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Fair Game 

To me, the county fair is about pies, poultry and pygmy goats. But now the running of the fair and coverage of it is a side show as entertaining as the pet circus I saw at the fair itself.

Earlier in October, the Humboldt County Fair Association, which runs the fair for the county through a lease of the fairgrounds, found itself in federal court in Oakland fighting a lawsuit brought by its former general manager, Stuart Titus. Back in 2013, the association voted to not renew Titus' contract after 22 years of his service. He and his wife Caroline, who publishes the Ferndale Enterprise, sued on the basis that the association punished Stuart Titus for his wife's unrelenting coverage. If true, that's not only grounds for unlawful dismissal, it is a violation of the First Amendment.

Now First Amendment issues usually have to do with what comes out of someone's mouth. But the board of the fair association thinks this one may have something to do with Caroline Titus' vagina. We'll get back to that in a minute.

In a related case in Superior Court in Eureka on Oct. 23, Caroline Titus and her attorney, Paul Boylan of Davis, demanded that the association pay Boylan $92,000 in attorney's fees for his work in a fight over a California Public Records Act request. The association thinks he deserves only $17,000. Caroline sued the association after it refused to turn over financial records, even though its lease to the county stipulates that it must maintain those records, and keep them public. The dickering over the fees came after the association agreed in a settlement that the Enterprise had the right to the records.

Back to Caroline's vagina. In the federal case, the fair association tried to subpoena 22 years of her medical records, including her gynecological records. Here's what I think: They suspect she has balls of steel.  

I found all this out by reading the Enterprise. This fight between one of the tiniest newspapers in the country and a group of people who run a county fair in the middle of nowhere is giving me enough grist for journalism lessons for the next year. My students on the Lumberjack are supposed to avoid conflicts of interest. In this case, the only reporter covering the story is the plaintiff in the case. In an Oct. 22 story about a hearing in federal court, the Enterprise reported how the association's lawyer told the judge his defense strategy involved showing that the association let Stuart Titus go after he developed a drinking problem because his wife had an affair and their marriage was on the rocks. Now, if that story was about me and I was the only reporter covering it, I might have left that part out. But then again, there is no way I could live and report in a town of 1,361 people whom I have to see at the market and at my kid's school functions. It takes balls of steel to do that.

After I talked to Caroline on the phone, I realized she had exercised some restraint. On the phone she described the defense argument this way: "My husband is a drunk and the woman newspaper publisher is a whore." (The district presumably hoped the sought-after medical records would confirm that last part.)

This case hits home to me, not that my husband is a drunk or I'm a whore. Years ago, my husband was a public defender and I worked for a local newspaper in Southern California. He told me something he learned on his job about a local police agency. When I asked a district attorney about it, he complained to both my boss and my husband's boss. My boss told me I had done my job and go back to it. His boss tried to get him suspended although, in the end, everyone acknowledged that neither of us had done anything wrong. The lesson I learned was that public servants tend to forget the public part of their job. And they fail to realize that when journalists poke noses into government business, we do so as public citizens on behalf of the public.

I have no interest in Caroline Titus' gynecological records. Back in 2000, newswoman Katie Couric broadcasted her colonoscopy on live television and I realized that there are some things I'd rather not know.

But while I don't want to see records of Caroline's physicals, I do want to see the fair association's fiscal records, especially after it put up such a fight to keep them out of her hands. Each year, after the county fair is over, the Ferndale Enterprise reports on attendance figures and other measures of success, which it used to get from the fair association. But after booting Stuart Titus out, the association started denying her information. I'm sick of our local government agencies, and government off-shoots like the fair association, fighting the public's right to know.

I recently wrote about how a case involving North Coast Journal Editor Thadeus Greenson and the city of Eureka over the right to view police dashboard cameras could make it all the way to the California Supreme Court.

In 2014, the people of the state made the right to public records part of the California Constitution and it's now part of Article I, in the section titled Declaration of Rights.

We shouldn't have to go to court to get government records. While you have probably not paid attention to the Titus' cases, it has gotten the attention and support of major organizations like the California Newspaper Publishers Association and Californians Aware, a group fighting for open government, because you can't have a free society if you don't know what the people in power are up to. And when you live in little outlying areas, the big press won't pay attention. It is up to the puny press to protect your right to know.

When journalists poke their noses into public business, government officials and their offshoots should keep their noses out of people's private parts.

— Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. If you would like to see photos from her conoloscopy she can probably dig them up. She saves everything for the Smithsonian.

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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Bio:
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at mib3@humboldt.edu.

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