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OPINION: The fox should not guard the hen house

Posted on Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm

During the past two years, Tennessee legislators have pounded away at the state’s newspapers, introducing bill after bill that would remove Tennessee public notices, legal ads and announcements of official government meetings from newspapers and place them, instead, on a government website.

The reason, they say, is to make government more transparent and information more accessible to the public.

Hogwash!

We think that sounds a lot like the old adage of the “fox and the henhouse.”

“Let me take care of those chickens,” the fox tells the farmer, “I’ll do what’s best for them.”

Well, you know the rest of that story. The fox — or in this case, the government — is telling us they know what’s best for us.

“We’ll put all those notices on our government website,” they say soothingly, “and everything will be just fine.”

First of all, according to a recent ConnectTN survey, nearly a third of Tennesseans lack broadband access, and in rural communities the numbers are higher, with only 55 percent having access.

But, for those who do want to look up public notices, they are already online statewide, published free for the viewing at the Tennessee Press Association’s website, <www.tnpress.org>. For others who want to look up notices in a newspaper, free copies are available at local libraries and are also available for a few cents in the communities they serve.

Secondly, if the public notices are published on this government website incorrectly, what recourse would the parties involved have?

For instance, what if your home is sold on the courthouse steps before proper public notice is published? What if the state government, heaven forbid, should neglect its duties and fail to get those notices posted in a timely manner, if at all?

Most people would feel such neglect of duty would be grounds for a lawsuit. But wait — have you ever tried suing the state government?

Taking action against a government entity is just about impossible. State and federal governments are protected by ‘sovereign domain,’ making them almost bulletproof to lawsuits.

Should such an oversight occur, chances are that the minimum wage employee charged with this duty would be chastised or perhaps even lose his or her job.

But aside from that, what consequences are there for a government that doesn’t get it right?

Newspapers have incentives and motivations to be accurate and dependable. We have obligations, not only to our customers, but also to our employees whose livelihoods depend, in part, on revenues from legal and public notice advertising. If we make mistakes, our customers will make sure we feel it in our bottom line.

Furthermore, if we make an error, newspapers, unlike the state government, are subject to legal action.

We also wonder about the ethical, if not legal implications of these proposed changes. It does seem wrong, somehow, for a state government to compete with its own Tennessee businesses. The vast majority of the newspapers in the state are small businesses and all of them hire local people.

Certainly an entity with little or nothing to lose is a poor choice to watch the proverbial ‘henhouse.’

When the eggs get dropped and the chickens start losing their feathers, we need the ability to hold someone accountable.

When mistakes or omissions are made, the public deserves more than an ‘oops’ and a shrug from the fox in charge.

 

—BY LYNN RICHARDSON (Lynn Richardson is the publisher of the Herald & Tribune in Jonesborough, Tenn. She may be reached at lrichardson@heraldandtribune.com)