Journalists like tape recorders. If you touch them, or try to take them away from us, we can’t be responsible for what happens next.
That’s why I’m not buying the sorry excuses being offered up by state Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, who on Tuesday told everyone who was in attendance for an open government meeting that “all recording devices, whether audio and video, are required to be approved by the sergeant-at-arms,” according to a recording taken by the Associated Press. The sergeant-at-arms took a reporter’s tape recorder from the table where she had placed it, and returned it only after she realized it was missing. He told her that the rationale was that there had been “problems in the past with recorders being left in rooms to record private conversations after meetings.”
Gunn backpedaled when he realized he had committed a capital crime in the eyes of pretty much every journalist on the planet. He said he “misspoke” and that “that was probably not the best choice of words,” according to the AP.
Most of us in the news business have heard stories about unethical, lazy reporters clandestinely taping closed sessions. My understanding is that it has happened in Lincoln County, though not by a member of the Lincoln Times-News staff.
It may be more difficult to cultivate reliable sources that are willing to pass along the details of closed session discussions when necessary, but that’s far better than compromising individual or organizational integrity for the sake of a scoop.
Professionals know this, and it’s the responsibility of the conductors of government meetings to ensure that, prior to entering a closed session, all recording devices are turned off.
That Gunn would make such a statement, even offhandedly, shows a real lack of understanding about what it is that reporters do and the function of a free press. We’re documenters — we go places, we listen, we write things down and we tell our readers what we saw. You could make a good argument that the most important place where this third-party documentation take places is in government. The citizens of this state and this country deserve to have the business of government presented to them objectively and accurately, and professional journalists are best situated to carry that task.
The other benefit of the tape recorder is that it tells no lies. You can’t misquote from a recording, which is why both my colleagues and myself use them, in addition to traditional note taking.
An intelligent politician would recognize that.
Michael Gebelein is managing editor of the Lincoln Times-News.