Journalists should inform, not scold

March 31, 2019

In a recent article on New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (“Gov. uses account for wine, inaugural breakfast,” March 21), The New Mexican spent a great deal of time and ink looking into how the governor’s staff has been spending the public’s money for the few months the governor has been in office. This was done by examining the receipts in the governor’s “contingency fund,” an office expense account over which the governor has broad authority, information which is only now available under a new law.

With all the flair of a major investigative find, the article revealed that the governor’s staffers, in purchasing groceries for events at the mansion, “sometimes neglected to take reusable bags” while shopping in Santa Fe and instead incurred the expense of 10-cent paper bags. Seriously? How many paper bags are we talking about for this “sometimes” offense to be included in this story?

It is one thing to report on the governor’s “contingency” expenses. Questioning whether it is appropriate for the governor to use public money for a breakfast with family and friends is one thing, but including the occasional 10-cent paper bag in a story about the governor’s spending makes the newspaper look petty.

This petty reporting has an impact. It will drive away some of our best and brightest from seeking public office at a time when we need them most. Giving elected officials the equivalent of an endoscopy as they seek or serve in office will discourage people of all parties from stepping up to take on the difficult challenge of keeping our democracy safe and secure. They will turn away, not wanting to see themselves or their families overly scrutinized in search of a “gotcha” item, something that has a whiff of hypocrisy about it, that will be used to publicly shame them.

Whether it is an old high school photo, a diary entry from 40 years ago or evidence of the “sometimes” use of paper bags at the grocery store, it is all part of a new journalism that views past, present and future through today’s lens and cultural expectations.

What’s next? Checking to see if the purchased items might have been less expensive at another store? Questioning whether the items should have been ordered online to save the gas and labor expense of sending a staffer to shop in town? Asking whether the governor’s staff considered purchasing only generic items and using coupons to save money? Verifying how many coupons were used? Of course, it all sounds ridiculous. Because it is.

In the end, this kind of petty journalism is more about stirring the public’s appetite for schadenfreude, which means enjoying someone else’s shame or misfortune, than in giving us a clear-eyed view of the world. At a time when journalism already is under fire, The New Mexican, usually an excellent source of deep, long-form reporting, should not be handing critics any easy shots.

Uncovering corruption, fraud, waste and abuse is part of what journalists are supposed to do as the public’s watchdog. Being a scolding parent is not.

Ginger Casey is an Emmy-award winning journalist and writer who lives in Santa Fe.