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Asking the tough questions comes with the territory

By: Carol Feineman, News Messenger Editor
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I’m the first to admit that The News Messenger is a different paper these past several months. The reason is because we’re looking harder at issues that affect residents. As a result, we’re not taking stock answers from elected officials, city staff and organization representatives any more as the gospel truth. And so we’re angering some sources who don’t want us to keep repeating the same question over the course of a week in the hopes they’ll change their responses. We took a tougher stance in January when our concerns to City Council members and the city manager on the whereabouts of missing Police Chief Brian Vizzusi were not answered. Some city representatives scolded us, told us half-truths or asked us to report instead on “real” issues by city reps. But the city’s repeated comments that Vizzusi was just on an open-ended vacation didn’t ring true after a week or two so we continued to ask council members and city staff where Lincoln’s police chief was and why he wasn’t in his office. The city representatives were surprised that we would not stop asking. They ignored our phone calls, answered by e-mail so that a real dialogue wouldn’t take place or said they couldn’t comment because it was a personnel issue. We finally broke the story that Vizzusi really wasn’t on “vacation” and that the city was working on his exit from his department. But that’s old news. Since then, we’ve continued to regularly ask uncomfortable questions of city and also of organization representatives when we think we’re getting the runaround, especially when dealing with city budget issues and the nonprofit Lincoln Arts. Which is what The Lincoln News Messenger is supposed to do since newspapers traditionally have been the watchdogs of government on all levels, from federal down to the local level. We’re pleased that residents are noticing our persistence when there are viable concerns. Just as importantly, residents are asking their own questions and voicing their opinions, whether at city meetings, through our stories online (lincolnnewsmessenger.com) or via letters to the editor. We received six such letters to the editor last Friday, which was very validating to me. Before we started in January to challenge sources’ responses that didn’t seem right, we were lucky to receive three letters to run by press time the following Wednesday. And often, the letters sent to us were thank-yous to the community for supporting a downtown event. The majority of our previous correspondence was not related to current issues. Today, however, we have an abundance of well-researched letters from readers. Our editorial section has jumped from two to four pages since July 29. Most of the recent letter-writers focus on the proposed utility users’ tax and city budget problems, many giving heartfelt suggestions on how to solve the fiscal shortage. Suggestions from these writers range from attracting more stores here to cutting salaries of top city management. We’re delighted to see readers take a more proactive, instead of reactive, approach to problems we all face in our everyday lives in Lincoln. Whether we agree with the readers’ comments, at least we’re all trying to come up with solutions. A council member told me four Thursdays ago that City Hall’s feeling “is that the newspaper has now declared war.” The council member was referring to our July 22 front page that included stories dealing with City Council approving a $54,000 agreement with the Lew Edwards Group “to educate Lincoln residents” about the utility users’ tax and the city manager talking about the tax at a chamber of commerce government-affairs meeting. But we are not at battle with the city. We are just reporting on what happens before, at and after city meetings. And when reporting on issues, the reporter tries to talk to all sides so that the story is well balanced. We don’t enjoy pointing out mistakes made running the city or the nonprofit Lincoln Arts, for example. In fact, it’s not easy questioning city reps on why they spent $1.5 million renovating new police headquarters only to move the department to the former site or what action the Lincoln Arts executive director will take after receiving a petition signed by 200 arts supporters asking for independent audits of the organization. We’d much rather dwell on the positive that City Council and Feats of Clay do for Lincoln. But we’re not their PR machines. When we see or hear something that is not right, we have to ask. If we looked the other way, then we’d be part of the problem. Coincidentally, after writing this column, I received a letter to the editor (see page A7) from a reader who wrote she will not renew her newspaper subscription because of a Aug. 12 article on page A12. That story was about a Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) member who has an Aug. 30 court date where charges of making false claims about his military decorations and theft of government property will be read to the VFW member, according to court documents from the United States Attorney’s Office. The letter writer felt we slandered the veteran. We disagree. Our reporter tried to reach the veteran but his number was disconnected. And our reporter talked to the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s public affairs spokeswoman and verified there is an Aug. 30 court proceeding. We’ll follow up on the Aug. 30 court date. I hope for the veteran’s sake that he is found innocent. But we’ll report on whatever happens because that’s our job. I hope the letter writer and our several angry sources can see that, too.