Missoula Co. sheriff’s office claims Missoulian agreed to limit access

Brenda Bassett, public information officer at the Missoula County Sheriff's Office

Brenda Bassett, public information officer at the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, in her days at KPAX

Last week, media blogger Jim Romenesko reported that the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office had announced an agreement with the Missoulian regarding cops and crime reporter Kathryn Haake. Citing Haake’s tendency to “contact multiple people within our office in an attempt to get more information than what she can legally be given,” public information officer Brenda Bassett said that “Kate has been instructed by her editor, to send all questions via email to me.”1 Missoulian editor Sherry Devlin disputed that. In her own email to Romenesko, Devlin said:

The Missoulian has no such arrangement or agreement with the sheriff’s office. They have made that demand and have attempted to have Kate removed from the beat because she asks questions that go beyond TV soundbites, and has covered both the sheriff’s critics as well as his supporters. She remains our police and courts reporter and has my full support. Her stories have been and are fair, balanced and accurate. I have at no time agreed to their demands.

That right there is a disagreement over facts, and it gets more complicated in the weeds of Romenesko’s post. But the upshot is that the sheriff’s office thinks it’s inappropriate for a reporter to call around and try to interview people, and it has insisted that the media only interact with its PR rep, in writing, on a timeline that gives her space to craft her answers.

That’s been a trend among Missoula County agencies lately. For the first few months after she took office, County Attorney Kirsten Pabst forbade any of her employees from talking to reporters; in April, she held a press conference at which she refused to take questions. The school board still hasn’t told us why it fired and reassigned a series of administrators last year. All three attempts to stonewall the media coincided with scandals: two lawsuits and a public feud within the sheriff’s office, John Krakauer’s stinging indictment of Pabst in Missoula, and rumors of inappropriate relationships and sports-related retaliations in the schools.

Responding to scandal by shutting out the media is like responding to fire by smashing all the smoke detectors. It’ll keep things quiet for a while, but it’s guaranteed to make the problem worse. County agencies have a responsibility to the people they serve, and that responsibility includes communicating openly and honestly with the press. You can read my opinions about that in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

Kate Haake is a nice lady I like Kate Haake, and Bassett shouldn’t lambast her for doing her job. Like the county attorney and the school board, the sheriff is an elected official. The people who read the newspaper are his bosses. The moment he stops talking to us is the moment I lose confidence in his office.

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