Public officials should not play favoritesWestern North Dakota is on fire, folks, and unfortunately I mean that literally. With 6,000 acres up in smoke in the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and Killdeer’s burned-up pumper truck sitting in a scorched field, it’s safe to say that things are getting more than a little dangerous out there.
By: Klark Byrd, The Dickinson Press
Western North Dakota is on fire, folks, and unfortunately I mean that literally. With 6,000 acres up in smoke in the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation and Killdeer’s burned-up pumper truck sitting in a scorched field, it’s safe to say that things are getting more than a little dangerous out there.
But readers of The Dickinson Press shouldn’t expect to hear that from Killdeer’s fire chief. Killdeer residents and other readers also shouldn’t expect to find out what the loss of the town’s fire truck means either — we’re all going to have to wait until Killdeer’s local weekly newspaper publishes sometime this week.
Useful and public information — such as how much did the truck cost, where will the money come from to replace it, what will the fire department use to fill the void until a new truck can be delivered — was not made available to a Press reporter when he called Fire Chief Chuck Muscha (also a Killdeer city commissioner, according to the city’s website), because the fire chief decided he wasn’t going to speak to anyone until after he spoke with his local newspaper.
Talk about lighting a fire! Every time I read that story and I come across that excuse, I just about lose my cool. In my half-decade of being a journalist and dealing with public officials from the city level to the federal level, I have never come across an official who refused to provide public information due to a preference of publication.
Can we imagine how many people would lose their minds if President Barack Obama refused to speak to any publication except one in Washington, D.C.? Or if Gov. Jack Dalrymple refused to talk to any publication outside of Bismarck?
Public officials — whether acting in an elected capacity (such as president) or a non-elected capacity (such as fire chief) — have a duty to the public to provide information as quickly as possible, especially where the public’s safety is concerned. And if you ask me, the loss of a pumper truck used to fight fires jeopardizes the public’s safety. Unless there’s a back-up plan we don’t know about.
And why don’t we know about it? Because the one public official that could have told us decided it was his role to determine which newspaper got the scoop.
This act is not only a slap in the face to the Press, but it’s a violation of every reader’s trust imparted in this public official — and that goes double for our readers in Killdeer.
Now whether it was meant to be or not, the message delivered to readers of the Press was that they are not worthy of knowing public information about Killdeer unless they also subscribe to the community’s local weekly newspaper.
Well I happen to believe that the customers of the Press both in and around Killdeer are worthy of knowing what’s going on in western North Dakota. And I also believe they deserve an apology and an assurance that this kind of favoritism will no longer play a role in the dispersion of public information.
Byrd is a copy editor at The Dickinson Press.