Letter to the Community: Freedom of the Press?
A Letter to the Community from Eastern Sierra NOW:
For a quick recap, on Saturday night (Jan 15th), The Free Eastsider group and Calvary Baptist Church in Bishop invited Brad Dacus, founder of the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), as a speaker at the event. PJI has been accused of being an anti LGBTQ+ Hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and came to Bishop in order to discuss the controversial topic of mask and vaccine mandates amid COVID-19.
As we showed up to the meeting that was labelled as a “Town Hall” and open to the public, we were asked politely not to film, stream or take pictures of the event. In confusion we asked why that would be, and pointed out that our livestream would be a benefit to those at home that couldn’t make it but still wanted to watch the meeting. We were told by Josh Nicholson, one of the speakers at the event and a member of Free Eastside, that they preferred for people to come to the event rather than watch it from home.
Prior to the meeting, we had been asked by numerous people in the community to livestream the event, due to worries about their own safety and not wanting to be in a room with hundreds of unmasked people during an extreme uptick of COVID-19 cases. Not being able to provide that access for other community members admittedly had us a bit “peeved.” Truthfully, it was confusing to us why an event labeled as informative and open to the public (especially an event where two community members, Joe Vedder and Josh Nicholson, announced their candidacy for local office in 2022) would not be interested in making that event more accessible for more people.
Our founder, Jesse Steele, live streamed on Facebook from the parking lot in order to inform our subscribers what happened to the livestream we’d previously promised as well as what he had been hearing in the meeting. Steele admitted multiple times that I had only seen about 20 minutes of the meeting, but wasn’t extremely supportive of what was said.
Steele was also confused as to why Dacus was talking about LGBTQ politics in a meeting about mask mandates, and went on to preach about inclusion and being more open-minded about accepting the opinions of others. He also did air his worries about the power of speeches like the ones currently going on in a like-minded group mentality setting; and ironically we later found out that Dacus was preaching almost the exact same thing inside the building.
Steele assured our viewers that we would post the full write up later, and around midnight we had a basic play by play posted to our website. The next day around noon, we posted the full write up of the events as we heard them, based on notes taken from one of our reporters who stayed the entire duration of the meeting. Generally, the article has had good reception, and we’ve been told by other journalists, as well as members of the public, that they didn’t think the article was biased on either side and they appreciated the links to outside information.
Both of our articles were intended to be respectful to the Free Eastside group, and to simply summarize their opinions about vaccine and mask mandates as they were given at the meeting on Saturday.
From Jesse Steele: “I would also like to take this time to say that I do know I’m not always right; I very well could have heard Dacus’s words correctly and my worries may have been warranted, but I also could have misconstrued them. The fact that we were not allowed an opportunity to work with video or audio proof contributes to some of that confusion, and that is the power of video and media. We don’t take issue with whether we agree or disagree on the opinions stated at the meeting, but that we weren’t allowed a chance to fairly report on them.”
This morning, we discovered that Sierra Wave (KSRW 92.5) is being permitted to air audio coverage of the event; coverage that was provided to them to air unedited in its entirety by Free Eastside. Free Eastside sent a note to members saying that “KSRW is the only station willing to give them the time of day, and they appreciate them for that.” They also mentioned that their members “should all give positive feedback to KSRW for their bravery for airing the audio and that they are thanked for their unbiased reporting.”
At Eastern Sierra NOW, we don’t understand why the only kind of reporting considered “unbiased” is audio recorded only by the speakers and aired only at the media outlets they choose. We would like to remind the public that Eastern Sierra NOW has been in negotiations with members of Free Eastside for weeks, trying out best to find a way to give them an unbiased and fair platform for their opinion, and that we showed up to the event willing to live-stream it. When we live-stream footage, we cannot edit or misrepresent the events being live-streamed; they air in real time. We planned to use Facebook Live, which if you are familiar with, you know can’t be edited or toyed with in any way.
Sierra Wave did not attend the event; The Sheet and Eastern Sierra NOW are the only news sources we know for sure did attend. We don’t know if the Inyo Register or KIBS was in attendance, but we do know that Sierra Wave was not, and we question how an outlet who did not even attend the event, but instead received information from only one source, can be an unbiased reporter.
To be completely truthful, we feel like we are being unfairly represented and we would like to change that narrative. It’s disappointing to have the goal of informing the public to the best of our abilities, and to not be allowed a fair chance to do our job. Our interest is, and always will be, to first and foremost report the truth and the facts to you, the public; and that includes all of the public, regardless of our differences in opinion. Freedom of the press is one of the five freedoms in our First Amendment for a reason; to ensure that information can be gained by all who seek it, never hidden or monitored.
To quote the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
We here at Eastern Sierra NOW stand for everyone’s right to everything mentioned in the First Amendment. It should be said that Free Eastside did not violate any of these rights at Saturday’s meeting. They were on private property and had every right to monitor any kind of recording. They have the freedom to speak their opinion on any of the public health mandates, and the freedom to discuss any issue they choose.
But we also feel that as a public news source, we are justified in asking for transparency in these situations, especially if we are being painted in a negative light.
The audio of Saturday’s meeting will air on Bill Snyder’s morning show on KSRW 92.5 tomorrow, January 18th, at 7 am, 8 am, noon, and 5 pm. Our only hope is that they stay true to what our intentions were in the first place; transparency and entirety. What we have heard is that they will only be airing the first 10 minutes of the meeting, though we can’t truly confirm or deny it.
We would like to also address an earlier issue that is coming up in regards to our ability to film on Saturday. Back in August, Eastern Sierra NOW was accused of doctoring footage of the school board meetings discussing school mask mandates. We were accused of having the intention to discredit the anti-mask speakers, and were threatened with lawsuits from people who were unaware that a public event like a school board meeting is fair game for recording.
It also happened to be our first video project, taken on by an intern, who made the mistake of not bringing enough batteries to film the entire meeting, and had to stop the video between speakers in order to preserve what battery they did have to record as much of the meeting as they could. This did mean that the entire meeting wasn’t shown, but as stated before, this was due to battery and camera issues, not an intention to warp the truth.
The meeting was unruly and argumentative, and a lot of aggression was shown towards the doctors, nurses, and teachers in attendance. The community was in a state of divisiveness and upheaval, and unfortunately a lot of that anger was turned towards our video rather than the events themselves. We want to make it clear, again, that our video was not edited with any malicious intent towards anyone at those meetings.
We wondered if the controversy with that board meeting video had anything to do with not being allowed to film on Saturday, and our suspicions were confirmed. We were informed by a member of the Free Eastside group that we in particular were not allowed to film the event, due to the misconception that our school board meeting video “made them look bad.” The fact that they gave Sierra Wave permission to air the meeting further proves that bias.
We are here to send the message to not just the Free Eastside group, but also to the rest of the community, that we at Eastern Sierra NOW have never, and will never, alter, molest, or doctor any kind of video, audio, or still photography to change the intention or standing of the subject or message. On our social media accounts, we will never misrepresent or censor anyone, and we do not delete comments or block people unless they are presenting a danger to us or our viewers, in which case law enforcement will be involved.
In the past two days, we have been accused of bad journalism, slanted reporting, and lying. We understand that not everyone in the community will always agree with everything we produce. That’s the reality of journalism, and we accept that. In fact, we welcome constructive criticism from community members because we always strive to be a good, accurate, and fair news source for the people of the Eastern Sierra.
However, blocking information from the press, and picking and choosing which media outlets get to receive that information, is a choice that does not benefit anyone. Especially when your message involves the health and safety of everyone in the community, not just those that share your beliefs. When you claim your beliefs are reasonable and true, and should be implemented in the community, it doesn’t make sense to then hide this from different parts of the community due to your own personal bias.
I hate to say “fair and balanced”, because that has been such an attacked phrase, but it is what we aim for. Does that mean Jesse, or any of our writers, will never deliver an opinion that goes against someone else’s? Of course not. It means our doors are open to all opinions and all people that represent those opinions. We will always have respect for the people, no matter the opinion. They will be treated courteously and given the platform to voice their opinions or concern. We are not CNN. We are not Fox News. We are Eastern Sierra NOW and our goal is always to shine a light on all sides so you, the public, can make informed decisions.
We do not stand against Free Eastside in any way, nor any other group that wishes to express their opinion. The Eastern Sierra is a small community, everyone knows everyone; many of the members are our family and friends. As was said many times at Saturday’s meeting – hate and vitriol don’t get us anywhere at this point in time, and the only way to get through these troubling times are to stick together and have compassion for one another.
We will reiterate what Steele stressed in his live stream Saturday night from the Calvary Baptist Parking lot:
Having an Opinion means you THINK you are right.
Having Intelligence means you can PROVE it.
Having Wisdom means you KNOW you are both wrong.
So again, we reiterate and send out not only an olive branch, but also an invitation. If the leaders of the Free Eastside group would like to discuss any and all topics with us, on film or audio, unaltered in its truest form, from your lips to the audience’s ears, you have our promise to not knock your beliefs or hinder you in your message in anyway. Our objective, as the press, is to present the facts from an unbiased standpoint.
Please reach out at [email protected] We would be more than happy to speak with you about these issues in a public forum. Remember to tune in to Sierrawave KSRW 92.5 tomorrow morning.
We are so appreciative of all of you in the Eastern Sierra (and from everywhere!) supporting us and allowing us to grow into the news source we are today. We hope to keep growing, keep improving, and keep serving you as our listeners and our community.
-The Eastern Sierra NOW Team