Open government

Most of my day today was spent traveling to and from Chattanooga for a meeting of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. TCOG is made up of media types and representatives of such groups as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. Its purpose is to push for openness in government.
Fighting for public access to records and decision-making is one of the more frustrating, but ultimately important, duties of an editor. It’s frustrating because, frankly, much of the public doesn’t really support the media when they press for access. Our arguments come across as self-serving and insensitive to concerns of privacy, propriety and security. There’s no question a newspaper has a financial stake in easy access to information, and reporters can build their careers by exposing the secrets of public servants. But most journalists also intensely believe that democracy is best served by a free flow of information about government.
Regardless of motives, the media are the only real force in our society in a position to fight government secrecy. My personal philosophy is that every worthwhile newspaper should have at least one public-access lawsuit pending at all times (we’re still suing for access to police videotapes) and should fight every attempt by government to close meetings, seal records, debate in secret and cloak decisions. We know we won’t win every fight. But we also know that, if we don’t fight for openness, no one else will.

3 thoughts on “Open government

  1. Linda

    No one ever knows how critically important public records laws are until THEY need access.

  2. Houston Ball

    Your Open Government frustrations remind me of your efforts urging people to vote. Despite your efforts, and efforts of candidates themselves, NGOs like the League of Women Voters, etc., in many races more eligible voters don’t vote than do. I.e., unless there are issues/candidates of a compelling nature for which voters can be passionate.
    Which brings me to your comments about Open Government, and the growing unpopularity of newspapers (because you see that as your necessary role) – it occurs to me that perhaps you haven’t gone far enough. E.g., you could take a strong position (if you haven’t already) supporting the NYT and their front-page story (or other high-profile issues) exposing the government’s secret Bank Record spying program trying to catch terrorists, thereby alienating even more of your readers who might feel such revelations are not as much “in the public interest” as in the interest of our enemies. Although it might cost you a few more readers, you’d get a lot more attention, and it would certainly give you the opportunity to explain how important newspapers are in exposing government programs “in the public interest” despite making us more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

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