Restricting news coverage bad for all

Scott Swanson

Perceptive readers may have noticed that some of this year’s Oregon Jamboree acts are noticeably missing in our photo coverage.

Here’s why: Due to an incident that occurred Friday evening, festival organizers decided to ban media photographers for the duration of the event.

I was allowed to photograph on a limited basis on Saturday, after some negotiations, but it was from afar, which is why we don’t have many close-up shots of the action after Friday.

Details of the actual incident, which, I’ve been told, involved at least one “media” photographer and a patron, are unclear to me, thirdhand at best, so I’m not going to recount them here. That’s because our policy is to report what we’re sure of, solid information we’ve gotten from sources we consider reliable. The importance of that will become evident.

Given the proliferation of cellphones clicking away, of course, we could go on social media with a plea for photos and, no doubt, get some really good-quality shots of the headliners and others from people who were in the “sweet spot,” the area beneath the stage. The Jamboree graciously offered to provide us with shots taken by their own photographers, by the way, but we decided not to go down that road.

Since I still don’t know the details of the incident that triggered this, I can only go by what I’ve been told by organizers: that apparently the artists, or their handlers, considered this a threatening situation and insisted on this ban.

This isn’t the first time we’ve been prohibited from getting close to the stage at the Jamboree, though we’ve never been told we couldn’t have a professional camera on the grounds.

Increasingly, in recent years, artists – particularly some headliners – have demanded that the media not be allowed close to the stage during their performances. Hence, we’ve found ourselves shooting photos from deep in the crowd, using telephoto lenses which can provide a better image than a cellphone shot from way back there, but still are often not very crisp.

Our equipment works reasonably well for high school sports, which is what we usually use these lenses for, but they don’t really provide the kind of images we’d like from an event such as late-night Jamboree activities – the kind you get from 10 feet away in the “sweet spot.”

Whether or not the concern that prompted this decision was justified, readers may wonder why this is even an issue. Why not simply “order” the photos we need from the Jamboree’s photo crew, who are shooting from just about every conceivable angle, 10 feet away from the stage. Certainly, they’re getting better stuff than we are, back in the cheap seats.

Of course, if we’d known this was going to happen and we really wanted to draw a line in the sand, we could have paid the $145 a pop to get one of our own people into the “sweet spot” with a quality cellphone, to do what the 100-plus other people in that area were doing: shoot and post away.

Outside of the perceived threat of a photographer with a camera to those backstage, the real issue here is what was discussed as an issued 40 years ago when I was a college student in journalism classes: “news management.”

This incident simply triggered a decision that was based on efforts by the stars to manage the news.

“News management” is a term, coined in the 1950s, which describes efforts by public officials, performers, athletes, press agents, public relations people and, well, just about everyone these days, to manipulate the media to ensure that resulting coverage is favorable to the subjects.

In the case of these musicians, that means writing into their performance contracts restrictions to try to control what the your local media do: tell you what we see and hear. Since they can’t be sure we’re going to say what they want – exclusively positive, affirming coverage, they’d prefer that we not be there at all.

In the end, though, the real losers out of this deal are you, the readers.

That’s because by putting a damper on the local newspaper’s efforts to cover an event that affects Sweet Home more than any other in the entire year, they’re actually sticking it to you, the citizens and the readers,. You’re the ones who put up with the inconveniences, the wear and tear on your public facilities and infrastructure – while, of course, cashing in on the rich opportunities the Jamboree offers us to enjoy ourselves and make money.

News management isn’t confined to government or sports or entertainment any more. One thing about today’s world of social media is that people not only have an increased expectation of controlling their own story; they can.

The Oregon Jamboree’s Facebook page is a thrill ride of happy stuff, all about the next great opportunity for devoted fans. When you look at your best friend’s Instagram page, chances are most of the photos are not of them picking their nose.

This newspaper’s primary mission is to report, in as neutral fashion as possible, what is going on in our community – good or bad. And though we report a lot more good news than bad, if something negative happens that impacts residents in a public way, we report that as accurately and dispassionately as possible.

That applies to the Jamboree as well. It’s a great achievement for Sweet Home, this annual transformation of a high school athletic field and city park into a small city that hosts enough people to nearly double the size of Sweet Home’s population.

These visitors come to town to spend money and have a good time. Sweet Home has been the recipient of millions of dollars over the many years the festival has been held here.

Of course, it also brings increased stress to our law enforcement and firefighters/medics, who deal with many more calls than they do on any normal summer weekend. When you get 10,000-plus people together in a group, particularly in oppressively hot weather, there are going to be some strained relations and bad apples.

But cutting off the local media – even just the cameras – is cutting off local residents’ access to the closest thing to a non-biased account of what occurred at the Jamboree on their school’s property.

It’s a step in the wrong direction.

In a world where everybody’s telling their own story, on Facebook, TikTok or whatever, spinning things just the way they want it, you’re going to get a lot of information – exactly what they want you to get, whether it’s some YouTube star or the city government or the University of Oregon.

Some artists (or their handlers) don’t like the way they’ve been portrayed in media, which may be a reasonable reaction in some cases, so they want us banned while they’re on the premises. That isn’t reasonable, because it ultimately stifles your right to know what happened on your public property.

As one veteran area journalist, an individual who’s been around far longer than the 16 Jamborees I’ve attended, put it: “I think this is the first time newspaper reporters have been banned from public property in Sweet Home.”

If this were a private venue, like a university concert hall or a church, that would be one thing. But we’re talking about public ground owned by you, the readers. Yes, the Jamboree is renting it, but it’s still your property.

And what happens there should be your concern, whether it’s the fun, happy stuff that many of us expect from the festival, or unfortunate things that occur, which not everyone might really want you to know about.

At The New Era we try to tell the story as neutrally and dispassionately as possible, with occasional home-town enthusiasm when something really good happens. But we always try to be fair – and, most importantly, stick to the truth of what’s going on.

We’re not perfect. We don’t always get it right. But we try, when we can.