Darrell Ehrlick: The stories we don't tell

2014-02-09T00:00:00Z 2014-03-21T10:34:21Z Darrell Ehrlick: The stories we don't tellBy DARRELL EHRLICK The Billings Gazette
February 09, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Most of the time, newspapers tell you the story from beginning to end.

This time, we'll switch the order.

The conclusion of this story is that the federal government appears to struggle paying its bills. That probably sounds like something you've heard before.

In this particular case, though, it appears that the Transportation Security Administration was contracting with a third-party to do background screenings at a local health center in Billings. When the vendor didn't pay, screenings stopped.

Of course, that raises all kinds of questions about what's going on at the TSA and if the delay jeopardized security.

The only problem is: The TSA says it wasn't them — must be some other agency.

The health center confirmed that it was the TSA, working through a third-party vendor, and the problem has been solved; screenings have resumed.

Because of confidentiality rules, you'll probably understand that the health center can't disclose what exactly happened or how far behind the payments got. I get that.

It seems different, though, because it's the federal government.

I mention this item for two reasons.

First, if the federal government can't pay its bills, that's a news story. Period. It's also a challenge because it appears the federal government may not know what it's doing out here Montana; that is, maybe there is some other federal agency that isn't paying its bills — we won't know. And that's frustrating.

Secondly, though, this is the perfect example of what news organizations deal with daily.

The genesis of this story didn't come to us because we're omniscient. It didn't come to us because we have some kind of National Security Agency-type spying program on the federal government. Instead, it came to us through a tipster who had applied for a job through the TSA, gone to the health center and then was turned away from a screening because, as he was told, the feds weren't paying their bills.

So, we checked on it and discovered that some federal agency hadn't been paying its bills. Coincidentally (or probably not), the problem was soon resolved after we called.

That's the problem: The story isn't much more than that — the federal government won't pay its bills, and doesn't want to talk about it.

On a certain level, that probably plays well with the folks who want to think of government as inept, bumbling or even devious.

But that's not the point.

We get a lot of news tips every day. That's a good thing. As much as we try to be everywhere at once, that's impossible.

Sometimes folks get frustrated with the media because they call in, give us an idea, and then never see it in print. But as is so often the case, a lot of the information we get is just a fragment of a larger story that is nearly impossible to nail down.

We can't just report rumors or second-hand information. What we report has to be tied to a source with a name or to documents. That means we wind up printing just a fraction of what we hear, and just a portion of what we think we know.

That's part of the value of the newspaper — it isn't just a rumor, no matter how tantalizing those rumors are. We work hard to run down the facts of any story so that you can trust what's news and what's hearsay.

And so, I can report that some federal agency was late in paying its bills. Beyond that, it's hard to say what the story is, even though I know darn well there has to be more to it.

From where I sit, sometimes the most interesting or alluring pieces of information are those we can't report.

That doesn't stop us from trying, though.

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