It’s ironic that Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith said at a recent meeting that he was pleased the press wasn’t there so party members could talk privately about sensitive issues and avoid “a big brouhaha.”
By keeping the meeting secret and barring a reporter who wanted to cover it, he created an even bigger brouhaha than if he’d just welcomed the reporter in the first place.
Smith closed the Jan. 24 meeting to the media and told Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Chris Carroll that the meeting was “confidential.” In the end, being barred from the meeting didn’t matter because Carroll was given an audio file of the meeting and wrote a front-page story about the incident and what was discussed in the closed session. (Note to other officials considering closing your meetings: In this day of apps and gadgets, secrets are far harder to keep).
The party wrote a Letter to the Editor that stated closing the meeting violated none of the party’s bylaws because it was an executive session. The letter even said party officials had consulted with “experts and a member of the Democratic National Committee” and found that “indeed we can conduct such a meeting without it being open to the press.”
Problem is, they were wrong. Smith never adjourned the regular meeting and opened the executive session. To their credit, party officials quickly admitted their mistake after a Tennessee Democratic Party official told Carroll the party encourages and requires open meetings on a local, state and national level.
But the bad publicity didn’t stop there for the local Democrats. Turns out, City Council candidate Moses Freeman, who is challenging fellow Democrat and incumbent City Councilman Andraé McGary for the nonpartisan District 8 seat, is paying the local Democrats’ rent for the party headquarters on Main Street. Smith told Carroll that Freeman is paying rent and for the use of everything else. He didn’t mention what he told his board at the meeting — that the party is picking up the tab for Freeman’s utility bills.
In addition to questions about why Smith lied, this arrangement begs the question of why the party would favor one Democrat over another.
But back to that secret meeting.
What Smith didn’t realize is that, yes, the reporter may have heard about some sensitive stuff — like the fact that Freeman got a sweet deal on water, light and Internet — and that may have made local Democrats look like they were practicing a bit of backroom politics. But now Smith also looks secretive, good ol’ boyish and out of touch. And he looks like a liar.
The tragedy for local Democrats is that their party already has an uphill battle in this solidly red state. Smith’s behavior isn’t going to help the party’s image or its ability to attract new members.
The Democrats, meanwhile, went into defensive mode, asking why we’re picking on them instead of covering the Hamilton County Republican Party.
That’s a reaction newspapers often get. During last year’s election, when we were reporting hard on the abortion scandal enveloping U.S. Rep Scott DesJarlais — a Republican — many a GOPer wanted to know when we’d pick on the Democrats.
Now we’re writing stories that don’t make the Democrats look rosy and they want to know why we don’t go dig up some dirt on some Republicans.
Magicians call that misdirection — “don’t look at me, look at that bright shiny object over there.”
Journalists are familiar with such sleight of hand. But when a newspaper is uncovering brouhahas for each side, that’s journalistic balance.
Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at email@example.com. Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.