June 03, 2004

News Media Fights Back for Openness

The news media -- I should say the traditional news media -- is finally awakening to the realization that the current powers that be in Washington are intent on closing government to journalists.

Editor and Publisher reports that "press efforts to thwart government secrecy are moving forward on two fronts."

The first is an effort by the newspaper and wire bureau chiefs in Washington growing to unite their opposition to non-disclosure policies. Reports E&P:

For Tom DeFrank, who began covering Washington as a Newsweek correspondent 36 years ago and now heads the New York Daily News bureau, the need for prying open government doors has never been greater. "This administration is the most aggressively unhelpful that I have ever covered, and that goes back to Nixon," he says. "This White House and administration are far more secretive than the Nixon crowd." (Emphsis added)

At issue is not just press freedom, but also the resulting level of information received by the public. "The real issue is telling our readers what it is they are not getting," says Vickie Walton-James, Chicago Tribune Washington bureau chief.

To get a sense of how Bush administration legislation and policies have affected journalism for the worse since 9/11, read "The Lost Stories," a report by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. Here's a piece of the introduction:

The past two decades of journalism in the United States generated a collection of important stories that made significant changes to benefit the public interest. But reporting many of those stories would be difficult or impossible today because of greater restrictions on access to institutions, events and information. Whether by acts of Congress, new rules by federal agencies, decisions by courts, or even overreactions by administrators and bureaucrats, restrictions on access have led to a host of "lost stories" that are no longer informing the public about how its government works. (Emphasis added)

Tom Curley, president and CEO of the Associated Press, last month announced plans to create an "advocacy center for open government" in Washington that would lobby against restrictions on public information.

In the same speech, Curley said the AP also would make the following efforts:

 Conduct state FOI audits.
 Direct bureau chiefs to provide a status report on access for still and video cameras to state and federal courtrooms.
 Review procedures for responding when access to information or proceedings is blocked.
 Be sure that any news story that benefits from an FOI request or suffers from lack of public information that was refused by a government source says so clearly.

Newspapers at all levels should follow suit, especially in smaller communities. As an small-town journalist knows, local government and law enforcment is often the most recalcitrant in releasing information even when the law states clearly it should. The public has a right to know what it the government says it doesn't have a right to know.

Posted by Tim Porter at June 3, 2004 07:45 AM