The Malheur Enterprise, the small weekly newspaper in Vale, Oregon, has earned a well-deserved reputation for aggressive reporting under the ownership of Les Zaitz, formerly with The Oregonian. It’s the sort of work that raises hackles, and the paper’s latest deep dive has done just that.
County Counsel Stephanie Williams had asked Sheriff Brian Wolfe to look into the possibility the newspaper had broken the law in pursuit of a story. Wednesday, Wolfe, to his credit, announced he would not open an investigation into whether the paper had committed the misdemeanor crime of telephonic harassment. “We believe in free speech and freedom of the press,” Wolfe told the newspaper. “As long as I’m here, that will not be violated.”
Good for Wolfe.
The request to the sheriff appeared to be an attempt to silence the Enterprise.
Zaitz, in his coverage of Malheur County’s economic development office, has run afoul of state Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, who contracts with the county to run the office. Smith asked the paper to limit contacts with him and his staff to office hours and use a single county email address. He accused the newspaper of subjecting staffers to emails “at all hours of the day,” bothering staffers at work and ignoring requests that the newspaper leave them alone.
Zaitz says he and reporters were simply doing their jobs, seeking out those about whom they hoped to write and asking them specific questions about their work for the county. He notes that Smith gave out his personal phone number at a public meeting in late 2018, telling attendees they could call him “day or night.”
More broadly, if Oregon law prohibits journalists from gathering information about how government works, whether by office or other email, or by telephone, or in person, that’s a real problem. After all, government, no matter at what level, spends our tax dollars to do business, and if there’s something funny going on, it’s the press that’s likely to shed light on the matter.
That’s what Zaitz and his staff were doing when they tried repeatedly to contact Smith and others in his office. They wanted to be sure Smith and his employees had time to respond to those stories before they were printed. That’s not harassment; that’s simply good journalism, and the sheriff was wise enough to recognize the difference.