Thursday, February 21, 2013

A pox on both your houses

Maine elected officials had a recent dust-up with the Bangor Daily News over concealed weapons holder data and both sides displayed armor-piercing grade arrogance.

Disclosure time: I was an intern for the BDN and I have friends that work there. As a result, I witnessed a more shrill tone from private communications than what Maine's second largest newspaper presented publicly.

The BDN made a legal request this month for the personal information of concealed weapons permit holders in the state. This includes names, ages and addresses. Under a Maine law passed in 1985, the state was required to hand the information over.

However, it didn't. Officials and critics referenced the time in December when a New York newspaper posted an interactive map of concealed weapon permit holders; presumably to capture more of the criminal reader demographic by "casing the joint" for them. This put a lot of people at risk, especially people without concealed weapons who were labeled easy targets.

I believe the BDN editors when they say they had no intention to produce such a map, a move they called "irresponsible." They wanted to use it in an analysis. Sadly, this is where they went wrong.

The attitude of BDN staff was that it was blindly irrational for the public to criticize their request because they honestly, truly weren't going to print it. One of my BDN friends posted on Facebook that the point of newspapers was always to "gather" information.

No it isn't, the point is to publish information, not hold secret data banks for our own records.

What irks me is the naive way the BDN expects trust to work. Trust must be earned, it can not be commanded or expected automatically. As a reporter I constantly have to earn the trust of people I wish to interview. Many of them have been burned by a reckless reporter in the past and they will hold that grudge forever.

Wasn't "Just trust us" the mentality of the Bush administration? The public is right to be distrustful of such attitudes.

The BDN editorials skew left and it's no surprise that gun lovers would take issue with the BDN obtaining their personal information. Just look what the BDN did intend to do with the data:

The BDN requested the records of concealed weapons permits as part of long-term reporting projects on domestic violence, sexual assault and drug abuse... We intend to use this information about permits, along with other information sets we are gathering, to analyze possible correlations relevant to our reporting projects.

With that sort of framing there's no way this could look good for concealed weapons holders. Newsrooms contain very few mathematicians and even newspapers as big as the New York Times make absurd Naomi Klein-style errors in their attempts at breaking down data. If the BDN analysis made concealed weapons holders look bad, it would run on the front page. If it didn't, the story could be "killed" or buried inside the paper.

Emergency legislation went too far

I can't blame law-abiding members of the public for objecting when a corporation wants their personal information. I can, however, blame Gov. Paul LePage, the house and senate for passing unethical legislation in response.

Even though the BDN caved to pressure and withdrew the data requestLePage pushed emergency legislation to make concealed weapons permit data private. I don't have a problem with that, but the legislation was applied retroactively and was stated as such before the BDN withdrew. I have a serious problem with that.

The BDN made a completely legal request and state law required public officials to hand it over. Retroactive legislation is sinister as it takes legal actions performed by members of the public and makes them illegal, inviting unpredictable results. I would like to see the data in question made private, but that should have been done decades ago and it was too late once the request was filed.

The state also got an e-mail request for the data when the issue got big and the retroactive rule impacted that request. It's plausible that the BDN would not have withdrawn the request if the insidious retroactive portion was not announced the day before.

By the way, the Democrats have a slight majority in both the house and senate The senate voted 33 in favor of LD 576 and 0 opposed. The house voted 129 in favor and 11 opposed. This is not just an issue of LePage and his pistol-packing GOP posse behaving badly. This is almost everyone in Augusta acting out.

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