Our View: Expose this: Always support your local newspaper

For most of the past summer a small forest’s worth of paper and major internet bandwidth have been dedicated to issues arising from a website critical of local government officials and practices.

It would appear that, for now, public controversies arising from the accusations have been laid to rest. Most recently, Parish President Gordon Dove received an opinion from the office of Attorney General Jeff Landry. It states that there is no legal impediment to the parish’s plans for an insurance contract with broker Tony Alford. A previous development, the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals decision to overturn Judge Randy Bethancourt’s issuance of a warrant in connection with a criminal defamation investigation concerning the website, clearly declared that in Terrebonne Parish, as in the rest of the United States, criticism of public officials is not illegal. So cherished is the right to free expression, the courts have made clear, that even false information will not likely support the need for a criminal action, although there are matters of civil law that in which truth or lack thereof may play a role.

Lessons abound in these recent exercises, for all of us.

Public officials have learned that opinions from sources other than “bona fide” newspapers or their websites deserve as much protection as any others under the law. Neither we, nor any other newspaper or radio or television station has any kind of a license to dispense news or opinions. The only qualification for putting an opinion out in our society is that an opinion be possessed. The traditional news media have no greater right than the blogger in his basement. It is up to readers to discern whether they are reading opinion or stories that maintain they are fact. We hold no monopoly, nor should we.

There is a responsibility for readers that goes with hand in hand with all of this, which is to carefully evaluate what you see. Just because a claim is on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true. Nor is a claim, just because it is not in a traditional daily or weekly newspaper, inherently false. It is up to all of us to use our ability to discern truth.

But returning to the public officials. The lesson through all of this should be, for government, that openness is always the best defense against unfair criticism. Parish President Gordon Dove has been streamlining the way in which public information is disclosed. We encourage him, along with Mart Black, who has been working hard to make that process work, to do more. In jurisdictions where public records laws allow far more openness, the trains still run on time, as they would here. The suggestion is not that anyone’s been covering up. But a culture of openness has yet to be recognized as the dominant culture of government here. We believe that in time this shall come to pass. Parish President Dove, even while under fire, has proven he has a willingness to be part of a trend toward openness and we applaud him for it.

The real test will come when documents that are not part of an ongoing crisis in confidence are sought. It is our belief that the current administration will pass.

The recent controversies have brought another issue to light, and while it may seem self-serving for us to mention it here, we believe it is justified. Many readers have commented in recent months on the wealth of news The Times has provided, even online as it breaks, with no pay wall requiring a subscription or other compensation for the paper. We are pleased to provide this service.

But reliable, objective news coverage comes at a price. We are willing to underwrite it, but also need your help. If you like what you see here, please subscribe at what we believe is a fair and nominal price. This is not a commercial announcement. It is merely gentle statement of fact.