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Too Close for Comfort? The Relationship Between Augusta County's Sheriff's Office & Some Local Media

Written by: Michael Phillips

STAUNTON, VIRGINIA - Ah, the age-old question: Can you really trust the news? It's a question that gains more gravity when the government is involved. After all, they are supposed to serve the public, right? Well, let's talk about an intimate tête-à-tête in Augusta County that's got us scratching our heads and might have you wondering too.

The Insider's Game

We've recently uncovered a tranche of emails thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request that point to an eyebrow-raising relationship between Lt. Leslie Snyder, the Public Information Officer at the Augusta County Sheriff's Office, and Brad Zinn, a reporter with Staunton Newsleader.

"Here is the release. I am sending this to you before the others, and before it goes onto FB," Lt. Snyder said in an email dated April 12, 2023. The release in question pertained to the arrest of CPS worker Jessica Duff and was exclusively sent to Zinn before making its way to other news outlets or even the department's Facebook page.

Nominating Oneself: A Stroke of Humility?

In another exchange, dating back to December 2021, Lt. Snyder and Zinn discuss the "Newsmaker" series that Staunton Newsleader runs. It's supposed to spotlight local figures who've done something positive for the community, often in obscurity. When Zinn inquired if the Sheriff had any "newsmaker" nominations from his staff, Lt. Snyder, in a delicious twist of irony, suggested herself.

Zinn's 2021 Newsmaker Request:

"I am guessing the Sheriff is thinking because I am the first female that has ever made it to the administrative level maybe ??? My story would probably be pretty boring," Lt. Snyder muses in an email nominating herself for the position.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with self-promotion. But when you're the gatekeeper of public information and you’re nominating yourself for media attention, well, let's just say that's a seasoning of hubris we didn’t expect.

So, Can We Trust Our News Sources?

The whole situation beckons the question: Can we rely on our news sources to hold the government accountable when said news sources share a proverbial cup of coffee (or, who knows, maybe it’s whiskey) with government officials?

And while Zinn declined to feature Lt. Snyder as a "newsmaker," stating he'd already chosen someone for that year, one wonders: When the lines between the news media and those they cover become blurred, who's left to ask the hard questions?

The point isn't whether Lt. Snyder's relationship with Zinn has led to compromised stories. It's about perception. It's about the integrity of the public's information and whether it's being delivered untampered, like a sealed court document, or whether it's being served with a side of favoritism and cozy relations.

Maybe the folks at the Augusta County Sheriff's Office and Staunton Newsleader are just really, really friendly. And hey, Virginia is for lovers, right? But when it comes to the media's role in safeguarding democracy, perhaps it's time to swipe left on relationships that get a little too close for comfort.

In a world increasingly characterized by information overload and public skepticism, the question isn't just whether we can trust our news sources. It's whether those news sources are doing their due diligence to deserve that trust. When the lines between journalists and the subjects they're supposed to scrutinize become blurred, it erodes the very foundation of a free press and, by extension, democracy itself. Perhaps what this reveals is the need for an ever-vigilant public, ready to question not just the news they consume but also the mechanisms by which that news is produced. In the end, it may be up to us, the people, to safeguard the integrity of our information landscape, and indeed, American democracy.

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