Off the record

Katherine Harris wanted to talk off the record last Monday at the Commission of Cultural Affairs executive committee meeting.

But at a public meeting, things are just that- public.

I sat in on the meeting as part of getting to know the local government beat. I didn’t think I’d get a story from the meeting but my ears perked up when I heard Harris and another committee member, Judith Harper, criticize city manager Mike Matthes’s proposal to move the Office of Cultural Affairs to the Walton Building, where it would share space with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Harris said that she thought Matthes was trying to save face with the proposal after he failed in his attempt to merge the two departments. She said Matthes was new to his position and just changing everything around, and I got the impression she thought he didn’t yet understand his role in city government.

And then, she turned to me, smiling, and said, “By the way, this is off the record.”

That’s when I knew that I had a story. I was in awe that a public official would think that something said at a public meeting wouldn’t be on the record. So I wrote a story about the committee member’s resistance to the move of the Office of Cultural Affairs.

In writing the story, I requested minutes from the meeting and found no mention of the committee member’s disapproving conversation about the move.  A draft of the minutes simply stated that regarding the move of the cultural affairs office, Connie Kacprowicz, interim director of the department, “had found a space needs study which should help with figuring out what was possible.”

The move was certainly discussed more at the meeting than the minutes show. If I hadn’t attended the meeting, I would never have known that the cultural affairs executive committe members were opposed to the move- and neither would anybody else. And what does that say when the meeting minutes weren’t 100 percent accurate?

When I conducted an accuracy check with Katherine Harris to verify what she said at the meeting and during a follow-up phone interview, she acknowledged that she had in fact said Matthes was “trying to save face,” but told me that I had better not publish that in my story. I did, though, because that’s what she said and it was essential to describing her disapproval at the meeting.

Working on this story made me think a lot about the role of journalism- Public watchdog? Authority of fact? Objective observer? All of the above? I felt both frustrated and incredulous when Harris told me she wanted her words to remain unpublished. But I have realized this much: my duty is not to Harris; my duty is to you, the readers of the Missourian.



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