From the Editor

Drescher: Why The N&O declined to attend Gov. McCrory's background briefing

jdrescher@newsobserver.comOctober 4, 2013 

Gov. Pat McCrory and members of his Cabinet and executive team held a background briefing this week for top editors to talk about “issues facing North Carolina,” according to the invitation. Kim Genardo, McCrory’s communications director, said information from the session could be reported but could not be attributed to the governor, a Cabinet secretary or an executive team leader.

This type of “background” briefing is common in Washington. That’s why you see so many stories about the federal government that quote anonymous “senior administration officials.”

I declined the invitation. I’m sure Gov. McCrory’s intentions were good, but these types of background sessions are an insidious practice. They allow public officials to promote their interests and criticize others without having to take responsibility for their comments.

Also, if McCrory had said something newsworthy, I would have been blocked from attributing the comments to him. I didn’t want to be in that position.

We avoid using anonymous sources. In our staff stories, you see them occasionally. We use them on competitive stories when we are confident of our sources and there is no other way to get the information on the record.

When public officials visit The News & Observer to talk with reporters and editors, we insist those conversations be on the record. I wrote about this in 2010 when Timothy Geithner, then the U.S. Treasury secretary, wanted to visit and talk only for background. We insisted the meeting be on the record. Geithner obliged.

We don’t want to emulate Washington. We will keep pushing for sources to speak on the record.

The Martin report

I wrote last month about former Gov. Jim Martin’s investigation into academic misconduct at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was assisted by a team from the Baker Tilly auditing firm.

I noted that Martin and Baker Tilly apparently had missed important evidence – emails between Julius Nyang’oro, the former UNC African studies chairman at the heart of the academic scandal, and the program that tutored athletes. Those emails, the substance of which was reported by The N&O in June, showed an inappropriate relationship.

I wasn’t able to reach Martin until after the column was published. In an email, Martin said he had not read the Nyang’oro emails. “I do not know whether anyone at Baker Tilly read them but assume they would have called them to my attention if they had read them,” Martin wrote.

Martin said if he had known about the emails, he would have reported the substance of their content. “I and the Baker Tilly people read and digested what we considered an enormous amount of material but always knew there might be additional items that eluded us,” Martin said.

Reader panel

We have re-established our reader panel. I asked readers in August if they’d be interested in serving on the panel for a year. We will gather every two months to hear panelists’ opinions.

I was gratified by the response. More than 130 readers said they would like to serve on the panel. It was difficult to choose 12, which seemed to be the right size for a group discussion.

The panel met for the first time this week. Panel members include a state employee, a retired judge, a health care employee, a real estate broker and a comedian. Yes, a comedian. As we cover the foibles and comments of elected officials in our state, we pledge to give our comedian plenty of good material.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com; Twitter: @john_drescher

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