In these times of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” it’s more important than ever for everyday citizens to understand – and we hope appreciate – the significance of public access to information and open government.
Sunshine Week, March 12-18, is partly to foster better undertanding about accessing public information – how to understand and use Freedom of Information (FOI) resources. Some folks may say, “Oh, you’re talking about stuff that I don’t care about.” But you should. News reporters more often use FOI access, but that ability is hardly limited to the media.
The Sun News and other reporters use FOI access every day, seeking information for readers and viewers. One example are police incident reports; The Sun News will continue to pursue incident reports in all law enforcement jurisdictions, for our readers.
Sunshine laws, including requirements for open public meetings, are based on Amendment I of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution of the United States. Open meeting and FOI laws are a recent advancement. Open meeting laws, for example, came about after a long – and continuing, notwithstanding the laws – struggle with city and county councils, school boards, school administrators, mayors and city managers, legislative committees staffers and certainly elected members of city councils, state legislators, and Congress.
Let’s not leave out governors and presidents. These times include a leader of the free world, President Donald J. Trump, who continues to show a troubling disregard for truth. That is actual fact, not alternative. Yes, many politicians disemble, or are loose with the facts. Politicians and everyday people may agree to disagree on issues without disembling or outright lying. Talking about projections for the future effect of a proposed health care plan or a state’s transportation infrastructure is far different from misrepresenting the facts of a specific incident, or saying something and then claiming to not have said it.
The point is, news reporters still have to dig, often using FOI access, for information elected officials, administrators and other bureaucrats – in city halls, state capital buildings and Washington – do not want you to know. The issues should matter to all of us: education, the environment, equality and human rights, infrastructure, health care, public safety, taxes and transportation.
Journalists today understand our public opinion standing has fallen. Many folks feel “the media” (spinmeisters for President Richard Nixon started using the term for “the press”) is not on their side but part of the dark side of government, corporations and other forces.
Yet, the media’s mission is to inform the public. To do so requires digging for information and asking questions that elected and appointed officials do not like and do not want to answer. Paraphrasing the late and great Walter Cronkite, That’s the way it is.
The way we are not
“Journalists! Peeking through keyholes! Running after fire engines like a lot of coach dogs! ... A lot of daffy buttinskis swelling around with holes in their pants ... And what for? So a million hired girls and motormen’s wives’ll know what’s going on.” – Hildy Johnson, a character (Chicago reporter) in Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page (1928)