As we were going to press Tuesday night, we were taken aback to read in this week’s copy of a competing publication how a Marion official was blaming our news coverage two months ago as the reason Marion lost a proposed 31-bed hotel.
Our being accused of negativity is nothing new. Killing the messenger is a favorite sport of public officials here and elsewhere. If what a journalist reports doesn’t portray things with a spin so positive that a devastating tornado is billed as a wonderful opportunity for urban renewal, the journalist tends to take it on the chin – just as we most assuredly will after this week’s interview and editorial about a council member’s last-minute opposition to various city projects. Being blamed for the news is a perpetual drawback of actually covering the news.
The problem is, after all the shouting about how our coverage of serious flaws in a hotel feasibility study supposedly scotched the deal more than two months ago, one of the city’s senior officials privately apologized to us and took the blame.
The study, prepared at a cost of $7,000 in taxpayer money, contained many factual errors – listing as open businesses that had closed years ago and ignoring other businesses that might actually figure in analysis of the need for a hotel. We reported the errors alongside a lengthy defense of the study from city officials. Then, all you-know-what broke loose. After hearing nothing for days, we were resoundingly taken to task at a city council meeting for reporting the study’s errors – only to hear several days later, after requesting a meeting with the senior official, that he had mistakenly given us an unedited copy of the study, which officials later had corrected. He apologized, and we agreed with him to put the matter behind us, without ever receiving a list of what the city specifically objected to in our coverage.
Seeing the charges come up yet again, two months later, made us wonder whether he had reneged on the deal, so we pressed the matter Tuesday night and were told by the same senior official that the person to whom the comment blaming us had been attributed in this week’s article had not spoken with the reporter who wrote the story in nearly a month.
Honestly, we don’t know what’s going on here. We have no reason to doubt the senior official, whom we regard as an honorable and intelligent man. Then again, we’ve never seen a corrected copy of the original study, and as newspaper people, we’re surprised that any story – even one appearing in a “free” newspaper — would sit around for several months, then be run without rechecking.
What we will report this week, without naming names, are two other things that came out of our off-the-record discussion more than a month ago.
According to the senior official, the feasibility study – even once it was corrected — did not make a sufficiently compelling case to attract financing for a 31-unit hotel. He said city officials still would try to arrange for a hotel to be built but would target one with fewer units – probably around 24, smaller than the minimum size that the chain that pulled out would be willing to support.
Tuesday night, when asked to reiterate these comments on the record, the official said only that he was not an expert and could not evaluate whether the study made a sufficiently compelling case for a 31-unit hotel.
Two months ago, the official told us off the record that, if the city had a larger or more experienced economic development staff, it would not have needed to spend $7,000 to commission the study from outsiders but could have done the report itself. When asked Tuesday night to reiterate those comments, he would say only that the study was necessary as a means to encourage investors to put up the nearly $1 million in local investment that would have been needed to start construction.
So now you know what we know, and we haven’t violated confidentiality by identifying the official after he went off the record, which classically means the material can be used but not attributed to a person by name. Truth be known, we do know a bit more. We could pick fault with several things in this week’s story in our out-of-town competitor’s newspaper, but that’s nickel-and-dime stuff, and we most assuredly would be accused of feasting on sour grapes if we did that.
What’s really going on here? We don’t know. If you find out, give us a holler. We’ll report it. It doesn’t matter who is made to look bad – even if it’s us. It’s news. So we’ll tell you about it. That’s what we do.
— ERIC MEYER