Several of us spent a fascinating four hours Thursday with 10 Russian journalists who are visiting the Puget Sound region to learn more about investigating corruption.
(Insert “they came to the right place” joke here.)
I came away with an appreciation for the tools that are available to American journalists. Despite the ridiculous number of exemptions to our public records and public meetings laws, our new friends from the Krasnoyarsk region in central Siberia don’t have such luxuries. Bribes, harassment and intimidation are part of the way of life over there. The group we met today is working to change that, so they had lots of questions about investigative journalism.
They chatted with Managing Editor Karen Peterson, crime/breaking news editor Randy McCarthy, investigative reporter Sean Robinson, and myself (Public Life editor, overseeing coverage of state and county government).
Their questions were starkly different than the queries we get on a daily basis from South Sound readers. They repeated some questions – saying, “we hear your ‘official’ answer, but what really happens?” – because they had a hard time believing our answers to questions like these:
* They wanted to know if government officials intimidate us into not publishing tough stories (nyet, they wouldn’t dare).
* They asked if government officials retaliate against negative stories by sending in workplace inspectors (nyet, they don’t).
* When we edit investigative stories, they wanted to know if we just edit for grammar or if we go deeper than that (our stories are edited for content, and investigative stories usually go through multiple drafts; reporters will tell you it’s never fun).
* They asked if reporters must pay libel damages out of pocket (generally, nyet; but we haven’t dealt with a libel suit in years because of all that careful editing).
* They asked if our laws give reporters more access to government records than regular citizens (nyet; while reporters certainly use the open-records law more than non-reporters, we all have the same access).
* They said the King County executive’s office told them that if a reporter wrote something objectionable, they’d cut off that reporter’s access to leaders (Ron Sims’ office said WHAT???). We got a kick out of that, figuring that maybe Sims’ office didn’t realize the Russians were meeting with us too and would share that tidbit. We replied that various government officials have tried to cut us off before, but it doesn’t work because there’s usually another source who can tell us what’s going on, and fighting with the press is rarely a good idea anyway.
The group’s visit is part of a multicultural exchange funded by the U.S. government.
The Community Connections Program, managed by the Bureau for Europe and Eurasia at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and administered by World Learning, is designed to promote public diplomacy through the exchange of cultural ideas and values among participants, U.S. families and local community host organizations. It seeks to establish and strengthen links between U.S. communities and communities in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine.
The Russians spoke little English, so we relied on two hard-working translators, both of whom live in the South Sound. At one point, one of the Russian gents said to me in his thick accent, “Alaska is best state.” I agreed that it’s an amazing place, and I added that it has a fair amount of political corruption. He laughed and replied: “Old Russian tradition!”
After lunch at a Chinese buffet (they’re sampling various cuisines) in Tacoma, we parted ways. They’ve already visited The Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Stranger. Their next stop was the glass museum.
We said goodbye through the translators. If I could have at the time, I would have told Natalia, Evgenia, Vladislav, Boris, Irina and the others: Udachi i khoroshego nastroeniya.
According to this site, that means “good luck and keep well.”