Journalism Under Attack: Georgia

I am excited to introduce our latest Blackbox project, our first that will cover events across the entire state.

We are seeing a rapid change in the way we produce and consume news. Unfortunately, not all changes are for the better, and some have given us an entirely new set of challenges.

Coincidentally, the launch of this project coincides with ‘Sunshine Week’, an annual initiative put on by the American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, to promote open government and push back on excessive official secrecy.

We do not have a timetable to complete this project, and frankly I hope that we don’t. As long as I am in the business, I believe it is our duty at Appen Media Group to do our part in protecting journalism and your right to stay informed.

The first amendment after all, is first for a reason.

In next week’s editions, look for articles from Hatcher Hurd on a history of the Freedom of Information Act, and from Pat Fox on what to know about making open records requests in Georgia.

The week after that we will begin the process of documenting the state of journalism in Georgia with examples across the state of people who are influencing and being affected by an evolving news world.

In the meantime, we will kick off the project with an opinion from The Valdosta Daily Times Editor, Jim Zachary, which explains why you should care about obstacles to our ability to deliver you the news.

-Hans Appen


It’s your right, it’s your business

By Jim Zachary, The Valdosta Daily Times - March 15, 2017

Every action of government is your business.

Every document held in government halls is your piece of paper.

Every penny spent by government is your money.

From the courthouse to the statehouse to the White House, government belongs to the governed and not the governing.

You have the right to know what the governing are up to, always. We are self-governed.

The only way the public, and the press, can hold government accountable is by having unfettered access to its deliberations and the documents it holds.

Transparency is not liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat.

The media champions open government in its traditional role as the Fourth Estate, knowing that independent checks and balances are critical to our liberty.
When city council, county commission or the board of education brokers a deal behind closed doors and conceals documents containing important information the public wants and needs to know our freedoms are compromised.

Local government has the biggest impact in our lives on a day-to-day basis.

Whether it is in the form of property taxes, sales taxes, business taxes, state-shared dollars or federal grants, loans and funding, local government is 100 percent taxpayer funded. The decisions being made, the monies being spent and the records being kept by city hall, the county commission, the board of education or the hospital authority affect us all, and when government is allowed to operate behind closed doors, it grows out of control, is not responsive to the public and subject to corruption.

Elected officials — from the school board member to the President of the United States, must remember they answer to the people, not to professional government bureaucrats, not to government lawyers and not to their elevated campaign advisers

It may be true the public has lost a lot of confidence in the national media, but imagine a government run amuck without media watchdogs holding it in check.

Even Thomas Jefferson, who battled with the press, at times excoriating newspapers in his letters, understood that a free press with unfettered access was essential to the health of democracy.

Jefferson would grow irritated with newspapers, even writing, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” but he is also the man who famously wrote in a letter to Edward Carrington in 1787, “And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

When you ask to see the county’s operating budget or challenge whether city council has the right to go into a closed session, remember it’s your right. It’s your business.


Pentagon Papers to Watergate to WikiLeaks

By Hatcher Hurd - March 22, 2017

We live in the Information Age. It is a time of unprecedented access to all kinds of information through the internet. It is called the Information Highway for a reason.

Information. It is a loaded word. We store a lot of data on the internet – insurance data, banking data, medical data and social data. It is a world of data. But data can be turned into information. That is data with a purpose. In the wrong hands, it can do a lot of damage.

So information is a tool, and like any tool it can be used with good intent or ill.

Information as a tool has risen exponentially in the last 50 years. Likewise, its usefulness as a tool for good or ill has followed the same trajectory.

Information is often confused with the truth. And the truth, it is said, will set you free. So news media are always in search of the truth looking for information. But Information is a slippery fish.

The Pentagon Papers and Daniel Ellsberg are perhaps just a footnote in today’s history books, but it was a groundbreaking event in which the Supreme Court in 1971 upheld the public’s right to know and a free press’s right to print that knowledge.

The Supreme Court held there are limits to the president’s executive privilege. In short, the president could not count on the use of the “because I said so” excuse to limit the public’s right to know.

Ellsberg was a military analyst who had served in Vietnam and worked for the Pentagon and The RAND Corporation, one of the original “think tanks” for modeling foreign policy.

The Pentagon Papers was a mind-numbing 47-volume, 7,000-page history of decision making in Vietnam from 1945 to 1968. Among the things it disclosed was how in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson blew out of proportion (if not fabricated) an attack on U.S. warships by North Vietnam.

This resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in which Congress authorized Johnson to escalate military operations to include the use of U.S. ground troops in what then became an undeclared war.

Ironically, it was the Nixon administration at this time that was trying to squelch Ellsberg and the New York Times.

As was later borne out in his infamous White House tapes, Nixon decided to smear Ellsberg in the press. This included an ill-advised burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to get what damaging information they could.

“The plumbers,” a secret dirty tricks unit created by the White House, were found out and the presiding judge dismissed the government’s case against Ellsberg.

This is the same unit caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel building in Washington.

That set off the chain of events that led to Nixon’s resignation. What was important to remember is that the New York Times and the Washington Post (with young reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward) were able to unravel the threads of conspiracy back to the White House.

Reporters were able to use documents (leaked in some cases, others not) and unnamed sources (to protect from retribution real or imagined) to reveal not just abuses of power but a conspiracy to use the full weight of the government to bear down on individuals.

Watergate is still with us today in many ways although they may not know the connection. For instance, adding the suffix “gate” to a word to denote scandal – Irangate, for example when the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran to finance contra rebels in Nicaragua, also called Contragate.

“Stonewall” as a verb came from the Nixon Era as did “cover-up.”

But the legacy of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate went deeper than just the end of Nixon’s presidency.

It marked the end of a longstanding policy at least since Franklin Roosevelt for the press not to not delve too deeply into the president’s methods or motives.

Roosevelt was a father figure to many Americans who guided the country through the Great Depression and World War II. Harry Truman became a war president too with Korea.

Eisenhower was the general who won the war in Europe and was thus a hero twice over. Kennedy was the fallen martyr and so the torch was passed to Johnson.

But as the public soured on the Vietnam War, Nixon could have rewoven the cloak of inviolability that was granted to the office of the presidency.

Instead, he self-destructed despite having one the largest margins of popular vote ever.

The press developed a taste for investigating presidents it hadn’t evinced before.

Ronald Regan took hits for Irangate and Bill Clinton for Whitewater.

Today, information is collected in such megabytes that it can only be stored in the Cloud.

Everyone has at least a half-dozen passwords, but the only true protection for one’s identity is that of the herd. In a world of 7.5 billion people it may be never before anyone can get around to your Cloud.

Now comes Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks. Here information is collected through informants given total anonymity.

We have learned to amass and aggregate vast amounts of information that we want held as secret. Whether it is to guard against harm from our enemies or simple embarrassment about the lengths with which we went to collect it, we need to protect it.

Yet the ease of filing and retrieval information means that even low-level minions can find and loot these information troves.

Most recently WikiLeaks has downloaded Vault 7, its name for CIA hacking tools. It was WikiLeaks’ downloads of Hilary Clinton’s emails that kept her campaign in turmoil last summer.

When you can release information by the gigabyte, it makes most investigative journalism pale in comparison.

But there is a need for true investigative journalism. When it is done well and with good intentions, it is a valuable asset for the public.

Those who deal in such information need to know the source, however. This has always been an uneasy tightrope for news media and the courts. Information that comes from confidential sources can be kept secret, but if the information is sensitive enough to land the news organization in court, it may find judges have differing views.

Certainly in places such as Washington, information is the coin of the realm. It is bartered like tribal beads sometimes for a quid pro quo later. Information is swung like a club at other times.

Often it tells us as much about the exploiter as it does about the matter at hand.

We have seen seismic changes in the way information is used for good or ill. The willing partners in this are the news media. Getting to the truth of the matter at hand often means dealing with sources that want or need to remain anonymous.

Sometimes it is a whistleblower who wants to right a wrong. Such was the case of Daniel Ellsberg.

But one man’s whistleblower is another’s informer – or worse.

That is why sources must be double-checked by another source whenever possible. Ground rules should be established. Usually, it is wise to establish time limits for anonymity if possible.

But named sources are much stronger than unnamed ones and must be preferred. It makes our stories more transparent. And we must make it clear why an informant must remain anonymous.

The clear problem with news today is the excess of news or opinions offered as fact. The internet has opened a huge window on the world.

All conclusions drawn from information on the web should be independently verified.

With heaps of information available, it is harder – not easier – to discern the truth.

Open records remain source for informed public

By Pat Fox - March 22, 2017

ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Georgia’s Sunshine Laws provide citizens access to public records, documents that often affect their lives. 

They can tell you why you pay taxes, why your road wasn’t resurfaced or where your tax dollars are going. 

Whenever a city council, a planning commission, a school board or any other government agency generates a document — either on paper or electronically — the state requires the public have access to that information. State law declares “a strong presumption” in favor of public access to documents and that the information be provided “without delay.”

State law or not, some governments are less than forthcoming with information its officials use to make decisions. Many times, elected officials will peruse booklets or reports at meetings on their way to voting on a zoning change, or a major expenditure of tax dollars or a new project.

Those reports, those booklets are, by law, the citizens’ property.

Like many cities in North Fulton County, Alpharetta publishes an online “packet” of background information on the agenda three days before its City Council meets. The packet, sometimes hundreds of pages long, contains information about items officials will be discussing at the meeting. It also gives the public an opportunity to study all the ramifications an agenda topic may have and what other residents have said about it.

Alpharetta receives about 15-20 open records requests a week, according to City Clerk Coty Thigpen. In most cities, open records requests go through the city clerk.

“A lot of them are pretty routine,” Thigpen said. “Most are funneled through Community Development or Public Safety, people wanting incident reports or building permits.”

Thigpen said city staff and elected officials are well versed on Georgia’s Open Records Law.

“Our first thought is always to make documents available,” she said. “That comes from my office out – we try to educate everyone. All department heads and a lot of the staff take a real serious ownership in that process. If we ever err on either side, we always err on the side of transparency.”

The process to obtain a record is virtually the same throughout metro Atlanta. A person must either deliver in writing or through an online form a formal request for the specific information sought. The government has, by law, three days to respond in some form, either with the information or an estimate on how long it will take to collect the documents.

Thigpen said Alpharetta prefers simply emailing the copies to the requesting party. Delays can occur when the records contain personal information, such as a person’s Social Security number or other privileged data. 

Exemptions to the law – those documents that may remain off limits – are a little trickier, she said. If there is ever a question about whether a record is open or not, she said, the staffer will either check with her or the city attorney.

State law does provide for some exemptions to the Open Records Law. These exempt documents can include:

Those specifically required by the federal government to be kept confidential;

Medical or veterinary records and similar files, the disclosure of which would be an invasion of personal privacy;

Most records compiled for law enforcement or prosecution that would disclose the identity of a confidential source, disclose confidential investigative or prosecution material which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or persons, or disclose the existence of a confidential surveillance or investigation;

Records of law enforcement, prosecution or regulatory agencies in any pending investigation or prosecution, other than initial police arrest reports and initial incident reports;

Motor vehicle accident reports, except upon the submission of a written statement of need by the requesting party, who can include damaged parties, witnesses, attorneys, verified researchers or the news media;

Real estate appraisals, engineering or feasibility estimates, or other records pertaining to the acquisition of real property until such time as the property has been acquired or the proposed transaction has been terminated or abandoned.

Even with the law in place, citizens have an obligation to be vigilant, said Holly Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

“While public officials generally do not intend to shut out the public, sometimes they find it easier to do business behind closed doors,” she said. “The open government laws matter a great deal because a better informed and knowledgeable public makes better decisions.”

Manheimer said Georgia’s open government laws are about average as measured against other state laws.  

“Generally, we lack meaningful remedies for violations, and that is something we continue to work on,” she said.


My job is to make sure government is accountable to you

By Ray Appen - March 29, 2017

“If I had to choose between a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” –Thomas Jefferson

I just Googled “jailed for insulting” to see what would come up. Here is a sample of what I found: “Cafeteria manager jailed for insulting Turkish president;” “Activist Unjustly Jailed for Insulting Monarchy;” “Student jailed for insulting President;” and “Kuwait’s ruling family members jailed for insulting judges.” I dare say that the search results number in the thousands.

I wasn’t surprised. All my life I have been aware of what happens in other countries when ordinary people criticize or oppose — even in trivial and mundane ways — kings, dictators, chiefs, “presidents for life” and caliphs. No surprise here. That’s what one expects from these “Third World” countries. Of course nothing like that could ever happen here in the United States where rule of law prevails and we have the Bill of Rights as well as the Constitution.

On June 24 of last year a North Georgia publisher and his attorney were indicted on felony charges and landed in jail, when they used an open records request to gather information about possible illegal activity in a judge’s court system. Fanin Focus publisher Mark Thomason and Hiawassee attorney Russell Stookey were released on a $10,000 bond and placed under stringent release conditions, including random drug testing and close communication/reporting requirements.

The judge, Brenda Weaver, according to an interview conducted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution at the time, was quoted as saying that “I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned.” The article goes on to say that “the judge resented Thomason’s attacks on her character in his weekly newspaper and in conversations with her constituents.”

According to the District Attorney who issued the charges at the behest of the judge, the charges were justified.

So, to jail you go because I don’t like your conversations with my constituents.

Where did you say this jailing took place?

Surely it was somewhere across the ocean, no?

According to the story in the AJC, the judge took a personal affront to being investigated by the local press and used her authority to punish the publisher. Ultimately, the indictment brought against Thomason and Stookey was dropped at the request of the judge who came under intense pressure from the legal community. Notice that the charges were not dropped because the incarceration was wrong or that it was unlawful. They were dropped as a result of “pressure” from the judge’s peers and from the public – which resulted from coverage in the news media.

You can Google this jailing and I encourage you to do so. There are more relevant details to the incident but at the end of the day, what happened was a live, real, example of abuse of power by a government official against a civilian in the United States and the power of public opinion and the press to fix the problem.

“Nothing happened until it was leaked to the press” is a story that is repeated over and over again in our country. Whether a story is researched, leaked, or a combination of both, we cannot afford to lose that press which holds government in check and helps maintain “rule of law”.

The balance of power between the state and the people is a fragile one that is maintained in large part by a free and viable news press. There are no back-ups or substitutes if we lose our free and independent press.

I am not saying that the press should get a free pass. It cannot be allowed to become an instrument of the privileged or a single point of view or political belief, or become an enemy of the truth. It must be held accountable by the public. But we cannot afford to kill the messenger when the press strays off course. Instead of killing it we must push it back to the middle so it can continue to do it’s legitimate job. We vote with subscriptions. We vote by watching, reading, or listening or by not doing so. We push the press back to the middle by not supporting biased news organizations of either side and by supporting the unbiased, objective news organizations.

We can’t lose sight of the legitimate.

Commentary on the current state of the news

By David E. Hudson, Hull Barrett, PC - March 29, 2017

Do you receive a lot of information these days? I do, and a great portion of it is pure junk. Hogwash.

I am referring to emails that purport to contain a speech or column made by some prominent individual, and it turns out not to be so.

Or it might be an email that purports to be a column from the editorial page of a prominent newspaper, and it turns out not to be. Other examples are news or, should I say what pretends to be news, about what some public official did or did not do, and that turns out to be bogus as well.

This is not limited to email and web sites. 

Other examples are statements made as fact on talk radio or talk television which also turn out to be plainly wrong. And most regrettably some false statements originate from the highest office in the land.

So flooded with an overload of information, much of which turns out to be bogus, where does the American citizen turn for information that has been researched, substantiated, edited, and is reliable?

I submit that the prime repositories for trustworthy information are, and should be, the local newspaper, the local broadcaster, and the established and historically recognized national print media and networks.

What is it these publications and broadcasters provide that other purveyors of so-called “information” do not?

I can think of these: 

(1) Fact checking and verification before publication; 

(2) Editorial supervision to ensure substantiation, good writing, fairness and decency; and 

(3) The willingness to retract and correct information that is subsequently determined to have been published or broadcast in error.

These are qualities that are missing from so much of the “information” with which the public is bombarded.

Some may refer derisively to good journalism as the “drive-by media” or “mainstream media.” I join instead with Jefferson, Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Lincoln and Churchill in saying that a free press is a bedrock of democracy.

Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.” He also stated, “When the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”

James Madison stated, “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with power which knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy, or perhaps both.” And it was Churchill who stated, “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous form of tyranny.”

On the other side of the ledger, consider what Lenin said: “Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized?” 

Napoleon put it this way: “A journalist is a grumbler, a censurer, a giver of advice, a regent of sovereigns, a tudor of nations. Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” 

And, it was Hitler who stated: “We’ve eliminated that conception of political freedom which holds that everybody has the right to say whatever comes into his head.”

Americans should reject suppression or manipulation of good journalism. 

Instead, we should cast our lot with the founding fathers whose views can be summed up in one more statement, this one from Franklin: “This will be the best security for maintaining our liberties. A nation of well-informed men, who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them, cannot be enslaved. It is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.”

From my perspective, those who would label traditional and professional journalists as “enemies of the people,” are actually looking in the mirror and seeing who it is that is actually the real enemy.

Citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale keeps local government honest

By Kathleen Sturgeon - March 29, 2017

During many metro Atlanta and North Georgia government meetings, you can often find self-described citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale in the back with her video camera recording the proceedings.

That’s exactly what she was doing April 17, 2012 during a Cumming City Council meeting when Mayor H. Ford Gravitt asked the chief of police to remove the camera from the auditorium. 

“We don’t allow filming inside of the City Hall here unless it’s specific reasons, so if you would remove the camera,” Gravitt said. 

When Tisdale told the mayor about the state’s Sunshine Laws, which had been updated that same day and which give citizens the right to record open meetings, Gravitt said the matter wasn’t up for discussion. He proceeded to have Tisdale and her camera removed from the meeting.

Following the incident, Tisdale filed suit against the city, and the case was settled in 2015 when the city agreed to pay Tisdale $200,000.

This is just one obstacle Tisdale, 53, who lives in Roswell, has faced in her nearly eight years of recording meetings.

She first became interested in local government working as a property manager for a land investor. Her former boss asked her to attend a Forsyth County Planning Commission meeting when they learned a landfill was proposed on a site next to the company. 

After sitting in meetings, she realized she found problems during the process and became involved in fighting the zoning, which was eventually withdrawn. From there, she was hooked. 

Throughout all this, she strives for transparency, open government and citizen engagement in the local government.

“Local government is where one can have an impact,” Tisdale said. “It’s close to home and affects all of our lives as it’s where we live. There is so much coverage of the national political scene. I don’t really contribute to that. But the local scene of the city, county and state gets overlooked because a lot of newsrooms are shrinking and don’t get as much attention as they deserve.”

She calls herself a citizen advocate and citizen journalist, but said she is not the only one of her kind.

“There are other citizen journalists that do provide a service to citizens and perform acts of journalism although they may not have a journalism degree or be embedded with the mainstream media,” Tisdale said. “I’m independent and unembedded. I select what I want to cover and do it on my own terms. I don’t have a deadline, it’s self-imposed.”

Her work is a form of new media as opposed to traditional news media, she said. With the digital age and internet, one can publish articles, videos or photos online for public consumption. So this way is open to everyone. 

She covers political party meetings, city councils and debates. The city of Atlanta, Forsyth County and the city of Roswell are among those recorded and documented on her “Nydeos,” as she calls them. She said she finds out about events through social media or people ask her to attend. 

But without official news credentials, she has run into problems from time to time. Denying recordings is a violation of basic constitutional rights including the rights of free speech and press, Tisdale said. 

“Some may not know the rights or choose to ignore them,” Tisdale said. “Who knows what’s in the minds and hearts of people violating constitutional rights. It’s disrespecting the Constitution, a citizen’s right and open government and transparency.”

In addition to the city of Cumming meeting, she’s had her fair share of controversy while trying to film. She attended a Forsyth County Republican Women’s event several years ago where she was not allowed to record and was even hit by one of the women in charge. 

“It was open to the public and posted in the legal organ,” Tisdale said. “No candidates rejected me and instead they wanted me to film them. But out of fear of being physically harmed or my camera being damaged, I packed up and left in protest.”

She eventually got an apology from the woman who hit her.

“An apology was all I wanted because I feel like she not only violated me, but all the voters who would have liked to watch that video and see what the candidates have to say,” Tisdale said.

And most of the candidates she films tend to support her through positive words, monetary contributions, even supporting her during the city of Cumming hearing.

“I don’t think any of the candidates have ever not liked me recording as it’s free publicity,” Tisdale said. “It’s just as important as door knocks, campaign mailers and robot calls. People want to hear and see the candidate, not just read about them. It impacts their opinions and votes.”

She measures her success by voter turnout, but she doesn’t endorse any candidate and is often undecided going into the events. 

“I want to learn about them because I don’t know who to vote for,” Tisdale said. “I figure other citizens don’t know who to vote for yet either, so let’s provide them as much information as we can to make an informed decision.”

Throughout the nearly 1,000 meetings she’s recorded, only a handful have turned sour. She has also been gratified in her work by earning the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s Open Government Hero Award in 2015 and the Common Cause Georgia Democracy Award in 2014. 

“These moments are one-time moments,” Tisdale said. “I enjoy what I do. I think others appreciate what I do. I get mostly positive feedback from viewers, readers and supporters. It’s why I continue to do what I do.”

Publisher roundtable: Forsyth County News’ Vince Johnson

By Hans Appen - March 29, 2017

The Forsyth County News has been publishing in Forsyth County since 1908 with a mission to inform and entertain users across North Atlanta. Vince Johnson was named publisher in January 2014. 

Could you tell me a little bit about your background in media and your current position with the Forsyth County News?

I started in the newspaper industry shortly after college and have now been in the daily grind for a decade. I started as an entry-level videographer at the Statesboro Herald in Statesboro, Ga., moved to Southern California to run the digital side of a newspaper for two years, and now I’ve been the publisher of the FCN for the last three years. 

We have challenges in the newspaper world. Some new, some are not. When it comes to running your newsroom, what challenges do you see on a daily basis?

The challenge, especially in a small-to-mid size community, is always how to evolve and innovate while simultaneously keeping up with day-to-day responsibilities.

We have a small staff but a large local audience that relies on us for information every day. Often, deciding on what not to do in terms of local coverage is as important as adding new features and platforms. 

Why do you think it is that people say they don’t trust the media anymore? What do you think attributes to that, and how much of that do you see locally with your newspaper?

I think that when people use the term ‘media’ as an overarching umbrella, it’s a little outrageous. When a person disagrees with the stance or delivery of a specific newspaper or television network on a topic, they’re actually disagreeing with the decisions made by a relatively few amount of people. “Media” encompasses a whole lot of people in a whole lot of places, and we don’t all have weekly conference calls.

Different people have different viewpoints, and if your media platform reaches enough people, there will occasionally be people who disagree with you. I think that’s healthy.

Locally, however, we don’t see the same backlash that is happening on a national scale. We’re just local people trying to deliver the best form of local coverage that we can. We’re fully capable as humans of making mistakes, but I think people understand that we’re integrated into our community and providing tremendous daily value. 

For hundreds of years now, journalists have been the check and balance for those in a position of power over others. Talk to me about the role of journalists today. 

Promoting truth and accountability is perhaps the primary role of journalists, and one that could be at stake across the nation. Newsrooms have been slashed due to budget cuts in recent years, and so there are less journalists today monitoring those in positions of power.

We as journalists provide a barrier to corruption, and we shine a spotlight on injustice.

Especially in local communities, we’re often the only independent monitors in those types of situations. If local journalism continues to decrease across the nation, it could present some real, large-scale systematic problems.

That’s why we’re fighting so hard to keep journalism around. 

In what ways has social media affected your newsroom? When anyone with a cell phone and a twitter account can instantly post “news” to the internet, what new challenges does that present trained journalists? 

I’m probably in the minority in the newspaper industry, but I love social media. It’s obviously a much, much faster pace of news as compared to the times when a newspaper on your doorstep was the first time you became aware of what happened the previous day, but I find the pressure of providing fast, reliable information to our community exhilarating.

We have a staff at the FCN that really buys into the pace of journalism today. 

I know Forsyth County News has been an innovator of video presentation of news and incorporating it with your print products. Can you talk a little bit about how that has helped build trust and connection with the community?

Winning the 2016 Mega-Innovation Award for newspapers – beating the parent companies of both the Dallas Morning News and The Oklahoman in the finals, and being judged by Harvard Business School’s lead innovator – has certainly been a game-changer for our organization.

Forsyth County is a world-class community by most every measure, and it’s important to us to play a large role in the development of our county. That’s the origin of our desire to innovate.

We know Forsyth County expects the best, and so that’s what we try to bring every day, and why we push innovative platforms and technology as hard as we do. 

In working with government institutions in Forsyth County, what are some of the highlights and lowlights you have come across as far as transparency and access to information?

We have great relationships with most every organization, including government organizations, in Forsyth County.

However, we know the vital role we play in helping to provide transparency and reliable information to our community, so we’re never afraid to do anything that helps us maintain that community trust.

As long as people and organizations respect our position, we certainly respect theirs as well.

The Georgia Legislature is considering revisions to the Sunshine Laws that would restrict the use of cameras in courtrooms. Should we be promoting increased government transparency, not less of it?

Not only as a journalist, but as a citizen, government transparency is incredibly important to me. If everything is above-board as it should be, there are very, very few instances in which complete transparency shouldn’t be the outcome.

In five years, what changes do you anticipate your company will make in how it reports the news and your community in how it consumes the news?

We’re all about the evolution of our audience. Our goal is simply to provide the most relevant information to our audience in whatever platform they want to receive it.

In the past three years, the audience of the Forsyth County News has grown by more than 400 percent, and it continues to grow at a rapid pace. We love the physical newspaper. We love our website. We love social media and mobile consumption and magazines and community contests, and we’ll be on board with the next innovation of the future.

We just want to be there for our community in whatever shape or form they want to receive news and information.


Open records requests met with stonewalling

By Joe Parker - April 5, 2017

Though Georgia’s Sunshine Laws are designed to provide for a more transparent government, often city and county governments will stonewall open records requests for information they would rather not release, says AllOnGeorgia reporter Jessica Szilagyi. 

Szilagyi, a graduate of Roswell’s Centennial High, has become a go-to voice for readers seeking in-depth coverage of government and politics in South Georgia working with AllOnGeorgia, and her blog, The Perspicacious Conservative. She is also a contributor on Fox5 Atlanta. 

Szilagyi often “comes up to bat” to seek open records for her news outlets, and often she says, she is met with stonewalling with some agencies charging thousands of dollars for open records or attempts to discredit her as a reporter. 

“There are more places that stonewall you than are willing to give you the information. It’s almost always for their beneficial reason, not out of ignorance,” she said. 

“They don’t always think that I’m somebody that’s going to stay on it and they think that a price can deter the digging,” she said. “I’ve repeatedly had people charge me exorbitant amounts.”

When requesting documents from Claxton, Szilagyi was charged for 100 hours worth of work to pull salaries and job description for 25 employees. The cost was over $1,000. 

When requesting open records from Valdosta State University, which is subject to most open records laws as a public institution, Szilagyi was charged over $7,000. The charge for the retrieval of the records was only $400 but an attorney review of the records came with a $4,000 price tag. 

This huge price point came from a simple request by a professor at the university seeking his own personnel file. 

“From every size city, county and schools, they are the same,” Szilagyi said. 

In addition to monetary stonewalling, Szilagyi also encounters those who try to discredit her as a reporter. 

“When a city or county is stonewalling open records requests, the first thing they are going to do is to discredit the cause you are looking into because they want to paint you as a liar. ‘She’s just trying to find problems and stirring the pot’ they seem to feel.”

“The biggest thing I get is ‘oh you’re not a real journalist, you’re just a blogger.’ But it’s my full-time job and I make a living out of it,” she said. 

Though her efforts are sometimes discredited, Szilagyi and her work are vital to keeping the public informed. Szilagyi was integral in keeping Reidsville (Tatnall County) residents informed of the city’s purchase of a new city hall amid controversy surrounding the purchase. 

The city hall, which had a high mark-up in price compared to surrounding buildings, was purchased from the city attorney, raising plenty questions of legality by citizens. 

“I built those stories over the course of many months and just kept pounding away at [city staff]. The community was fully engaged and wondering what was next. From them I started to receive tips and information,” she said. 

And though many open records are now available online, Szilagyi said it does not necessarily equal transparency and is still up to journalists to keep the public informed when the public can’t make right or left of most documents. 

“I love cities that have information online but when you start getting into other documents like a budget, people don’t know what they are looking at. So while the digital age can be great use for a city saying how transparent it is, most people don’t understand what those documents mean or don’t have time to sift through a budget or whatever it may be. Sometimes I think it’s a shield for getting praise when you really haven’t done anything to help inform anyone. That’d be my cynical view,” she said.

“I thought at first it would be the cities that were more technologically advanced that would be more open but that’s not always the case. And It’s across all sizes and demographics of public institutions. There are a lot of loopholes within the Sunshine Laws,” Szilagyi said. “There are about 28 exemptions dealing with why they would not have to be provided and some of them are not clear.”

Part v

Roswell active on social media, doesn’t live stream meetings

By Julia Grochowski - April 12, 2017

ROSWELL, Ga. – Roswell provides key information to residents in an easy to find and digest format on its city website.

Contact and background information on every public and elected official is easily accessible on For councilmembers specifically, each of their bio pages list their committee assignments and the duration of their council terms. 

One area where Roswell lags behind neighboring cities, however, is online access to meetings. Anyone interested in attending a council meeting can find the complete agenda packet online, usually posted the Friday before a meeting. But the meetings themselves are not live streamed. 

Video from the entire meeting is posted on the city’s website within 24 hours and is chaptered to allow people to skip to the section they want to view without watching the whole meeting.

The city is active on all social media channels, including Facebook and Twitter, and it posts information about city meetings, programs and general information for residents, said Community Relations Manager Julie Brechbill.

There is no app specifically made for the city, but the website is designed for easy viewing on mobile. Additionally, the city recently released an interactive development projects map to provide citizens with information on all ongoing construction projects throughout the city. It is updated weekly and is expected to expand with additional functions in the coming years.

The city is always looking to improve and regularly seeks community input through meetings and online surveys, Brechbill said.

Johns Creek embraces civic transparency

By Hatcher Hurd - April 12, 2017

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – In Appen News Media’s foray into civic transparency among North Fulton’s cities, it was not our intent to make it a comparative analysis and rank the cities. But having said that, we would be remiss to ignore the steps Johns Creek has taken.

Our survey shows that Roswell, Alpharetta and Milton have all taken initiatives toward transparency in conducting civic business. They would compare favorably, we believe, with almost any city in Georgia.

In one noted area — live streaming and video recording council meetings — Johns Creek was late to the dance. But when it showed up, it had the best dress. 

Few cities have tackled transparency with the same innovation, anticipation and eagerness to embrace new technology the way Johns Creek has.

Every North Fulton city has a website, but Johns Creek has done more to make its site more interactive than any we have seen.

Although among the last of the major north Fulton cities to do so, its live-streaming of City Council meetings has no equal in quality and production. This not only includes getting its agendas posted on Fridays before Monday council meetings, but the complete agenda package with supporting documents, charts and maps are bookmarked in the agenda.

By Tuesday noon the agenda report is online with results. Meeting videos are available going back 2 years.

Its camera work is the most sophisticated in North Fulton, with an onsite cameraman and cameras that can give close-ups of all councilmembers and those who address the council.

Johns Creek boasts the most professional video system employed for council meetings, workshops, town hall meetings, Planning Commission, ZBA and almost any other meeting inside City Hall.

It was the first city in Georgia to embrace the traffic app WAZE and share its information with the app to bring the most accurate and up-to-date traffic information on its own app.

Other apps allow residents to:

• Report accidents, road hazards, code enforcement violations as they spot them on the road.

• Chart zoning projects in the city and any updates

• View neighborhood maps

• View maps denoting upcoming construction projects or activity

It is leading North Fulton with its Intelligent Traffic System (Although Alpharetta is hard at work on this). The ITS is monitoring traffic in real time with both human and computer programs that are continuously updating its data.

Johns Creek has shown the most enthusiasm for getting information to residents in a timely fashion over a broad spectrum of information streams.

No North Fulton city does a bad job with its transparency, but Johns Creek is a step ahead of the pack...for now.

Milton uses technology to keep residents informed

By Joe Parker - April 12, 2017

MILTON, Ga. – Milton puts an emphasis on its transparency, a practice evident on the city’s website. The city provides notices, agendas and information packets that include relevant documents for all its open city meetings. The city also keeps this information available for later retrieval. The documents are not taken down from the city’s website. 

Shannon Ferguson, Milton communications manager, said the city also allows for transparency through its interactions with residents and by taking ownership of its mistakes, seeking opportunities to improve. 

However, Milton’s transparency came in to question last year. An open records request found that multiple councilmembers were texting about issues on the council’s agenda during council meetings. 

The council voted 4-3 opposing a resolution that would have prohibited councilmembers from using their personal cell phones during council meetings. 

Insofar as finances, Milton lays it all out on the front page of the website. Residents can view the city’s expenses as it relates to its budget every year beginning from 2008-09. 

Meetings are live-streamed and are usually available just a few hours after the actual meeting takes place. An upgrade in equipment in the new city hall has provided better sound and video quality. 

The city’s “Connect Milton” app also allows residents to report an issue or concern within the city and then track the city’s progress on addressing the problem. The city also uses a Constant Contact database which distributes monthly newsletters, routine council meeting updates and periodic updates regarding upcoming projects, current events, ongoing issues or other key city matters. 

Future Land Use maps and proposed projects are also available from the city’s website, and residents can make open records requests online with a simple form.

Parking deck issue taught Alpharetta leaders: You can never be too open

By Pat Fox - April 12, 2017

ALPHARETTA, Ga. – It’s rare when Alpharetta’s new City Hall brims to capacity for a council meeting.

But last September more than 80 people filled the room to have their say about an issue they felt should have been more publicized.

City leaders had voted in August to build a new parking deck at the site of a popular pedestrian gathering spot on a parking lot along Old Roswell Street. Residents streamed to the microphone at the next meeting imploring city leaders to reconsider.

And they did.

The matter illustrates Alpharetta’s steps – and missteps – along the path to open government.

The lofty goals of “government transparency” is easy to proclaim but can be difficult in practice.

Even when government acts legally as it did in this case, citizens often demand more openness – a tap on the shoulder or a bullhorn alert when something big is about to happen.

Three days before the council vote Aug. 22, the city published an agenda online listing the parking deck item under “New Business.”

That agenda included detailed drawings of the Old Roswell Street site and a timeline for construction.

Should it have done more?

In light of public reaction, yes.

If residents saw the agenda beforehand, it did not spur them to attend the Aug. 22 meeting. Only Councilman Jason Binder spoke in opposition to the parking deck plan.

It was only after the 6-1 vote and subsequent news accounts in the Herald that the public got involved.

Resident Saga Terrell said at the time the council vote ran counter to the community’s wishes.

She was concerned about how the proposal made its way through to the council and was approved with the minimum amount of public notice.

Indeed, from the development of Avalon to downtown zoning, Alpharetta is noted for polling its public before deciding key issues. Workshops and public forums are held weeks before the City Council considers voting on major initiatives.

In the case of the parking deck, there were no such forums. City staff did discuss the plan with downtown merchants and property owners a week before the vote. But there were no information sessions advertised for the general public.

“We tackled this issue initially as more of a technical issue where we looked at cost and number of spaces – more of a data-driven approach,” said James Drinkard, assistant city administrator and public information officer for the city.

“We really didn’t anticipate a lot of blowback from putting a parking deck on a parking lot.”

City leaders found out differently.

“We try to anticipate what [the public] will have interest in, what they consider hot-buttons,” Drinkard said. “We really go to an effort to call those things out. We definitely got that guess wrong.”

In the wake of resident protest, the City Council withdrew the earlier vote and spent six months hosting public information sessions on the issue.

In February, a plan was approved that preserved the pedestrian gathering area on Old Roswell Street, satisfying most residents who had spoken out.

Mayor David Belle Isle used the occasion to highlight a lesson learned.

“Sometimes we make a decision and the public lets us know about it,” Belle Isle said. “I want to thank this council for leading by listening.”

Alpharetta residents have long made it a point to show up for City Council votes on key issues.

To ease that process, the city had $80,000 in audio-visual equipment installed when its new City Hall opened in 2015. For the first time, residents could follow government in real-time from home.

Drinkard said usually anywhere from 35-40 people go online to watch meetings live.

“I’m very happy with that,” he said. “Because you know what it takes to actually get 35 people to come and sit in that room? We can’t do that unless we make somebody mad.”

The city’s website also gets a lot of use, Drinkard said.

The city is especially proud of its financial transparency portal, which features an open checkbook tracking expenditures all the way back to 2013.

“Folks were really happy when we put it out there, but it really doesn’t get much use,” Drinkard said. “It seems to be one of those things that the public’s response is: ‘OK, great. We love that it’s out there, but, since you have it out there, you probably don’t have anything to hide. So we’re content.’”

Sunshine laws shine light on government

By Pat Fox - April 12, 2017

Open meetings laws are designed to provide citizens access to decisions that affect their lives.

Whether it’s a new park, road improvements or how much you pay in property taxes, the law gives citizens eyes and ears to the decision-making process.

Georgia’s open meetings laws extend beyond city councils and school boards. They apply to nearly all local governing agencies that advise elected boards or receive tax dollars from the public.

“Transparency and access to government are critical to our office and, ultimately, to our state and nation,” said Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr. “For our representative republic to best function, we must ensure that those who elect public officials will have access to and information about what those public officials are doing.”

Carr has taken up the mantel of his predecessor, Sam Olens. Olens prosecuted several high-profile open meetings cases, including a 2013 incident in Forsyth County.

There a citizen journalist and her camera were removed forcibly from a Cumming City Council meeting because the mayor did not want her videotaping the meeting.

Carr announced last week that he plans to conduct an Open Government Tour throughout the state this year.

He is inviting local officials to join him for a refresher course on their responsibilities to the public under the Georgia Open and Public Meetings Act.

“Many of the issues that we hear about occur, not because of malicious intent, but because of a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge about what the law in Georgia is,” Carr said.

Under Georgia law, discussions and actions by boards must be conducted in the open with access provided to the public. These laws apply to:

• City councils
• County commissions
• Regional development authorities
• Library boards
• School boards
• Commissions or authorities, such as hospital authorities, established by state or local governments
• Planning commissions
• Zoning boards
• Most committees of the University System of Georgia

    The law does not specifically apply to:

    • The Georgia General Assembly or its committees, although legislative sessions must be open to the public
    • Judicial proceedings including judicial branch agency and committee meetings, however federal law requires most court proceedings be open to the public

    In addition, Georgia law allows for three instances in which governing boards can discuss matters in private, but those exceptions are few:

    • Matters pertaining to personnel
    • Matters of potential litigation in court
    • Real estate purchase or sale

    “Georgia’s open meetings act is the tool by which citizens can watch their government in action,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director, Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

    “For example, when a parent goes to a school board meeting, it is the open meetings act which is the mechanism for access.”

    Manheimer said the Legislature adjusted the Open Meetings Act in 2012 to expand citizen access. It remains to be seen whether more adjustments are needed.

    “The media happens to be a big user of the Open Meetings Act, given that citizens cannot attend all meetings, the media often attends as the citizen’s representative in order to report.”


    Forsyth County provides plenty of open communication

    By Kathleen Sturgeon - April 19, 2017

    Forsyth County is setting the bar high for transparency.

    The public has numerous ways to reach elected officials from traditional methods like email and telephone, but also through the recently installed Commissioner News portal. Board members each have a page they are able to update on their own to give more up-to-date information and stay in contact better. Commissioners seem to respond back to messages as quickly as possible, or forward on the request to someone better equipped to answer the requested information. 

    For those unable to attend board meetings, the county has a thorough calendar online that includes meeting notices, agendas, summaries, minutes and videos, if available. The live video links date back two years and a link is provided for archived videos. Additionally, the county has a video stream on the government access television channel. It steams a variety of county meetings and programming of interest to residents. A schedule of programs is provided as well.

    Interactive maps of all kinds, including zoning, transportation and property records are available to the public. 

    It seems like the county is taking into account the community’s requests for more ways to contact elected officials. From the TV channel to the website to Facebook, Forsyth County continues to provide plenty of opportunities for residents to stay informed.

    Transparency a priority at Johns Creek

    By Hatcher Hurd - April 19, 2017

    JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – These days, most city residents don’t ask, they demand transparency in their government. In Johns Creek, the City Council and staff have taken the professional approach to try to ensure the public is aware and involved in the city’s affairs.

    It was not always so. In the not too distant past, I could not walk into City Hall and ask to speak to a department head about a story I was working on. I had to ask for permission from the city manager to do so and would have to narrowly define the nature of my business.

    That went for telephoning and email as well. That is hard on reporters who work on deadlines and need something explained or clarified with a deadline hovering nearby.

    I look at that as a red flag that it is more important to control the message than it is to get accurate information out.

    Today, I don’t feel any compunction to call any city official to get the information I need. That is critical for the media to disseminate news in a timely fashion. After all, they don’t call the Herald and oldspaper. It’s a newspaper and we want to be timely and accurate.

    I also note the number of citizen committees the city is fond of using. It helps the seven members of the City Council keep their fingers on the pulse of the public. They get an idea of what people are thinking with parks, business licenses, public art, signs and more. Each of these had ad hoc committees to study ideas or problems and make recommendations to the city.

    This is another sign of a healthy civic complexion. Tapping into the public in search of talent also produces leadership. No city can have too much of that.

    Recently, I was at a public meeting on the widening of McGinnis Ferry and Jones Bridge roads. Ostensibly the meeting was to get feedback on the city’s ideas for softening the effects of widening the two roads.

    The meeting quickly turned into a “Why is this happening and how can we stop it?” meeting. Residents did not understand why this was happening or why the city had not been more forthcoming about these projects.

    Now having written numerous stories about these projects, I know the city has not hidden anything from anybody. But for many, this meeting was a wake-up call, and now their full attention is lasered in.

    The City Council said all right, we are going back to square one and meet with groups affected by the two projects to hear what they have to say and to explain why these projects are coming.

    The city did not hide. It did not steamroll. Officials realized the public was only just waking up to what had been the subject of many meetings and discussions in workshops and council meetings – all of which are televised.

    It may not be the answers people want to hear, but they are getting the information behind the decisions.

    An aside here. Few people will subject themselves to watching two-hour council meeting unless they were paid to do it, as I am. But you can scan the council agenda and easily find the bookmarked item that interests you to keep informed.

    Say it is an hour every two weeks – that is how often the City Council meets. But can’t you Tivo “Dancing with the Stars” and participate in the community where you live?

    Cumming struggles to bring communication to 21st century

    By Kathleen Sturgeon - April 19, 2017

    The City of Cumming has made strides in the past few years on becoming more transparent.

    The city’s website has new sections that highlight city news, such as articles and photo galleries from city events. Another section on the website is now home to past meeting videos from the council and planning and zoning board. Monthly newsletters and a designated open records request officer have also improved the city’s transparency efforts.

    But compared to other local communities, those efforts fall short. The city doesn’t use social media and its website barely has any information in comparison to Forsyth County, Alpharetta or Milton. The meeting videos often are not uploaded until weeks after action has been taken. The most recent video currently online is from January, meaning February and March aren’t uploaded yet. 

    Additionally, meeting agendas are emailed out a few days prior, but are put online only the day of the meeting and then taken down the next day. 

    Furthermore, the elected officials do not have city email addresses. To try and set up an interview with the mayor, one must call and make an in person appointment rather than talk over the phone or through email. 

    Though recent efforts are commended, the city has a long way to go to make it to current standards of transparency.

    Part VII

    Journalism under attack: Turkey

    By Hans Appen - April 27, 2017


    For the past 27 years, our core mission has been to focus on local news – local people, local events, local institutions. Generally, we do not cover national stories without a local angle. So why are we writing about Turkey? Where is the local angle? 

    The short answer is that Turkey is the poster child for once thriving democracies that failed or are in danger of failing. We believe in democratic forms of government, we care how other democracies are doing. Since 1923 Turkey has been a secular, democratic, “parliamentary republic” (the United States is a “constitutional federal republic”) and a major ally of the United States. 

    The current president Recep Erdogan has asked for, and the voters recently approved in a referendum, substantial changes in the Turkish constitution that eliminate many checks and balances and transfer greater power to the president. Additionally, Erdogan, in an effort to consolidate power, has in essence dismantled Turkey’s once-thriving media by jailing journalists and shutting down about 200 media outlets. 

    One of the country’s largest newspapers – Zaman was one casualty. Before it’s seizure, the paper had a circulation of nearly a million daily – more than double that of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. 

    Freedom of the press and the persecution of journalists anywhere in the world is a problem. It is instantly “local news” no matter where it happens. What is happening in Turkey is a threat to freedom everywhere. We were fortunate to be able to interview the former publisher of Zaman who now lives in exile in the United States. Appen publishers Ray and Christina Appen toured Turkey on vacation a number of years ago including a tour of Zaman and met some of the news staff.

    Once the Editor in Chief of the largest daily circulation newspaper in Turkey, Abdülhamit Bilici now lives in exile in the United States, searching for a job, and doing what he can to bring the injustices of the Erdogan regime to light. 

    In the Appen Media conference room, in Alpharetta, Georgia, Bilici sits calm, cool and collected at the head of the table. He is sharply dressed and speaks softly; each word calculated.

    Just a year ago, Bilici was living in Turkey and leading the Zaman newsroom that boasted nearly a million daily readers of its print edition. That was before the government shut it down after last summer’s failed military coup. By comparison, Appen Media publishes 75,000 copies of Herald newspapers per week. 

    Bilici explained that the government was able to take over Zaman, and control its editorial direction, by adding members to its board of trustees who were sympathetic to the Justice and Development Party, led by Erdogan. 

    “They fired any journalists who didn’t like the government and Erdogan, the man who is ruling Turkey now,” Bilici said. “They changed the editorial policy in 24 hours, and made us the mouthpiece of the government. And then, when there was a military coup in July of last year, they shut down the newspaper, together with 160 other news organizations including newspapers, TV and radio stations.”

    While the newspaper planned its 30th anniversary, the government started to jail its reporters one by one. 

    When that occurred, Bilici, a vocal critic of President Erdogan’s, was fired. 

    “The newspaper was critical of the corruption, and the authoritarian tendency,” Bilici said. “Like other newspapers that were critical, that angered Erdogan. And since he was controlling the judiciary, it was very easy to jail journalists. Now, there are 50 journalists from my newspaper alone [in prison].”

    “Almost 90 percent of media is now under control of the government and Erdogan,” Bilici said. “The critical media is limited to maybe 10 percent, and they are struggling to survive. Some of the editors are in jail and have lots of problems.”

    In total there are 200 journalists in Turkish prisons, according to Bilici. The Committee to Protect Journalists has kept statistics on jailed journalists since 1990 and reports that 2016 saw a record number of journalists jailed, with Turkey representing nearly a third of all cases.

    “Turkey is not a perfect democracy,” Bilici said. “But it was the only Muslim secular democracy in NATO and has been an ally of the United States for 60 years.”

    Now, Turkey is headed in a very authoritarian direction. 

    “We have experienced what happens when freedom of expression is not possible, when the judiciary is not independent, and when the country is ruled by one man,” Bilici said. “Look at Syria. There, one man ruled, and look at the result. Turkey is in a very political region. It is neighbors to Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. Almost 99 percent is Muslim. But it is the only secular Muslim state among [57] Muslim countries.”

    Bilici said Turkey had an exceptional position. With one leg, it was in the West, as a member of NATO and other European institutions. And with the other leg it was among other Muslim countries. So, it could bridge different cultures, religions, and continents. 

    When asked if he saw any parallels to the attack on media in Turkey, and those in the United States today, Bilici paused.

    “Right now, there are no journalists in jail [in America] despite being very critical of the Trump administration,” he said. “There are no judges in jail for deciding cases Trump does not like, and there are no professors fired for teaching things the president disagrees with.”

    But, right now, there is a kind of solidarity among journalists covering Trump, and that helps, Bilici explained. Specifically, he cited Fox News’s Shepard Smith’s defense of CNN’s Jim Acosta. They have decided that while each news organization’s coverage may represent different viewpoints or arrive at different conclusions, an attack on one member of the press as an attack on all members of the press. 

    “When U.S. journalists were denied access to a White House briefing — we had that in Turkey, at press conferences, where press cards were revoked. But in America, there were other press organizations that protested this, together. In Turkey, this did not happen.”

    Bilici pointed to several examples of a slow erosion of democracy in the United States. President Trump making declarations about which news organizations are legitimate and which are “fake,” is an attack on the media. Congress ignoring President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court politicizes the Judicial Branch.

    “In my view, freedom of expression, and an independent judiciary are two critical red lines for any democracy,” Bilici said.

    Bilici warned Americans should keep an eye out for signs of an attack on democracy:

    • Using the IRS to target those who disagree with the government or people that the president does not like.

    • Labeling individuals “un-American” to erode their reputation or damage their brand.

    • Attacking the character or professionalism of what the government deems “controversial” reporters.

    • Trading government contracts in exchange for favors, like agreeing to no longer advertise in certain publications.

    • Loaning money to media groups in financial distress and then selling the loans to companies sympathetic to the government in power.

    Bilici said the media has never been very popular in Turkey. Because of that, it was easier for those in power to get rid of journalists or entire news groups. 

    Scarier still, Bilici said with the media neutralized, the government is now targeting private businesses, universities and trade unions. In Turkey, 7,000 members of academia have been fired in the past eight months. 

    “Turkey is very divided today,” Bilici said. “Half of it is very much in love with Erdogan, and the other half hates him. This is very dangerous. We should not hate each other, we should not encourage people in that direction even if politicians would like us to do that. We should love our neighbors, we should love other people that have different opinions. Thus far, we have not been able to do that in Turkey.”

    Freedom of the press rare commodity in this world

    By Hatcher Hurd - April 27, 2017

    I met a man last week who a year ago was the editor of a newspaper with a circulation of 1 million readers. Today he is in exile and looking for a job.

    Erdogan was able to pack Zaman’s board of directors with people associated with the Justice and Development Party.

    The Republic of Turkey has always been a country with one foot in the East and one foot in the West straddling the Mediterranean Sea at its narrowest point. 

    Turkey has been a shining example of a Muslim democracy practicing religious and cultural tolerance. It has been an important member of NATO and an important U.S. ally in the fight against radical Islam.

    Bilici and his newspaper, Zaman, show how fast one’s rights can go away, how fast a country can slip away, too.

    He visited our news office to tell his story of how Turkey was plunged into a darkening abyss and there is little hope of his country’s return to a true democracy.

    Turkey was always one of those countries I never concerned myself about. 

    It was a country that came out of World War I one of those bankrupt empires – along with Austria-Hungary Empire and the Russian Empire.

    Kemal Ataturk is the Turkish George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In the 1920s he fashioned a vibrant, progressive, democratic Turkey. He did it in a part of the world where we seldom find such adjectives today.

    Turkey was a stable democracy, one that practices a secular form of government. While mostly Muslim, it allowed minorities religious freedom and political participation.

    Notice the use of the past tense here. Last July, there was an abortive coup in Turkey apparently begun by dissident military officers. It was quickly put down by other members of the military, but the damage was done.

    There have been military coups in Turkey in its past and although this one ended in a few hours – and about 400 deaths – Erdogan began to consolidate power in the hands of his executive branch. 

    Judges, professors, military officers, legislators – almost anyone with authority – began to be arrested. Dissent was quashed. Erdogan purged the judiciary and then began to use the courts and police to silence all dissent while amassing more power to his executive authority.

    You may have noticed the newscasts making a big deal out of a recent Turkish referendum that just about ensures Erdogan will have the powers of a dictator.

    The coup that spawned the power grab was so inept, it caused many to question whether it was a ruse to allow Erdogan to seize more power.

    But there was still the media to deal with. And Erdogan went to work. Media outlets were attacked from many sides, Bilici told us.

    Some media outlets against Erdogan were shut down as spreading treason. As Erdogan’ s authoritarian regime pulled in more and more power, it gained power in the judiciary by having any true democracy-minded judges expelled or arrested.

    With the courts in hand, journalists, editors and even politicians could be arrested on trumped-up charges. Sometimes Erdogan’s minions bullied advertisers to withdraw support or face the consequences to their own businesses.

    Other media outlets found their companies had been bought by people friendly to Erdogan and emasculated the news reporting from the inside. Arrests, bankruptcies, hostile takeovers – all were methods to eliminate a free press in Turkey, Bilici told us.

    His newspaper, Zaman, was known for its diversity of opinion. Minority editorialists were encouraged to provide a voice and a view from other sides of society.

    Erdogan was able to pack Zaman’s board of directors with people associated with Justice and Development Party. Those who wrote anti-Erdogan articles were simply fired – or arrested.

    Some 50 Zaman journalists are in prison today. In all, more than 200 have been jailed. Bilici was forced to flee the country.

    Today, he is telling his story to anyone who will listen. His country is being consumed from within.

    Just last week, reforms that would greatly increase Erdogan’s authoritarian powers passed by the narrowest of margins – and brought out immediate charges of voter fraud.

    “Today, 90 percent of the media are under government control,” Belici said. “The remaining 10 percent struggle to survive. With control of the judiciary it is easy for anyone against Erdogan to land in jail.”

    The 200-plus journalists in jail lead the world in that category of prisoner, he said.

    Turkey is headed for one-man rule. Look at any country that experienced one-man rule and see what has happened. He ticks them off: Iraq, Iran, Russia, Libya, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba. The list goes on.

    “Turkey is a secular state. It had an exceptional place as a nation situated east and west. We have one leg in NATO,” Belici said. “We had a role to play until Erdogan became an authoritarian.”

    Belici asks for nothing. He is a journalist and he simply wants to tell his story. It is a sad story, perhaps with implications in a region already sitting on a lit powder keg.

    But it couldn’t happen here. Not in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. 

    Not here. Could it?

    part viii

    Texting tugs at spirit of Ga. Open Meetings Act

    By Pat Fox - May 11, 2017

    While Georgia’s Open Meetings Act ensures citizens a front-row seat to decisions that affect their lives, some practices have cast doubt on government’s commitment to transparency.

    Technology provides ways to cloud the state’s Sunshine Laws, and one of the more prevalent methods of testing open meetings is the practice of texting.

    That practice drew headlines last year. It was learned that Milton City Council members in April and June were texting with residents during lengthy debates over a zoning issue at council meetings. 

    Records show that supporters and opponents were regularly barraging Mayor Joe Lockwood and other council members with texts during the debate, coaching city leaders on which side to support. Some received replies – all out of view of other residents who either attended the meeting or were watching it streamed on their computers.

    “Text messages, like any other documents generated during the course of conducting governmental business, are subject to disclosure under the Open Records Act,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. 

    “To the extent public officials would text during the course of a public meeting instead of speaking to one another, it could be construed as an effort to circumvent the Open Meetings Act,” she said.

    The purpose of both the Open Meetings and Open Records acts are to maximize public access to governmental proceedings — not allow public officials to hide behind them as a shield, Manheimer said.

    Indeed, following the revelation of the Milton City Council texts, city leaders were provided an opportunity to outlaw the practice. 

    At a Sept. 7, 2016 meeting the City Council considered a policy action to prohibit the use of cell phones during public meetings. That measure was defeated 4-3, with the majority saying that council members would police themselves.

    Councilman Bill Lusk, who voted in the minority in favor of the ban, said carrying on private conversations during a public debate violates the state’s Open Meetings Act. 

    Within weeks, then-Attorney General Sam Olens issued a statement through his office declaring the practice an attempt to subvert openness. A spokesman for the attorney general said Olens had proposed language in the 2012 revision of the Open Meetings Act to address the issue, but legislators were opposed.

    The Legislature itself is exempt from the Open Meetings Act.

    The public should demand better behavior from their elected officials, the attorney general’s office said back in September.

    With the departure of Olens late last year, the state’s new Attorney General Chris Carr has taken up the mantel. Carr announced last month he will conduct an Open Government Tour throughout the state. 

    He will invite local officials to join him for a refresher course on their responsibilities to the public under the Georgia Open and Public Meetings Act.

    On the issue of texting, Carr’s office said the intent of the General Assembly in passing the Open Meetings Act is to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in an open and accessible manner. 

    “Not only does such a requirement permit the people to know what actions their public servants are undertaking, but it also fosters public confidence in their leaders and the decisions that they make,” he said in a statement. “The failure to serve those underlying purposes is not in keeping with the spirit of the Open Meetings Act.”

    Authoritarian governments are free from tough questions

    By Hans Appen - May 18, 2017

    The last time I wrote something for our newspapers it was for an interview we had with the last editor in chief of Turkey’s largest daily newspaper before the government took it over and shut it down. 

    He is now living in exile in the United States. 

    In fact, his newspaper was one of more than 160 media organizations that were shut down or taken over by the Erdogan government, which has jailed hundreds of journalists, lawyers and judges throughout his rise to power. 

    What was the only Muslim secular democracy in NATO, a long-time ally of the United States, Turkey is now joining the ranks of authoritarian governments. 

    During our interview, I asked him if something like that — a slow erosion of democracy — were ever to happen in the United States, how would we know it is happening? 

    What are the signs? His answer? 

    First, they would start by jailing journalists. 

    Well, last week a reporter in West Virginia was arrested for yelling questions at Roswell’s own Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Tom Price.

    The reporter did not threaten Dr. Price. He did not yell profanities or attempt to make physical contact with him in any way. He simply asked a question, repeatedly, that Dr. Price was not answering. 

    He was arrested on the charge of willful disruption of state government processes.

    Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt later asked Dr. Price if the charges against the journalist should be dropped. 

    This is a softball question. 

    “Of course they should be dropped. No journalist should ever be arrested for asking tough questions. This is America, after all.”

    Done. Simple. Who would argue with him for an answer like that? 

    Instead, he said:

    “Well, I’ll leave that to the local authorities. Look, this fellow, we were walking into the state Capitol, and a fellow was yelling at us, which is not necessarily unusual from the press. But I turned the corner to head on into the round table, and something happened afterwards. So I’d leave that to the authorities there.”

    When pressed to give a different, better answer, Dr. Price declined, repeated his previous answer and added that the Capital Police had done a “stellar job.” 

    We are now arresting journalists in America for asking tough questions, and the leaders of our country are complimenting the manner in which the arrests are made. 

    It’s happening. 

    Part IX

    Jim Walls strives to keep the public informed

    By Natasha Roy - July 26, 2017

    Jim Walls became a journalist by chance.

    In 1972, at age 18, the high school graduate answered a newspaper advertisement for a lab technician without college experience in Virginia. At the interview, Walls was told they were looking for college-educated candidates.

    When asked what he would like to do instead, Walls said he wanted to try newspaper writing. He grew up reading the Washington Post and was inspired by the Watergate scandal.

    Fast forward 36 years, Walls went from being one of two reporters for Virginia’s weekly Globe Newspapers to working at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

    Walls said working for Globe newspapers was a great way to break into journalism and learn what to do by reporting and writing week after week. He covered a fatal construction accident for a year and a half, looking at the causes and issues with the county inspectors.

    Through that experience, Walls learned how to use public records to figure out how to find the next story.

    “I learned on the job,” he said.

    Walls eventually moved to Atlanta and took a job at the AJC, eventually becoming its investigative editor. After 28 years at the AJC, Walls took a buyout and used the money to launch Atlanta Unfiltered, a website consisting of investigative news.

    Walls initially had the idea while still working for the AJC, though he decided to do it on his own after receiving the buyout.

    “I thought, well, maybe I could see if I could get that going on my own,” Walls said. “I didn’t have anything to lose because I was still on a buyout from the paper.”

    Laying the groundwork

    He took six months to gather information and enlist help in writing the code for his website before finally launching Atlanta Unfiltered in March 2009. He said he writes about 99 percent of the articles, though he sometimes takes in people who want to learn from him.

    On Atlanta Unfiltered, Walls mostly covers state government affairs.

    To demonstrate impartiality, he posts the documents he reports from along with his articles for the public to glean from.

    “I felt like that was something that was sorely needed, where people would have to back up what they were saying,” Walls said.

    Walls started Atlanta Unfiltered because he saw a need for unbiased news content. He saw content on blogs that he said was clearly commentary, and he said there needed to be some reporting online that was demonstratively unbiased.

    Though he has not published in recent months due to a lack of financial support for the site, Walls said when he started Atlanta Unfiltered, he thought he was combating the fake news mentality by preserving documents and allowing the public to read direct sources.

    “Fake news has become, to a large segment of the population, sort of a rallying call,” Walls said. “In a sense it’s not just an attack on journalism — it’s an attack on the intelligence of the American people, to think you can just say it’s fake news and have people believe it.”

    Walls believes some traditional news media miss opportunities for stories. Many traditional news outlets will publish stories that are a mile wide and an inch deep — a reporter will write about a topic, but won’t go deep enough to get at an underlying problem.

    “In some cases, they don’t go deep enough,” Walls said. “I’ve gone ahead and gone a little deeper to show what was there — where they could have gone.”

    He also said some traditional newspapers are reluctant to cut off sources they may need for the future, so they won’t publish alienating pieces or go deeper.

    He has also seen that newspapers in smaller communities he visits don’t have the will to write anything negative about their local governments.

    Some serve as the legal organ of the community, giving both the paper and the reporters a steadier source of income.

    Because he worked in the profession, he is not sure the title “citizen journalist” should apply to him. He said he thinks citizen journalists are motivated by stories that need to be told and don’t have any hangups getting in the way.

    “I think citizen journalists, in that sense, are keeping professional journalists honest,” Walls said.

    Brian Pritchard acts as ‘conduit’ to readers

    By Julia Sanders - July 26, 2017

    Brian Pritchard is a citizen journalist who started Fetch Your News in November of 2010. The online news platform has been up for seven years.

    “We have reporters assigned to each county,” Pritchard said. “We do community news. We do sports. We run the obituaries. We have an opinion section.”

    Fetch Your News covers nine counties in northern Georgia, including Dawson, Lumpkin and White, and one county in North Carolina.
    Pritchard started Fetch Your News to write more community-centered news.

    “We wanted to have more of a community focus, and write stories that were not being covered in counties by the local print news business at that time,” he said. “I just felt like information was not being provided to the citizens like it should be, so that’s why we started Fetch Your News.”

    Pritchard explained that he and his writers try to be as unbiased as possible to be fair to their readers.

    “We always tell people if you are trying to figure out what side we’re on, it’s very simple. We are on the citizens’ side all the time,” Pritchard said. “We are a direct conduit source of information to citizens, and that’s why we started it and that’s our focus that we maintain. We do not write for electoral officials. We only write for the citizens.”

    In today’s climate where barbs against journalists are common, Pritchard said he has no apprehension when trying to cover a story. 
    “I don’t think that journalism is under attack in general,” Pritchard said. “I don’t see that; I don’t have that.”

    Facing obstructions

    However, Pritchard has seen other journalists be held back when trying to obtain information for a story. 

    In one case, one of his colleagues, Nydia Tisdale, was thrown out of Burt’s Pumpkin Farm while trying to cover a story.

    Tisdale had been videotaping speeches, but she was thrown out and arrested for doing so. Pritchard wrote a story on the event.

    “I wrote that story,” Pritchard said. “So I have seen people obstructed from doing stories, but really these are far and few between. Journalism itself, I don’t see under attack.”

    Pritchard said some journalists may feel under attack because people have more access to information now than they did before the internet.

    He also says that news businesses today have made mistakes that have caused the public to raise questions.

    “Media outlets have made some pretty big mistakes, very big mistakes in my eyes, when they report some of their news,” Pritchard said. “Our news is non-biased. We are a clear conduit for the citizens for information. That’s why I feel like we are not under attack.”

    Pritchard said it is important for citizens to be informed about their local news so they do not miss out on valuable information such as taxes, fees and events happening in the community.

    “A lot of times, citizens do not become aware that they are paying a higher rate on something or paying more…because they may not be keeping up with things,” Pritchard said. “That’s the other side of why we got involved, to make sure citizens were aware of things going on.”

    Pritchard is a big proponent of the First Amendment of the Constitution, but he thinks that with rights comes responsibilities.

    There should be consequences for one’s actions. He says journalists should still be held to the same standards as regular citizens.

    “Is the freedom of the press a green light to lie, mislead, embellish?” he asked. “What are the consequences if any, or is it just freedom to do whatever you want and no consequences?”

    The right to a free press must be respected by all sides, he said, especially journalists.

    “So freedom of the press, you have to be careful with that,” Pritchard said. “I am a strong supporter of the First Amendment, but I am not so sure that everyone should not have consequences for our actions if we mislead people.”

    Bill Simon combines wit, info in political blog

    By Jordan Meaker - July 26, 2017

    Since the beginning of the internet, political blogs have informed readers about government and politics in a more free-form format than traditional news sources.

    Such blogs can highlight local, state or national news, touching on a wide range of topics.

    Blogger Bill Simon has been transmitting information in this format since 2000, when his idea for starting an email newsletter was born. Simon sent out emails to about 300 addresses.

    “It was just kind of a funny hobby to start off with,” Simon said. “I was observing how a lot of the mainstream newspapers had a propensity to print rumors and innuendo as absolute fact. I turned that around and started printing facts as rumors, and I titled the publication Rumors Have It.”

    Eventually, Simon transitioned to a blog format, writing on his blog the Political Vine and sending out the occasional email as well to a list of 5,000 email addresses.

    “I thought it was my duty to communicate to Republicans located beyond the city of Atlanta about stuff that was going on with the Republican Party at the time,” Simon said.

    New to the field

    Writing is not Simon’s main enterprise. He graduated from Georgia Tech in 1983 with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, and from Georgia State University in 1994 with a master’s of science in finance. Now, Simon runs his own company, ID Builders, an advertising and marketing consulting firm.

    “My background is not political science, or history or any of the liberal arts-related sciences a lot of people take to make it into politics. I got into politics the back way,” Simon said.

    Simon’s interest in local politics was sparked through his involvement in Young Republicans, where at first, he was just “following along, participating and observing.”

    Eventually, he shifted to writing blog posts.

    According to the Political Vine’s About Page, the site’s material is presented in a satirical, humorous environment. Simon’s entries are often sharp and sarcastic, many times starting off with a joke or metaphor, and then laying down facts, opinion and speculation on the topic at hand.

    “I have an ability to take boring, mundane subject matter, like law and government, or proposed legislation that’s come about in a session, and turn it into something interesting to communicate,” Simon said.

    Simon reports on proposed legislation, actions of local politicians and perceived government corruption. He highlights events around Cobb County, where he lives, as well as other North Georgia counties such as Fulton, DeKalb and Henry.

    “Most of the time, I just try to communicate to people why legislation may be bad, why you shouldn’t just trust the fact that it’s sponsored and written by the Republicans,” Simon said.

    I try to inform the public and inform the readership of what the unintended consequences are of legislation and laws.”

    Simon doesn’t consider himself a journalist. He defines his role as inserting a conscience into the political process.

    “I try to deliver the right and wrong of any legal government act about to happen, or that has happened,” Simon said.

    Simon is the primary writer for the Political Vine, although he’s invited guest bloggers in the past, including a group of citizen lobbyists in 2010.

    Simon said he’s faced roadblocks trying to gain access to government information.

    “I have encountered roadblocks in both local government and state government, when I would file open records requests, asking for stuff in accordance with the law,” Simon said.

    Roadblocks to information

    Simon described one incident in which his request for records from the secretary of state’s office went ignored. The report he eventually received, he said, was unlawful due to its PDF format, which made the data difficult to analyze.

    Simon also said he’s faced financial roadblocks. After filing an open records request in Sandy Springs, Simon said he was asked to pay money for legal counsel to review the documents.

    “You mean, I’m going to pay you to make sure that you can redact and cover up wrongdoing?” Simon said, it was as though government officials were saying “you can have your information, but we’re going to charge you for it.”

    Now, Simon mostly sticks to blogging. He also runs a Twitter account, tweeting out links to his blog entries to 529 followers.

    “I’ve reached a point where I don’t engage that much anymore in doing open records, it’s just a challenge sometimes,” Simon said.

    Simon’s blog can be found at and Simon is on Twitter at @PoliticalVine2.

    Part X

    Internet makes it possible to reach mass audience, but can we trust the messenger?

    By Hatcher Hurd - October 25, 2017

    NORTH FULTON, Ga. – With the ease of communication that social media and the internet have brought, we face an increasing need for vigilance when browsing websites for information.

    Just as the national media is plagued with fake news on the internet, users should take care to know the websites and bloggers who operate sites aimed at smaller communities.

    Citizen journalists and grassroots organizations can be of enormous benefit to the communities. The internet and social media give communities the ability to contact large (or small) groups of people easily and cheaply.

    But certain caveats come with the ease of mass communication. It is as easy to pass on disinformation as information, and to do it anonymously.

    Social media is a growing phenomenon in local politics that has given more people a platform on which they can add their voice in decision-making.

    Cities such as Johns Creek have gone to great lengths to give residents the opportunity for input.

    In addition to conducting public neighborhood meetings the city streams online meetings of the City Council, Planning Commission and many other ad hoc meetings – all in the name of transparency.

    Yet, there are citizens who insist they do not get all the information.

    Who fills the gap?

    This is a gap traditionally filled by local news affiliates and now another group – citizen journalists, who usually toil alone and take pains to ensure local governments don’t sweep unpleasant items under the carpet.

    But who holds citizen journalists accountable?

    Professional journalism ethics dictate a code of conduct regarding unnamed sources and verifying facts. Editors hold reporters accountable for what they write. When warranted, they make retractions, corrections or clarifications.

    There are also special interest groups who take up the mantle of representing the public’s desires. They band together for or against policies or projects local governments are instituting or considering.

    Yet these special interest groups may or may not be all they purport. The leaders may speak for dozens or hundreds of supporters, but it is difficult to pin down how many they represent when they don’t have scheduled meetings or membership rolls.

    In Johns Creek, residents have alternatives to the city’s website for information. One is the Johns Creek Herald, a newspaper launched by Appen Media Group in 1997.

    Another is a more recent phenomenon, The Johns Creek Post, a blog begun by resident Jennifer Jensen. In it, she editorializes against policies and actions taken by the city, and she posts responses to her blogs, many from anonymous authors, who share her beliefs.

    Filling a community need

    Jensen says she is filling a vital role, looking deeper into issues no one else is probing.

    We requested an interview with Jensen who agreed only if she were emailed the questions.

    We asked her what is the role of the Johns Creek Post in the community? 

    “Johns Creek does not have a dedicated source of news to inform the residents of the important information,” Jensen replied. 

    “Over the years we have noticed that the [Johns Creek] Herald omits or does not fairly represent local issues and events that we have seen occur at City Council meetings. We feel it is important to provide another perspective for the residents.”

    Jensen said she considers the Johns Creek Post to be “the sole source of information” regarding the city.

    “JCP is the only site that posts videos, contracts, zoning cases etc. Most other news outlets repeat the press releases of the city verbatim,” Jensen said.

    “The City of Johns Creek has four full-time staff [ers] dedicated to informing the residents of what they want and how they want the residents to perceive things,” Jensen said. 

    “As long-term invested homeowners, it is our duty and privilege to inform residents of potential issues and goings-on that would impact our quality of life and home values,” she said. “We provide a different perspective especially on important issues that affect how the city will look and feel in the future.”

    Mayor defends city’s openness

    Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker, the frequent subject of the Post’s attacks, said the city does an “excellent job” of keeping citizens informed.

    “But when we see things that are just not true posted on the Johns Creek Post we send [Jensen] the real facts but she refuses to acknowledge them,” Bodker said.

    Jensen defends the job her blog does. She said she took on the job because no news source, particularly the Johns Creek Herald, was doing the job.

    “Over the years we have noticed that the JC Herald omits or does not fairly represent local issues and events that we have seen occur at City Council meetings. We feel it is important to provide another perspective for the residents,” Jensen wrote.

    Critics question the integrity of the Johns Creek Post because it does not post submissions of contrary views or those defending people who have been attacked.

    Anonymous messages critical of the city or that have what appear to be phony names (Michaela Badker, for example) are common. Jensen was asked if she knows the real identities of the people who make these comments and what journalistic standards she uses in allowing them.

    According to Jensen, the Post, like many websites, allows anonymous responses to her posts.

    “We allow anonymous comments, as do most websites on the net. I don’t recall a commenter on the JCP website with that name [Michaela Badker],” Jensen said. 

    Jensen added, “The City of Johns Creek allows Michaela Badker (whoever that is) to comment on the city’s Facebook page. You should direct that question at the city staff.”

    “Ironically, those that have been complaining the most in the public arena have used aliases to post attacks not only against the [Johns Creek Post} but other council members as well on the Johns Creek Post. We find the hypocrisy rather disturbing and unprofessional, especially from an elected official,” Jensen said in response. 

    But Mayor Bodker calls this subterfuge. The posts have attacked him personally as well as his family. 

    Asked why he hasn’t sued for libel, Bodker said it is something he has considered. (Jensen says she too is considering “several lawsuits” concerning damage to her reputation.)

    “But to launch a lawsuit in the middle of a campaign would draw attention away from the issues,” Bodker said. “And it would play into the narrative that I was a bully. But I don’t think protecting one’s good name is bullying.”

    Asked for specifics, Bodker said there have been a number of posts that said he was involved in corruption – charges he says that are patently false.

    He has been accused of taking payoffs and making payoffs, he said.

    “Neither of which could possibly be true,” Bodker said. “Further, the Johns Creek Post purports itself to be a news source as opposed to honestly portraying itself as a biased blog.”

    Offering opposing viewpoints

    Bodker accuses The Johns Creek Post of publishing only those posts that “support the narrative Jensen wishes to convey.”

    A common complaint is one voiced by businessman Wayne Carrel. 

    “A friend was telling me about a post that just was not true,” Carrel said. “He tried to rebut it, but it never got on. Then another friend told me the same thing. It’s like only certain people get to comment.”

    Bodker echoed that account. He said he’s been told of several cases where comments were edited to change their meaning to further the Post’s narrative.

    Jensen denied that in her response.

    “First, you are assuming the JCP takes down people’s rebuttals. We do not,” she said. “We would also like to point out that the Johns Creek Herald is under no obligation to post Letters to the Editor. It is safe to say, that both the Johns Creek Post and Johns Creek Herald do not post libelous and defamatory content.”

    Some have accused the Johns Creek Post of cyber bullying as a way to stem critical posts on her site.

    “That is why we allow anonymous comments,” Jensen said. “It is the residents who are afraid of retaliation from the city for speaking out.”

    Irene Sanders is one who does speak out. Sanders is the former Thornhill HOA president and a current member of the Citizens Advisory Committee for the update on the city’s comprehensive plan.

    She says she has been “almost relentlessly attacked” in Jensen’s blog for supporting the redevelopment plan for Dean Gardens on Old Alabama Road.

    “One of her fake posters harassed me on my Facebook page. I turned it over to the police,” Sanders said. “If they were real people I could sue for libel.”

    Musical chairs at City Hall

    Sanders said the harassment has not stopped.

    At the Sept. 23 City Council meeting, both Sanders and Jensen got up during public comment. Sanders complained about a community blog (she later confirmed she meant the Johns Creek Post) that was “grossly misleading” about actions taken by the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) for the Comprehensive Plan.

    Jensen accused the CAC of “blowing through” zoning plans without giving the public proper consideration.

    “We have met 15 times over the last year,” Sanders said. “And we have more work to do.”

    Jensen spoke at public comment also, accusing an unnamed council member of “invading her site.” She promised legal action against the unnamed council member.

    Then she sat down directly behind Sanders. Sanders moved, and Jensen moved again to sit directly behind her. Sanders moved a third time and Jensen did the same.

    Sanders said later she felt threatened and asked a John Creek Police officer to escort her to her car.

    Sanders said Jensen is “tricky.” 

    She says her cyber abuse happened because of the Dean Gardens rezoning. The law behind that rezoning was clear, she said, and the property owner (entertainment mogul Tyler Perry) had every right to develop it. 

    “[Jensen] insinuated I was on the take for supporting the rezoning. She continues to blame me,” Sanders said.

    Like it or not, bloggers and internet newsletters will continue to play a part in local politics. For some, it may be the only opportunity they have to see their concerns addressed.

    But, the responsibility for accuracy and fairness lies just as much with the readers as it does with the online publishers.

    Jenifer Jensen agreed to be interviewed in question & answer form for this article. In turn she requested we answer her questions.

    FULL TRANSCRIPT: Q&A with publisher Jennifer Jensen

    For the Black Box article published October 26, 2017 Jennifer Jensen, publisher of, agreed to provide background information if we provided our questions via email. Below is an exact transcript of the questions we asked and her answers, unedited.

    What do you see as the role of the Johns Creek Post in the community?

    Johns Creek does not have a dedicated source of news to inform the residents of the important information. Over the years we have noticed that the JC Herald omits or does not fairly represent local issues and events that we have seen occur at City Council Meetings. We feel it is important to provide another perspective for the residents.

    Do you see Johns Creek Post as an alternative source to the community to tell what the city council is doing?

    We are considered the SOLE SOURCE for information regarding the city. JCP is the only site that posts videos, contracts, zoning cases etc. Most other news outlets repeat the press releases of the city verbatim.

    The City of Johns Creek has a 4 full-time staff dedicated to informing the residents of what they want and how they want the residents to perceive things.

    As long-term invested homeowners, it is our duty and privilege to inform residents of potential issues and ongoings that would impact our quality of life and home values. 

    We provide a different perspective especially on important issues that affect how the City will look and feel in the future.

    You post anonymous messages that are critical of the city or that have what appear to be obviously phony names (Michaela Badker, for example). Do you know the real identities of the people who make these posts? What journalistic standards do you use in printing these posts?

    We do not post anonymous messages. We allow anonymous comments as do most websites on the net. I don't recall a commenter on the JCP website with that name. 

    The City of Johns Creek allows Michaela Badker (whoever that is) to comment on the City's facebook page. You should direct that question at the City Staff. 

    People have complained that when the post rebuttals to claims made in other posts, you take them down right away. Why do this? Wouldn’t it be better have those responses on the record?

    First, you are assuming the JCP take down people's rebuttals. We do not. 

    We would also like to point out that the Johns Creek Herald is under no obligation to post Letters to the Editor. It is safe to say, that both the Johns Creek Post and Johns Creek Herald does not post libelous and defamatory content. 

    Some have said they don’t respond to posts on your site because they are afraid of “retaliation” in the form of cyber bullying or cyber harassment. What is your response to those allegations?

    That is why we allow anonymous comments. It is the Residents who are afraid of retaliation from the City for speaking out about issues. 

    Ironically, those that have been complaining the most in the public arena have used aliases to post attacks not only against the JCP but other Council Members as well on the Johns Creek Post. We find the hypocrisy rather disturbing and unprofessional, especially from an elected official. 


    In response to our questions, Jensen had questions for Appen Media as well. Below is the full transcript of those questions and our answers

    It frequently appears you have a very close and cozy relationship with certain elected officials in Johns Creek and other municipalities. Do you feel an obligation disclose this to the readers?

    The question implies that we do not give fair or balanced information to our readers because of our relationships with elected officials. Of course we know the city’s elected officials well and regularly communicate with them – that’s been Appen Media’s job since 1990, and with the city since it was incorporated. Public officials are representatives of the people who elected them, so our ability to accurately communicate the opinions and priorities of those in office it is an asset to the Johns Creek community.

    What criteria is used when the Johns Creek Herald decides to praise one council member and chide another publicly?

    We report facts. We don’t take sides in our news coverage. If we do pen an opinion it is placed on our opinion pages and labeled as such with the author’s name clearly identified.

    Does the Mayor automatically receive free space for opinion letters, such as who he is supporting, in elections? (Ex: John Flores endorsement)

    No, but we do offer city and government officials a courtesy guest column on rare occasions if it is for the public good. 

    The City is on track to pay over $25k for advertising to the Appen this year, in addition to $182k in past years. With such a lucrative relationship with the city, do you feel an obligation to disclose this to the readers?

    We are always happy to be transparent with government spending in our publications. It is also part of the city’s public records. Our records show the City of Johns Creek spent $18,977.50 in legal advertising as required under the law in 2015 and $18,148.75 in 2016. For display advertising (things like festivals and special events) they spent $6,628.10 in 2015 and $18,952.10 in 2016. Both numbers represent <1% of Johns Creek Herald’s revenue.

    How does the revenue the JCH receives from Johns Creek affect the criticism that may or may not be made regarding important issues?

    It has zero affect on our coverage. We strive to be fair and balanced and write to inform the public.

    I regularly pull the FOIA records logs and have yet to see your name requesting documents in the past 2 years. How and why do you circumvent the proper method for acquiring documents with the city?

    As it pertains to the city, a FOIA request is not the “proper method”. Most of the time we simply ask for the information we seek from the department responsible for the information. If there were ever a case that we were not given information that we feel the public has a right to, we would certainly make a FOIA request. 

    What research does the JCH do in matters such as the Traffic Lights, to affirm that indeed they are the best money can buy? Where is the documentation to support such statements?

    Most purchases of equipment are done through state contracts. Georgia, like many states, submits for bid a whole range of equipment such as police cars and a range of other products that will allow it to get the best price.

    The state ensures that the equipment meets its required specifications. Vendors typically allow counties and cities to participate on the state contract. Obviously, the state can negotiate a far better price than an individual city or county. The state also ensures the products are of good quality. It would be beyond our means to test and evaluate all of the equipment and materials the city buys. And rather pointless also.

    Does the City of Johns Creek get to review stories before publication and offer suggestions or modifications?

    No. The only times we would offer any kind of a review or partial review would be for a complicated issue like an annual budget to verify line items and numbers are accurately labeled and correct.

    Community activists, organizations shape the future of Milton

    By Pat Fox - October 25, 2017

    In Milton, two political camps are vying for the hearts and minds of residents this election season. Both advocate against runaway development, but they split over growth strategies, and each has its own message. Debate between the two factions has increased to the point where each has filed ethics complaints. Those cases are still pending.

    Both factions have proven they can summon large crowds of like-minded residents to sign petitions or speak out on issues before the City Council.

    The wedge issue is the city’s proposed Conservation Subdivision Ordinance, which would allow smaller residential lots in certain cases where adjoining land is set aside for green space. 

    In general, conservation subdivisions allow developers to congregate housing into one or several areas of a site and commit the other acreage to green space. The density of the housing allowed on the site can vary, but the overall development would still conform to agricultural zoning limits.

    Milton resident Francia Lindon has been involved in land-use issues since the city’s early days. She favors conservation subdivisions as a means of preserving large swaths of green space.

    Lindon was a co-founder of Milton Grows Green which launched in 2008. Today, the organization is a city-sponsored committee that participates in a variety of green projects. 

    Lindon today affiliates with a separate local group, Preserve Rural Milton. 

    As a purveyor of information, she says, Preserve Rural Milton has cited its sources for information disseminated on its web pages. The websites, now fairly inactive, have used sources, such as articles gathered from the Land Trust Alliance, different environmental groups or newspaper accounts of land preservation initiatives underway in other cities.

    But, Lindon said, sometimes the posts on the site grew so nasty, some were removed. She also said she does not endorse anonymous posts.

    “Anonymous ‘flame throwers’ have zero credibility,” she said. “The public has no way of knowing whether the comment comes from someone with an axe to grind or a vested interest. Anonymity is neither transparent nor courageous.”

    On the opposing side of the issue, the Milton Coalition stands firmly against the ordinance in its current form.

    Tim Becker, who identifies as Milton Coalition’s sole member, blogs regularly and has generated a sizeable following. He opines that the Conservation Subdivision Ordinance would provide for cluster housing, provide a foothold for high-density housing and accelerate development of marginal land.

    He says he backs up his blogs by providing video from City Council meetings and excerpts from meeting minutes. He said he sometimes performs his own research, collecting data on traffic analysis, for example. 

    “I have attended nearly every City Council meeting over the last two years and many dozens of other government meetings, so I am conversant in the issues facing our city,” he said.

    He said his blog includes contact information for readers to respond, though the responses are not posted.

    “I often hear from supporters, but do not recall anyone contacting me that had an opposing view,” he said. “I read every email sent to me and often respond.”

    Becker said he takes accuracy seriously.

    “I rely mostly on primary source materials for my blog posts,” he said. “My readers tell me that my posts are well-reasoned and well-written. My readers know that I have invested a lot of time and effort in understanding the issues and developing an informed perspective on those issues.”


    This story has been updated to correct the current status of Milton Grows Green.

    Part XI

    Jury acquits citizen journalist of felony obstruction charge

    By Kathleen Sturgeon - December 13, 2017

    DAWSONVILLE, Ga. — Local citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale is no stranger to courtrooms. 

    She can often be found with her video camera in hand or on a tripod recording meetings of local government entities and then uploading them to her website,, typically unedited. 

    As someone who strives to monitor and record local government proceedings, she has had her fair share of arrests, trials and clashes with elected officials. 

    But in November 2015, she was indicted by a Dawson County Grand Jury on charges related to her refusal to leave and stop videotaping a Republican political rally August 2014 at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm in Dawsonville.

    A Dawson County Superior Court acquitted Tisdale of misdemeanor criminal trespass and felony obstruction of an officer Dec. 4, but found her guilty on a misdemeanor charge or obstruction of an officer. 

    Sentencing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m., Monday, Dec. 18 at the Dawson County Government Center, 25 Justice Way.

    At the 2014 rally, Tisdale, 54, who lives in Roswell, was filming multiple Republican candidates and lawmakers, including former state Attorney General Sam Olens and Gov. Nathan Deal.

    Both Olens and Deal were served subpoenas for the trial. Deal was excused from testifying, but Olens said he “wasn’t bothered by the video camera” because elected officials should assume they’re being recorded. 

    Tisdale was asked to stop recording by Clint Bearden, attorney, magistrate judge and nominee for the Superior Court in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, she said.. When she refused, former Dawson County Sheriff’s Capt. Tony Wooten then tried to escort her off the property. She then allegedly kicked and fought with the officer, which resulted in the charges against her. She claims she didn’t know who Wooten was at the time. 

    Witnesses have said they heard Tisdale ordered twice to stop filming before Wooten then removed her. However Tisdale said she wasn’t asked to leave but just forcibly removed. 

    A video shows a hand being put over the lens as Tisdale was forcibly removed from the property. Tisdale apparently repeatedly asks Wooten to identify himself. Toward the end of the video, Tisdale and Wooten aren’t seen on screen, but yells of “stop hurting me” can be heard from Tisdale.

    Olens testified he heard a “shriek that came from a lot of pain.”

    Wooten said he had, in fact, identified himself to Tisdale and decided to arrest her after she would not cease filming. 

    During Tisdale’s testimony Nov. 27, she said was “pinned face down in pain and terror” when Wooten reportedly pressed her against a counter from behind. 

    “With him pushing his groin against my buttocks I felt like I was being raped with my clothes on,” Tisdale said while testifying. “It was so quick and abrupt and immediate and hostile. It made no sense to me. I learned his name when handcuffs were being placed on me.”

    The video from that day was shown in trial with Assistant District Attorney Conley Greer going through frame by frame to show the space between Tisdale and Wooten.

    However, Tisdale maintains she was bruised and was in “excruciating” pain.

    She told jurors she had permission to film the event and that was backed up in 2014 by Olens.

    “If we stand for anything as a party, what are we afraid of having a lady with a camera filming us?” Olens said. “What are we saying here that shouldn’t be on film? What message are we sending that because it’s private property they shouldn’t be filming it?”

    Tisdale said she saw advertisements for the rally that promoted it as an open event, which she said includes herself as a member of the public. She also says she spoke with Johnny Burt’s wife, Kathy, who she said knew Tisdale was coming to film and was fine with it.

    This isn’t the first time Tisdale has seen the inside of a courtroom.

    In April 2012, she was removed during a Cumming City Council meeting after Mayor H. Ford Gravitt asked the chief of police to remove the camera from the auditorium.

    “We don’t allow filming inside of the City Hall here unless it’s specific reasons, so if you would remove the camera,” Gravitt said during the meeting.

    When Tisdale informed the mayor of the state’s Sunshine Laws, which had been updated that same day and which give citizens the right to record open meetings, Gravitt said the matter wasn’t up for discussion. He proceeded to have Tisdale and her camera removed from the meeting.

    Following the incident, Tisdale filed suit against the city, and the case was settled in 2015 when the city agreed to pay Tisdale $200,000.

    In 2017, 32 journalists have been arrested so far, according to U.S. Freedom Press Tracker.


    Journalism dean warns against barren local newsrooms

    By Conner Evans - July 30, 2018

    NORTH FULTON, Ga. — The dean of Grady College, the University of Georgia’s School of Journalism, says recent trends to trim newsrooms is inviting government corruption.

    Charles Davis, who has worked in journalism as a reporter or professor for more than 30 years, says he is disturbed watching local papers continue to cut staff and decrease circulation in efforts to stay afloat, due in part to recent tariffs from President Donald Trump on Canadian wood products and paper.

    The layoff announcements are picking up steam, especially at high-profile publications.

    On July 23, The New York Daily News released half its newsroom. The paper’s owner, Tronc, said it plans other layoffs at other newsrooms across the country in the coming weeks.

    Back in April, the Tampa Bay Times, one of the country’s 10 largest dailies, cut 50 reporters from its staff.

    Davis got his start at papers beginning as a sports reporter for The Athens Banner-Herald, but he quickly decided his passion for sports didn’t make for a career in the field.

    “I was so passionate about sports that I found it really difficult to cover it,” he said. “I would’ve had next to an impossible time covering critically UGA sports.”

    Instead, he moved to business news, a world unfamiliar to him. Davis had a steep learning curve, which he said he found exciting, rather than intimidating. In one instance, an editor asked him to write a story on “risk arbitrage,” a term he hadn’t even heard of.

    Davis later decided the academic world suited him, because he could attempt to help and influence the next generation of journalists. But he still feels connected to local papers, describing them as an essential part of democracy.

    “Stripping bare newsrooms and leaving behind the remains of what were once really robust news companies is a national tragedy,” he said.

    Davis said it is “remarkably painful” for him to watch as tariffs quicken the pace of what he described as a slow moving train wreck in the devaluation of local journalism.

    However, Davis remains optimistic about the industry, pointing to certain companies who are now breaking even or profiting from digital platforms. Recent big-money philanthropic purchases of failing publications have also helped, he said, and may be part of the future of local news.

    The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have seen steep rises in subscriptions in recent years, but Davis isn’t sure that national papers with huge followings solve the issue.

    “If our goal as a nation is to have two or three national policy newspapers that are profitable because they are national franchises, that’s not going to keep us informed,” he said. “When you’re talking about city councilmen and county commissioners up there on the podium making decisions, looking down the room and not seeing a single member of the news media, I guarantee it will embolden them to do some really bad stuff.”

    Davis doesn’t talk about corruption as a risk when elected officials operate without journalists in the room; to him it is an inevitability. The press is a watchdog that cannot be sacrificed in a democracy, he said, and to keep local news around will require a change from the citizenry.

    As engrossed as he is in the world of news, Davis stresses the need for disengagement and other areas of passion and interest. He tells his kids that when they’re feeling low about the world to try to do something good for someone else.

    Frequent trips to the movie theater also help Davis distract himself from his Twitter feed and the day’s disturbing news.

    Through all of this, though, Davis said he has never worked a day in his life.

    “I’ve been very, very, very lucky to find two careers in my life that were dream careers,” he said. “Journalism and teaching have given me everything.”