Friday, June 29, 2007

Walberg is no friend of free press

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg doesn't like me and I don't give a damn.

Neither should you.

Journalists and politicians often enjoy a testy, if not combative relationship; that's nothing new.

They're in the business of making themselves look good, raising cash and getting re-elected.The press is in the business of reporting the truth about officials' voting records, platforms, finances and campaign ads.

Naturally, these goals often clash. As a result, Walberg and his staff refuse to answer my questions, provide information on his votes and inform me of his public events.

As an editor, I can't even assign a reporter to cover something as simple as the Tipton Republican's earmarks in the federal budget - as was the case last week - because I'm not privy to his press releases.

In short, I can't do my job to inform the public - and you lose.

What you should care about is that the congressman doesn't much care for you, either, because he is actively squelching your right to know.

Even more troubling is his hypocrisy. In a flowery, self-congratulatory column in last Friday's Detroit Free Press, Walberg metamorphosed into the media's biggest champion, sounding his support for the Free Flow of Information Act. It's a federal shield bill for journalists, protecting us from prosecution if we won't reveal a confidential source's name.

But who will protect the press from Tim Walberg?

"Government waste, fraud and abuse are breaches of public trust, and we must not punish reporters who bring such indiscretions to light through confidential sources," he writes.

Amen. And that's exactly what I did when I incensed Walberg by investigating Federal Election Commission complaints against him (same as I did for those against his rival, former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Battle Creek.)

That's what I did when I broke the story that Walberg refused to fire his campaign aide, Daniel A. Coons, even after finding out he pleaded guilty to abusing his foster son. That's what I did in reporting Walberg's goal to stockpile enough funds so Schwarz wouldn't take him on in 2008.

The difference is, I never used anonymous sources. The Enquirer has a practice against that. I used court documents, affidavits, FEC records and in-depth, on-the-record interviews.

The proof was there in black and white. But Walberg decided he didn't like the truth, so he took his toys and went home.

When Walberg does deign to answer media requests, his idea of openness and accountability is to have his press secretary, Matt Lahr, e-mail Orwellian, canned responses that never answer the question.

Example: "What does Rep. Walberg think of being challenged by (Scio Township Democrat) David Nacht?"

Answer: "The congressman is focused on tax relief, Great Lakes restoration and education reform."

Walberg has an obligation to communicate with you, his constituents, and the best way to reach the most people is through the media. But apparently, he believes that communication only has to flow one way.

When I asked about the public's right to know in my final conversation with Lahr, he chillingly replied: "The congressman's concern is getting out his message."

To do so, Walberg has to hope for a complacent, overworked media that will regurgitate his press releases and won't check his facts, question his rhetoric and examine his performance. Sorry, sir, you won't find any journalists like that at our paper.

He knows that, which is why he and his aides start singing the tired song that the liberal media is out to get him. Yes, people of all political persuasions pile on the press, but it's also true that the shrillest voices in the last decades have come from the far right.

It's a surefire way for pols to play to the base - which is how Walberg squeaked into his seat in the first place. And it's something journalists often shy away from saying, lest we prompt conservatives to belt out another chorus against us.

Well, bring it on.

With all the time Walberg spends stonewalling the press, you have to wonder what he's doing to earn $165,200 of your money each year and why he's so tight-lipped about it.

But we journalists will keep asking questions, because we owe it to you, the public. As your employee, Rep. Walberg owes you answers.

Which is something he might want to consider, since he's up for a big job evaluation next fall.

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