It's the age-old question being raised again, one which has
stood between the press and government and public officials in
the United States since 1789 _ what is the public's right to
That question comes up cloudy more often, at least in my mind,
when it deals with economic development and industrial
Most large companies are lured into a particular area because
of incentives, usually paid for by taxpayers, and they create
much-needed jobs. The public is seldom, if ever, let in on these
negotiations until the final contracts have been signed.
Chamber of commerce and economic development officials, along
with industrial recruiters, say this shroud of secrecy is
necessary because the prospective company is listening to sales
pitches from dozens of communities, and public disclosure of an
incentive package will tip off the competition. At the same time,
officials with the prospective recruit don't want premature
publicity about relocation or expansion negotiations for fear it
will tip off their own competitors or even scare away good
Both of these are valid concerns which should be honored by
the press, as long as full disclosure is made public far enough
in advance so taxpayers can balk if overeager recruiters give
away more than they can earn back.
Too often, though, reporters in their zeal to be the first
with the news of a potential major economic development event
will publish rumors, sometimes unfounded, despite the sensitivity
of particular negotiations. Sometimes this premature publicity
can wreck negotiations, forcing the company to change its plans,
then the community has lost that opportunity.
But what is the role of the press in economic development
activities? Reporters are charged with the responsibility of
finding out what's happening in the community and informing the
public of this with an objective, unbiased view. All members of
Oklahoma City's press corps understand the value of accuracy,
honesty, impartiality and balance in their reporting, ensuring
both sides are represented equally without prejudice.
Economic development officials are charged with bringing in
companies and working to create a business environment in which
jobs are created and the economy grows stronger. Sometimes these
economic development officials are sponsored by a governmental
entity using taxpayer money. Usually, though, they are members of
a chamber of commerce or other private organization funded by
dues or contributions of local businesses.
In the end, though, both end up using taxpayer money to fund
the incentive packages.
Now comes the sticky part. Because taxpayer money is involved,
does the public have the right to know everything that goes on in
either the public or private economic development groups? Where
is the line drawn as far as taxpayer money is concerned? If this
group is allowed to operate in secrecy, what about other
Because of this, most reporters, editors and news directors
feel a sort of adversarial relationship with all public
officials, anyone who handles public money or has a hand in
creating laws or regulations which affect the public. This is as
it should be. A free and unfettered press is absolutely necessary
for good, or even mediocre, government.
No one within my acquaintance argues with this precept; we all
know the value of a free press, no matter how much we may
disagree, cuss and chastise what is written and broadcast. …