Calling BS: City council members buying a newspaper

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One of the essential functions of the press is holding the government accountable. So what happens when two members of Winston-Salem City Council buy the newspaper that has provided a voice to the city’s African-American community and covered the issues that matter to them for more than four decades?

Councilman James Taylor, who represents the Southeast Ward, will be the new publisher and handle day-to-day operations at The Chronicle. Councilman Derwin Montgomery, who represents the East Ward and whose day job is running the Bethesda Center homeless shelter, is a co-owner of the newspaper in partnership with Taylor. The two will apparently hold only partial ownership of the newspaper: City Manager Lee Garrity told Triad City Beat that the two council members have assured the city attorney that they intend to only own 10 percent each. He added that state law prohibits the city from doing business — in this case, buying ads — with any company that has more than 10 percent ownership by an elected official.

“We’re committed to being fair, equitable and just and completely impartial when it comes to journalistic integrity,” Taylor told me. “I plan to allow editors and reporters to have complete autonomy when they cover city government.”

I need to say that Taylor and Montgomery, whom I’ve been covering since 2012, are two of the most honorable and fair politicians I’ve ever encountered. And I’ve dealt with a lot of local elected officials, and more than half of them don’t come off looking good.

With that stipulation, it’s a tough sell for reporters and editors to produce probing and critical coverage of city government while at the same time taking care not to show favor when the two people responsible for their payroll are sitting on the dais in the council chamber.

Taylor announced on Monday that The Chronicle will no longer make endorsements in political races that involve him or Montgomery. That’s a pretty significant chunk: half of the wards with African-American representation.

It also gets tricky to maintain the perception of fairness when Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board comes into play. James Taylor’s wife, Deanna Taylor, holds one of the two seats in District 1, which covers the urban portion of the county. Is the newspaper going to withhold endorsement when Deanna Taylor is on the ballot, too?

And what happens when members of city council or the school board who are on the other side of an issue from the Taylors and Montgomery need to be called out? Will The Chronicle have the credibility to do it?

Governing can get testy and murky, and people take positions in good faith that may look dishonest or foolhardy to their adversaries. Reporters have to put aside any personal interests they might have in do their best to cover the news accurately and fairly in these circumstances. My journalism professor at Columbia University liked to cite Macbeth to the effect that Lady Macbeth must not only maintain clean hands, but appear to have clean hands.

Good luck, guys!