What is a “private matter” and what is “public record?”
In the last week The Madison Press has published several news articles and a guest column regarding London Council President Joseph Russell. The guest column was written by Russell’s wife, Molly Carroll-Russell.
In her column Friday, Carroll-Russell said she sought to set the record straight about her husband. I was, by the way, more than glad to carry this column. I had made this suggestion to Russell when we discussed his objections to the initial Tuesday, Dec. 12 article.
I am hesitant to get into any dispute over an incident of domestic violence. I think it is a lose-lose situation for everyone. But it is important I respond to some of the points in Carroll-Russell’s column and also set the record straight about accountability and what our job is as a hometown community newspaper.
Let me start with the claim that there was some political motivation behind running the initial article on Russell’s plea of guilty of disorderly conduct that was a reduced plea from the original charge of domestic violence, and that it was done to make Russell look bad.
I don’t know Joseph Russell. I don’t know his politics and have never heard anything about him from others either positive or negative. At least nothing I can recall. I have no reason, nor does this newspaper, to have any negative motivation, political or otherwise for running articles about his legal issues.
She said in her column that, “Had the story been presented honestly, readers would have learned that my husband was acting out of self-defense …” But what our article reported — and all we had to go by on the record — was her actual sworn voluntary statement regarding the incident written by her and provided to the London police. Here is that statement in its entirety:
“Joe and I were cleaning the kitchen and started to argue. He said to me that I should be ashamed as a woman how a mess our house is and that I’m worthless and don’t do anything around the house. That’s when I threw the dish sponge holder at him and it hit him in the chest. He then came towards me and put his hands around my neck and told me over and over again to get out of his house. He pushed me out of the kitchen. I grabbed a box of cooking spices and tried to throw them at him. He pushed me outside and on the ground of our back porch and locked me out of the house. I called 911.”
Nothing in the statement mentions self-defense.
Mrs. Russell is correct that the incident happened in September and we did not report on it until the case went to court. I wish we had received the two-page police report Sept. 11 after the police were called to the scene by Mrs. Russell. We then would have carried it Sept. 12.
However, I have been told that the two-page incident report was not released “by police department policy” because it was under investigation and would not be made public until the case is closed. That’s a new one on me. I don’t believe the two-page report falls under investigative material or evidence. We did obtain the report from the court once we found out about what happened.
In her column, Carroll-Russell also said The Madison Press was wrong regarding Russell’s fine after he pleaded guilty. She said they had to pay $950 instead of what we said was $150. However, according to court records, the fine was $150 and costs of $105. I don’t know where the other costs come from. I’ve reached out but haven’t yet learned the answer.
She also says The Madison Press was wrong to not contact she or her husband for a reaction. Normally, we ask the individual’s attorney for a reaction to a court decision. According to our staff writer, the attorney was asked for comment but essentially had none.
But beyond the Russells coverage is the issue of privacy versus public record. While some people on social media in the days since Russell was sentenced have pointed out that he is a taxpayer-paid elected official and what was reported was both newsworthy and public record, others have said that this was a private matter between a wife and husband, and what ran was tabloid gossip.
They are wrong, and wrong on several levels.
Any public official, whether elected by the voters in their community or appointed by an elected body, is accountable to the taxpayers and residents in that community. By accountable that means taking responsibility for all they do while they are in office, and not 9 to 5 but 24 hours a day.
This is because public officials are paid by the taxpayers in their community. Those salaries and benefits don’t fall out of the blue. They come from the paychecks of working taxpayers in their community, whether it is a city like London, a village like Mount Sterling and West Jefferson, any of our school districts, townships and Madison County government.
Every dime they earn is at the discretion of us in the public. That means these officials ultimately have one boss — the taxpaying citizens.
Since these officials and public servants are responsible for our money, they have a greater accountability for their actions than those in the private sector. As editor and general manager at The Madison Press, I will hold these officials and public servants to a higher standard of conduct, especially those who are elected to office because they seek responsibility for how our tax dollars are spent.
This level of scrutiny will be reflected in The Madison Press coverage of these officials. Anyone who knows me knows I am not enamored by politicians or “movers and shakers” in a community. It is important to report the good work these people do in their positions either as part of their job or as volunteers/contributors.
However, when it comes to news coverage that isn’t so positive, who you are and your prominence in the community as a public official don’t matter to me. You don’t get a pass.
Don’t like being held to a higher standard? Don’t like having matters of public record reported about you? Don’t like your words and actions held up for scrutiny? If you don’t like any of those things, that’s fine.
If this is the case, please let us know and we will urge the voters to elect someone else.
Reach General Manager/Editor Gary Brock at 937-556-5759.