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Manufactured news

By John E. Hammond
Posted Tuesday, June 12, 2007

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Pittsboro, NC - Fearrington Village resident John Hammond posted the following letter he wrote to News and Observer editor Mark Schultz about reporter Leah Freidman's June 5 article on the moratorium in Chatham County on the on the Chatham Online bulletin board.

Dear Mark,

Note: Mark Schultz is the editor of the Chapel Hill News and Friedman's boss.

I am greatly concerned about the accuracy of Leah Friedman’s reporting in the N&O story entitled Foes cry 'foul' over Chatham moratorium, which ran June 5, 2007 and conclusion you reached based on her reporting that led to your editorializing on open government in Chatham County in the Chapel Hill News on June 6, 2007.

This statement is factually incorrect:

“Frank Thomas, who represents the Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties, said he knew the moratorium was coming, so he made several requests to the county, including one in writing, for a draft copy of the moratorium ordinance. But he was not given one until he pressed the county manager Monday after the vote, Thomas said.”

I have spent yesterday afternoon fact checking this quote. In reality he made one casual request to Charlie Hone that his Homebuilders association would be interested in information on the moratorium. I have checked with Mr. Horne and Ms. Paschal and there are no records of “several requests” or a request from Mr. Thomas in writing for information on the ordinance. Both of these assertions are not true.

On May 31st 2007, Mr. Horne did receive a letter from Nicholas Tennyson requesting:

1. Copies of minutes from all meetings at which the moratorium was discussed by the County Commissioners and planning board. It is my understanding that a discussion occurred during a closed session of the County Commissioners and I would like those minutes included. If they are not available, please respond with the reasons why the moratorium was considered an appropriate subject for a closed meeting and not subject to the open meeting laws.

2. Copies of all advertisements that have been published concerning the moratorium.

3. Any draft ordinance materials on the topic.

This request was being responded to in the normal course of business by the County Managers office. The draft of the moratorium was given to the County Manager’s office by approximately 4:30 PM on May 31st. As you may know minutes of the closed session could not be release until the Commissioners passed the ordinance and they could be transcribed and prepared for release. This could not happen until after the June 4th meeting. I hope you will agree that tenor of the letter expressed no need for undue speed in answering his request. It would seem reasonably to reply to him when all the data he requested was available and cleared to be released by legal council.

I would agree with you that it would have been ideal if the draft has been posted on the county website after it was submitted by the county attorney on Saturday, but your assertion that his request for information was denied is pure fiction.

In your editorial on June 6, in the Chapel Hill News you state:

“…They say they asked several times for copies of the draft ordinance but weren't given one until after the board voted….In other words, it appears that county officials showed a draft ordinance to a political supporter but refused to show it to political opponents…”

If these statement are based on Ms. Friedman’s quote from Frank Thomas your conclusion that an open government processes were not followed and multiple requests for the draft ordinance where ignored is factually wrong.

I fully understand the pressures of deadlines but to jump to a false conclusions base on factually incorrect information cries out for a far higher standard of fact checking before publication of the original story and clearly be publication of the editorial. Reporters should not be making stories by accepting “quotes” from biased sources without fact checking the source. The homebuilders have a multi-million dollar axe to grind in this issue.

Clearly this episode is below the standard’s we expect for both the N&O and the Chapel Hill News. We in Chatham have suffered enough from the N&O policy of giving us the newest reporter on the paper to cover Chatham. I, for one, would like a seasoned reporter to cover Chatham for a change. I would also like it to be the policy of your newspaper that the Chatham reporter must live in Chatham County. They certainly cannot claim a financial hardship, since there are clearly more residences and lower prices available in Chatham than in Chapel Hill.

A full and complete factually correct in-depth story on the moratorium ordinance is owed to readership of both newspapers and an apology should be forthcoming for your false statements on open government in Chatham County.

I hope you will assign Ms. Friedman the responsibility of correcting these errors and that you will provide her with proper supervision in preparing in-depth story correcting the erroneous statements in her June 5 story and your June 6th editorial. Please take your time in doing the investigative journalism required to get it right. We expect this level of journalism from your papers.

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