By MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ
If I was forced to choose one thing that I believe is the culprit for all the controversy that has plagued San Benito over the last several years, I’d identify a misguided sense of prioritizing — characterized by our leadership’s lack of focus, professionalism and rationale — as our kryptonite. Bar none.
Consider this: When interviewing city or school district officials from San Benito about whatever the latest scandal may be, more than half the time I find myself fielding questions about why, how or where we retrieved the information. Such a reaction is a clear indication that the person sitting across from me, or — if I’m making a call — the person on the other end of the phone line, is more concerned with their community newspaper’s intentions when reporting the news (yes, I find that funny as well as it is absurd), the public’s perception of the problem rather than the problem itself and, not to mention, suppressing the self-described whistleblowers who risk much to be voices for the voiceless.
I’ve even been asked by elected officials to reveal tipsters’ identities, which is reprehensible. Granted, these conversations are often cordial, but they always end the same way: with me protecting my sources and revealing nothing. Is it then any wonder why most people who do come to us with story ideas and concerns choose to do so from a position of anonymity?
Take, for instance, a certain school district administrator who recently tried to intimidate me by lecturing the supposed illegalities of revealing executive session discussions. This person was a bit confused as to what the law actually dictates and whether the media should unconditionally respect closed-door talks, the latter of which can be answered with a simple “no,” we should not. Depending on the nature of the story, public awareness supersedes unnecessary secrecy. If certain information is revealed to us through means we consider substantiated, then that information is fair game. Of course, we do implement good judgment when assigning stories, but that’s up to us to decide as opposed to the sources in our pieces.
In another case of misspent energy, a city leader’s recent accusation that I was “blackballing” San Benito for running an article about the town’s 2013 sales tax collections remaining stagnant, and thus becoming one of only a few other communities in the Rio Grande Valley to post no significant gains, proved quite telling. Sales tax receipts are arguably the best indication of a city’s economic health, and if publishing the numbers rattled the higher-ups, then that’s a serious problem. I can’t help but wonder if as much time and energy were spent on identifying, addressing and resolving matters of concern as they were on accosting reporters, maybe there wouldn’t be “bad news” to report. To put it another way, don’t worry about what we’re doing at the News; worry instead about what you’re doing so you don’t become the news.
I must say that I’m not too optimistic about San Benito’s immediate future if this is how our elected officials and the leaders of our local municipality and school district respond to daily challenges. To the people I’m referring to, I ask that you please reprioritize. Focus on the chaos that is now our city rather than worrying about the public perception of said chaos; respond to media inquiries professionally so as to exhibit strength when faced with scrutiny; remove reporters from your crosshairs and target that which piqued the media’s interest and curiosity in the first place. Remember, your tenures will come and go, but the citizens of San Benito will remain long after the impact of your leadership is felt. So take better care of what kind of city you’re leaving behind, because it belongs to all of us.