When our cover story about El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa came out last week, we knew strong reactions would follow.
We expected emotional responses, polarizing observations, even downright nasty comments. We also anticipated that many vents of negativity, on both sides, would come from inside the Sheriff's Office — even though it eventually became apparent that Maketa's staff had been ordered not to participate in the online debate, from what several contributors posted to our Web site. (Nothing like a little old-fashioned intimidation.)
But the sheer number of responses — 135 as of Tuesday morning — and the fact so many commenters were new to the Independent's site, reaffirmed our belief that the public concern is real, and the effort put into Pam Zubeck's investigation and story was totally worthwhile.
But one aspect of the evolving story deserves comment and condemnation. At some point after last week's Indy hit the streets on Thursday, Maketa called a news conference at his office. I'm saying "at some point" because nobody from his office contacted the Independent to tell us about it.
In addition to the news conference, the Sheriff's Office sent out a taxpayer-funded media release to all local news organizations — as well as some civic leaders — offering access to all the documents we spent weeks requesting and assembling, along with the following sentence: "The information reported in the article showed a very narrow and distorted view of the documents and information provided."
That release went out to more than 120 recipients, but the Indy was deliberately removed from the usual list. (You can see a copy of the full release here.)
At the news conference, Maketa gave a typical statement seeking to put his spin on negative information published about him. But instead of checking with us or pursuing the same evidence, the local media gave kid-glove treatment to Maketa's little self-staged event. They reacted as if they didn't believe our story. And the way they've handled it has given us heartburn.
We're not naîve. We never assumed everyone else would give the story as much attention as we did. But we didn't think everyone would wimp out.
Not one reporter, we're told, asked why the Independent wasn't present. Some did wonder why the Gazette wasn't represented, and they were told the daily paper didn't want to touch the story. But nobody thought it was strange, or worth pursuing, that a high-profile government official, calling such a news conference, deliberately excluded one media outlet and then proceeded to lash out at that same media outlet.
Instead, everybody took Maketa's bait. At least three of the TV stations (we can't find that KKTV Channel 11 ever did anything at all) ran stories with Maketa criticizing our story and accusing us of manipulating the information. Yet, not one of those stations called us for a response.
That's unacceptable. And it's not worthy journalism. We're told that at least one reporter in attendance, Tak Landrock from KRDO Channel 13, "isn't afraid to ask the tough questions." But Landrock apparently was, and he admitted to us later that he should have contacted us as well. He then included a response from us in an online story, but that only had a fraction of the audience that saw his TV report.
Heck, KOAA Channel 5 even refused to name the three Sheriff's Office employees we wrote about, despite the fact their names were clearly part of public records.
As a result, many TV viewers that night probably came away thinking the Independent had fired a cheap shot at Maketa, when nothing could be further from the truth.
In conclusion: It was dead wrong, even chickenhearted, for Maketa to call a news conference and deliberately exclude the one media entity he was addressing — and lambasting. If we had been notified, we most certainly would have attended and asked the tough questions. We also think it was wrong, not to mention unfair, for other media to allow a public official to take a public swipe at the Indy without giving us a chance to respond.
We will continue to pursue this story. But if other media choose to cover it, we only ask that they remember what they learned in Journalism 101.