At its most basic, journalism in all its forms is the American citizenry’s mechanism to monitor its government. When an arm or agent of government starts monitoring journalists instead, it threatens the free press and our right to free speech.
Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. Ronnie Shirley likely had quite a few legitimate reasons to check the backgrounds of people across this state in his role as the THP’s liaison to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. There is little room to defend the actions of Shirley in checking the background of the THP’s chief inquisitor in the press for the last several years, a reporter from our cross-town rival The Tennessean.
THP brass have said there was nothing “political” about the background checks performed by Shirley — the same 182 background checks now being investigated internally by the THP. Investigators made that determination after finding no elected officials, public officials or candidates for office were on Shirley’s list.
Politics, though, comes in many forms.
Certainly, running background checks on members of the press — particularly one fervent in monitoring the problems in the THP — appears far out of bounds of Shirley’s duties or anyone in state government for that matter. Such actions absent of any cogent, real-world explanation smack of the kind of political dirty tricks and intimidation tactics common to some of the worst moments and lowest points in our American democracy. The potential for misdeeds and a chilling effect on the press is enormous.
Gov. Phil Bredesen has classified Shirley as simply a “nosy” trooper. It would be convenient to be able to give Bredesen the benefit of the doubt, but this latest revelation about Shirley’s use of the state’s background checking ability to apparently research such a key member of the press to the THP is past the tipping point — even if in the end he proves to be the nosy type the governor suspects.
As we did Friday, we renew our call for an independent investigation of Shirley’s activities at the THP concerning these background checks. It is the right thing to do given the importance of the THP to the health, safety and welfare of Tennesseans. People in this state need to know they can trust the patrol and that politics and personal agendas are not part of what they do.