Journalism is printing what someone else does not want published; everything else is public relations.
– Unknown member of The Fourth Estate
By The Editorial Board
Two issues ago we reported on the new Coraopolis council member appointed to the board and the charges by a candidate who applied for and did not get the position that cronyism was involved.
We spoke to the two candidates, Olesia Johnston who was denied the job, and the man who got it, Mark Scholl. He said he was approached by a friend to take the position and was demonstrably less engaged in the process, as he wouldn't have taken it otherwise. Scholl resigned his position on Aug. 9 and a candidate named Joseph Szabat, who apparently was not one of the original candidates to apply, was appointed.
Why are we rehashing this story here on the editorial page?
Because a council member sent us an impassioned letter about the reasons the body made its decision and defended the choice. We hoped to make space for it here because that's where discourse of that type should be taking place – in a public forum.
Newspapers are supposed to be a public forum.
This idea has been lost somewhat with the advent of the internet where public opinion can occur without gatekeeping from an editorial board and with the loss of so many newspaper and news-gathering jobs as a whole.
Like a public meeting, the newspaper is also a space where these types of decisions should be discussed and understood by our leaders and the public at large. We were genuinely excited that the story had sparked interest because oftentimes it feels like some of the pieces we write sink into oblivion or hardly make an impact.
As you can see, that letter isn't being published on our pages. The person who sent it demanded that it not be published, which led us to wonder why they'd bothered to send it in the first place.
Then it became clear. The author of the letter was asking that our staff reporter be “reassigned” from coverage of Coraopolis because of the story. Particularly, the author of the letter was offended by the use of the word “cronyism,” even though the accusation was thrown around at a public meeting which was recorded and televised.
This request, to stop the attempts of a thorough reporter from uncovering information, further illustrates the problem residents have had with decisions made for them by their council.
There was a distinct lack of transparency in the way the new member of council was chosen. Only his name was read aloud at the meeting. Only after asking a few questions did we establish there were actually three candidates for the job. Seemingly, only one person was considered. And with the newest addition to the council replacing Scholl, we know even less about the situation, as council members have decided not to share information anymore.
The solicitor and manager have stated that this process is appropriate for the situation. However, revealing the process to the public would immediately garner more trust. Other local municipalities discuss or publicly include letters of intent from potential council members in meetings. If there were three candidates, the council could have stated their names. Scholl was highly qualified–his qualifications could have been judged against the others.
It would have made more sense to publicly discuss the merits of these candidates in order to implicitly refute charges of favoritism or cronyism. If they'd shown the public that type of respect, then perhaps Johnston's words would have lost their potency. Instead, we have a rinse-and-repeat situation with the new candidate.
While pointing out the obvious, let us say one more thing. Olesia Johnston is a woman. The people sought out for this job are both men. There is only one woman serving in Coraopolis right now. The members of that body could have easily made their council more diverse with Johnston’s appointment but chose not to. Gender shouldn’t be the sole factor of determination, of course, but when a board is as unrepresentative of the population as this one, it’s something to consider.
In this letter you are not allowed to read, we were informed our reporter’s actions caused leadership in Coraopolis to lose respect for her and no one in Coraopolis leadership thinks she has their best interests at heart. If you ever doubt the importance of newspapers, remember your politicians don't.
The truth is, journalists should not be promoting the “best interests” of any leadership. That’s the job of a public relations person. Our job is to gather information so the public has the best chance of understanding what is happening in their governments and lives. On our editorial page, we advocate for the community as a whole – not the small group of people in power.
That’s our stake in this situation, and we take it very seriously.