Government watchdog groups signaled their support for the beleaguered Journal News on Tuesday, a day after the newspaper's publisher said reporters were staying in hotels and changing their phone numbers in response to death threats.
The death threats are part of the ongoing fallout over the paper's controversial gun map, an interactive online feature that provides the names and addresses of those who have pistol permits in Westchester and Rockland counties.
Since the newspaper published the map in late December, bloggers have published the names, addresses and phone numbers of Journal News reporters and editors, and staffers at the paper have received two envelopes containing suspicious white powder. Those incidents, along with unspecified death threats, prompted Journal News management to hire armed guards to watch over the paper's White Plains office.
After the Putnam County clerk denied the paper's Freedom of Information Law request for information on pistol permit owners within county borders last week, a coalition of good government groups issued a statement Tuesday supporting the paper, saying open records "are essential for making government transparent and accountable."
"By taking the position that gun permit information will not be provided in response to a Freedom of Information Law request, Putnam County is ignoring state law," the statement read. The law, the groups said, "is not subject to selective application."
"We oppose efforts to undermine the integrity of the state's Freedom of Information Law and fear the slippery slope of carving out exceptions as an attempt to undermine the public interest. New York needs more transparency and publicly available information, not less."
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, also has said Putnam County is violating state law by refusing to provide the gun permit information.
Although the Journal News was stopped from expanding its interactive map to include the Putnam County data, critics of the paper have not relented.
According to a New York Times story published Monday, "Some reporters have received notes saying they would be shot on the way to their cars," and another envelope of white powder was sent to a reporter's home in addition to the two sent to the newsroom.
The paper's publisher, Janet Hasson, told The New York Times that the newspaper has put some employees up in hotels and suggested staffers change their phone numbers. Management also has consulted police, and guards are available to walk reporters to their cars from the newsroom.
"As journalists, we are prepared for criticism," Hasson told The Times. "But in the U.S., journalists should not be threatened."
On Tuesday, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino weighed in on the controversy, telling radio host Brian Lehrer that the threats also have endangered employees of other companies who share a White Plains office building with the paper. After several years of staffing cuts, in September the Journal News moved to the smaller White Plains office from Harrison, where it had been headquartered for nearly 40 years.
"There is a law enforcement aspect to this because there are now armed security at that building, not only to protect the Journal News, but also the other tenants in that building," Astorino said.
State Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson), a vocal critic of the paper, said hiring armed guards and hunkering down was tantamount to "crying uncle." Ball compared the paper's refusal to remove the gun map to the Marie Antoinette story in which the French queen allegedly told starving commoners to "eat cake."
"When asked to take the site down, they told all of these good, law-abusing people to 'eat cake.' Well, now these same editors are getting a taste of that poisonous cake," Ball wrote in a statement Tuesday, "and if anything can wake them up and force them to take the interactive crime spree map down, maybe it will be their own intrinsic cowardice, because we sure as hell can't rely on their good judgment."
In the meantime, the Westchester County Firearm Owners Association has called on its members and supporters to boycott the paper and to pressure advertisers to pull their ads. A list of Journal News advertisers hosted on the group's website has been downloaded 122,000 times, group president Scott Sommavilla said.
Like other critics, Sommavilla said he was concerned that the interactive map includes the names and addresses of correction officers, retired police officers and victims of domestic violence. The goal of the boycott, he said, is to create enough pressure to force the newspaper to pull the map from its website.
"What benefit does this have? There's no investigative journalism here. They didn't probe anything where there was a problem with the system," Sommavilla said. "They didn't think this through, or they're just callous and don't care."
Astorino told Lehrer he didn't understand why the Journal News created the interactive map. When asked, he said he did not personally see or handle the paper's request for the information and said the decision to release the information was made by Westchester County Clerk Timothy C. Idoni.
"The Journal News [has the right] to print that information. I'm not suggesting otherwise. They have that right," Astorino said. "But with that right comes responsibility, and the editors and the publishers have to look at, what was the ultimate goal? Is it just a data dump? What does that accomplish?"