lives in by supporting our town’s businesses through patronage and partnership. However, we cannot support a business that, at times, seems intent on derailing the progress we strive to make, or the partnerships we have in our town. Should the Press and Journal demonstrate reliability to professionally and responsibly report on the actions and statements of Borough Council and Management, as well critiquing us from a founded and balanced position, we will be happy to patron your newspaper again.

Our response:

The borough of Middletown has a right to place its public notices in the Patriot-News or any other publication that meets the legal requirements.

The mayor and members of the borough council have the right to take exception to the topics we cover, and how we cover them.

In fact, Curry has taken full advantage of his First Amendment right by berating Middletown citizens — and this local, taxpaying business in particular — publicly on Facebook, whenever his opinions and decisions are questioned. However, when given repeated opportunities, he refuses to comment to the Press & Journal on any topic.

In a Jan. 12 email to the editor, Knull said, “I am asking you yet again that if you use my name in an article that you call me for my side of the story before printing.” She, like the majority of other council members, refuse to return calls or give comments. That has been the case for most of this year.

In short, the mayor and council members have a right to be critical of us. But can they cry foul, accusing us of bias, when it is they who steadfastly refuse to clarify, comment or conduct business in a wholly transparent manner?

Their claim that we have propagated “disheartening and demoralizing instances of distasteful sensationalism, misrepresentation of information and statements, unfounded speculation, questionable sourcing and observable bias” and that the Press & Journal “is not entirely committed to presenting the news of our community with an acceptable amount of impartiality or accuracy of facts” are serious accusations for a community newspaper that has prided itself in finding the truth and reporting the facts for more than 160 years.

We find it disheartening and demoralizing that we are being singled out and punished for doing what every respectable news organization should do: report the facts, warts and all.

The laundry list of articles the borough is unhappy about are issues we have covered in the last several years. They are challenging issues for the borough. They’ve been equally challenging for us to investigate and report.

Many involve complicated legal issues and high-priced attorneys. Many stories have been written despite shunning by council members.

We have covered them to the best of our ability and unconditionally reject the accusation that we have been biased or used sensationalism. Frankly, coverage of these issues is made more difficult because many of Middletown’s elected officials don’t seem to be interested in transparency involving these matters. We have publicly pointed out times when decisions were improperly made behind closed doors. Not surprisingly, it upset the council members involved.

In fact, if you check the letter above for the date when the decision was made to change public notice placement, you’ll see that it is dated June 19. If you further check both the agenda for that day’s meeting and the minutes from that meeting (both available on the borough’s website) there is no mention of a change in public notice placement ever being discussed. So we assume that, once again, the decision was made in executive session, without public comment or discussion.

Our coverage is not flawless, nor will it ever be. However, we reject the accusations made in the borough’s letter of sensationalism and speculation. We will continue to use our best judgment in coverage of the news and our writing of editorials. But we are not above criticism. That is one reason we chose to publish the borough’s letter in its entirety. Some of you will  agree with it. Some will find it shocking that your borough council is so openly hostile toward a local business. We’re putting it all out there for you to decide.

Two final, important notes regarding the last paragraph of the borough’s letter:

• Our sole role in the community is not to be a cheerleader for it. It is one important role we play, but not the only one. We are also a watchdog for what goes on in the communities we cover. That means reporting accurately and in an unbiased manner on the good — and the bad — in the community. We are not “intent” on derailing anything. But in editorials published on this page, we will certainly question the wisdom of actions taken if we feel they should be questioned. The actions of any government should never be above questioning. We also have given the council their fair share of praise on this page.

• The last sentence reads: “Should the Press and Journal demonstrate reliability to professionally and responsibly report on the actions and statements of Borough Council and Management, as well critiquing us from a founded and balanced position, we will be happy to patron your newspaper again.” Does that mean if we never again criticize the borough government on the editorial page and promise to print only positive stories of the work they do, then — and only then — will the borough go back to advertising with us? Sorry, no deal. That’s not how a free press works.

Despite an email from Sukle to Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter stating we would welcome an honest and open discussion, our overture for a cordial and respectable discussion was rejected.

Will the Press & Journal take a financial hit with the borough’s decision to pull their advertising, which we are told also includes for community events such as National Night Out and a borough ad in the Penn State Welcome Guide? Yes.

We will continue to do our very best to provide fair and balanced coverage, with or without the borough’s advertising dollars. We will continue to report on your government because what they do directly affects your quality of life, and in many instances your pocketbooks and wallets. That’s our job, guaranteed and protected by the Constitution of the United States.

We will not be bullied into providing sugarcoated coverage simply to please this borough’s elected officials.