Media spotlight: Cherokee Scout’s saga, guns, open-records law

Columbia Journalism Review correspondent Corey Hutchins discusses what happened after the Murphy, N.C.-based Cherokee Scout asked the local sheriff for a list of concealed carry permits on Feb. 19: Request denied and publicized on Sheriff Keith Lovin’s Facebook page; the Scout publisher David Brown threatened, retracting the request and apologizing; national media roasting Brown for backing down.

To add a dash of context and background on the “rocky relationship between media and county sheriffs,” Hutchins spoke to Mountain Xpress News Editor Margaret Williams and former Xpress investigative reporter Cecil Bothwell about the newspaper’s experience with Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford.

“Guns and Public Records: the Cherokee Scout’s saga”
by Corey Hutchins, Columbia Journalism Review

Things turned around quickly last week for the Cherokee Scout, the latest newspaper to learn how sensitive gun owners can be about public records and how it feels to confront readers who are both angry and, in some cases, armed. …

On February 21, Horne and Scout publisher David Brown published a letter to readers describing being threatened by “near-hysterical residents as a result of the sheriff’s actions.” They went on to explain that the paper “never had any desire nor intention to publish any names of any person carrying a concealed weapon,” but thought “it might be revealing to share, for example, how many residents in a specific area had gun permits.” And while Brown and Horne also accused Sheriff Lovin of “breaking the law” by denying the paper’s request, and went on to say how newspapers “must be vigilant in maintaining the public’s right to know,” they announced the paper was “retracting” its request and dropping the issue with the sheriff’s department. …

Blogger Jim Romenesko on Monday called Brown’s February 22 note to readers the “most incredible newspaper apology ever.” The Philadelphia Daily News’s Will Bunch dubbed Murphy, NC “Where American Journalism Went to Die.” …

Now an Asheville city councilman, Bothwell says intimidation and threats were common during his reporting on the sheriff. Vans with dark windows would park outside the houses of newspaper staffers at night. …

Margaret Williams, news editor of the Mountain Xpress, [said] this about the Cherokee Scout and the national criticism it has drawn: “I doubt it’s fair for fellow journalists to judge Cherokee Scout publisher David Brown so harshly. Few people likely know the whole story, and… More worrisome is what the sheriff’s reaction says about the state of law enforcement and the understanding about public-records law. …


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