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home : insight & opinion : signs of life May 24, 2016

3/18/2005 3:02:00 PM
Journalists cloud their own sunshine
Managing Editor

In case you've missed hearing or reading about it, this week has been Sunshine Week.

Sunshine Week is a cooperative project of news organizations across the country to draw attention to the public's right to know and the importance of free access to information.

I've been thinking for quite a while about what to say in recognition of Sunshine Week. Over my 20-plus years in this business, I've written many editorials and columns urging citizens to attend public meetings and hold their elected officials accountable; challenging local government bodies to abide by freedom-of-information and open-meetings laws; and supporting legislation to strengthen those laws. We post guides to the Illinois Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act on the Daily News Web site. We publish contact information for elected officials. I assign reporters to attend public meetings because one of the newspaper's roles is to be the eyes and ears of citizens who can't or won't attend.

We never know how much impact any of these things ends up having, but I try to make sure we do our part.

But none of those efforts seems equal to what we're up against as this Sunshine Week draws to a close. The public's right to know is under attack as never before. And the role of journalists as a guardian of that right is being challenged as never before.

While we've dealt with plenty of right-to-know issues here in Crawford County, much of what's happening now is centered on Washington. The current administration has been aggressive in shutting doors, keeping secrets and controlling its message. But those tactics are bipartisan; the previous occupants of the White House were just as hostile to the press. They just weren't as good at doing something about it. And if the opposition returns after the next election, they'll undoubtedly learn from what this administration has done and improve their own stonewalling.

The current climate of secrecy is largely fueled, of course, by post-9/11 paranoia. Our government shut down access to all kinds of information in the wake of that tragedy in the interest of "homeland security." Public officials at every level now have a convenient, one-size-fits-all answer to any request for information - reminiscent of the dude in the credit-card commercial who comes up with endless ways to say "no."

We also have to admit that it's fueled by politics. Whenever one party, whichever one it is, dominates government to the extent seen today, that party is emboldened to do things it might not do if there were a greater check on its power.

But as aggressive as government has been at keeping secrets, the only thing journalists - at least those at the national level - seem to be able to do these days is whine.

"The President won't answer our questions at his press conferences," they whine.

Well, they need to do what Daily News reporters do when someone won't talk to them: Find someone who will. And if nobody will talk to them, they need to go to the courthouse (or wherever) and start digging. It's not as much fun, or maybe not as good for the ego or the resume, as sparring with the Leader of the Free World on national TV, but it might actually result in a story, and maybe even shed some light on an issue.

"But all they do is try to push the same message all the time," they whine. "It's all about spin."

Well, no, it's not all about spin. It's all about truth. And it's our responsibility to seek it and tell it, not just operate a stenography service. When Official A says something and the facts contradict it, it's a journalist's right and responsibility to report both. And if they're working for news organizations that don't let them do this for fear that they'll lose "access" or be accused of bias, they need to quit and work for someone who does, even if they have to give up the six-figure salaries and the five-figure speaking engagements. Maybe, when enough people won't play the game anymore, the news organizations will reconsider what business they're in.

"The bloggers are saying they have as much right to call themselves journalists as we do," they whine.

Well, they need to start doing the kind of journalism, and being the kind of journalists, that distinguishes them from the bloggers. Ethics and integrity once meant something in this profession. We didn't accept gifts - not even a cup of coffee. We didn't contribute to candidates or causes, or sign petitions. We avoided close friendships or business dealings with anyone we covered - often difficult in a small community. And making stuff up, or presenting someone else's work as our own - that was a career death warrant. This is the journalism I learned, but it's evidently not what's being practiced now, at least at the highest levels, where anyone with a keyboard or a microphone can pretend to be a journalist - and no one, any longer, knows enough about what journalism really is to challenge them. We (journalists) have no one to blame for that but ourselves.

P.J. O'Rourke, the former National Lampoon humorist turned libertarian gadfly, once admonished today's youth to "pull your pants up, turn your hat around and get a job." From my little bitty corner of the news business in southeastern Illinois, my message to big-time journalists, in the same spirit, would be something like, "get your nose out of the corporate feed trough, locate your principles and do your job - the job the First Amendment gave you."

I apologize. Much of this column has been about journalism, and journalists. But Sunshine Week is really about you - all of us as citizens. You don't, and shouldn't, care about whether some official will talk to a reporter or not. All you care about is getting the information you need to play your part in a free society.

But when journalists end up doing as much as government to keep the sunshine out, we've got a problem.

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