...And Counting  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October 2001

...And Counting   

By Lonnie Shekhtman
     


Readers picking up the August 30 issue of the Uniontown Herald-Standard were surely not surprised by the cute little caricature of H. William DeWeese, Pennsylvania's Democratic House leader, on the editorial page. DeWeese, after all, was leaning on a scroll with the number 88 written on it, the number of days the paper had published the likeness with an accompanying critical editorial.

Why feature the lawmaker day after day after day? The Herald-Standard says it is pressuring DeWeese to keep his promise to make public the expense records of a $10.83 million state fund.

The paper contends that although Pennsylvania open records law allows representatives to keep their expense records secret, DeWeese told the Herald-Standard in a pre-election meeting last fall that it is wrong to do so and that taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent. DeWeese also promised that he would consider full disclosure of the fund, which provides money for various state representatives' credit card purchases, staff salaries and personnel expenses.

DeWeese has revealed some information but says he does not plan on disclosing the precise expenditures. The paper plans on running the editorial every day until there is full disclosure or at least until the 2002 election, Editor Mike Ellis says.

DeWeese's press secretary, Mike Manzo, says the Herald-Standard is doing everything possible to "whip people into a frenzy."

"They're blinded by this need to do [DeWeese] political damage. They've done everything but try to go into people's homes and make them write letters," Manzo says. The paper has even printed pre-addressed letters to DeWeese's office, he says.

Ellis argues that this campaign is all about public accountability. He says that DeWeese won't release expense records of the slush fund because it would be political suicide for him.

Newspapers are responsible for holding officials accountable, says Ernie Schreiber, president of the Pennsylvania Society of Newspaper Editors and editor of the Lancaster New Era. "A newspaper that ignored a broken promise would be negligent," he says.

John Craig, editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says that he probably wouldn't do something like this at his paper. "It's a very small newspaper in a very small county, and I have no idea what set them off," Craig says.

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