Too many clouds hamper journalism’s ability to tell you what you need to know.
By Denny Wilkins
Oh, joy — it’s National Sunshine Week. That prompts the annual outpouring of paeans to the value of transparency as essential to this thing called “democracy.”
Here are a few:
Sunshine Week reminds us that we have the right to access public information we need to first know what our government is doing and then to hold it accountable. — the Center for Responsive Politics
The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said it best: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants …” In other words, public officials and others are more likely to behave when they know that people are watching. — The Monitor in Brownsville, Texas
When it comes to the righteous push for a more open government, the public should keep four words in mind: “the presumption of access.” That is, the public must insist the onus be placed on government to argue why documents or meetings should be closed, not on citizens to advocate why they should be open. — Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal
Newspapers are often the leading watchdogs in their communities. From documenting how tax dollars are spent to monitoring how educational and governmental institutions operate to holding local officials accountable for their statements and actions, local newspapers provide consistent and necessary oversight. — York (Pa.) Dispatch
Yes, that’s right — the remaining journalists. Three decades ago, nearly 60,000 men and women toiled on readers’ behalf in the nation’s 1,400-plus daily print newsrooms. Today, half that number works for you. In those 30 years, daily newspaper circulation has halved as well — from 62 million to 31 million.
Applying Justice Brandeis’s “remedy for social and industrial diseases” means far less than it once did — because too few journalists are applying the sunlight and too few readers are actually reading the results.
Newspapers have closed. Newspapers have shrunk, both in physical size of the paper and in the number of times they’re actually printed. The paper that a carrier once threw onto a reader’s porch seven times a week now comes three times a week, even two, sometimes one. The web edition has come to be a substitute for the print product — because it saves the costs of paper and ink. Journalists are fired because it saves the cost of compensation.
There’s just far less journalistic horsepower at work for readers.
Oh, the big coastal papers are doing fine. The New York Times made more than $700 million in digital revenuealone in 2018. It added 120 newsroom positions, bringing the newsroom staff to 1,600, its largest size ever.
But between the Left Coast and the Right Coast lies … the news desert. Says CJR: “As local newspapers have closed across the country, more and more communities are left with no daily local news outlet at all. (Have a look at where you live in CJR’s interactive news desert map.)
In that desert lies less likelihood that a local reporter will regularly attend school board meetings to follow the path of taxpayer money spent on educating children. In that desert lies less likelihood that local reporters will be available to closely investigate an officer-involved shooting, no matter whether the officer did the shooting or the officer was shot. In that desert lies less likelihood that public officials will quickly and readily respond to journalists’ requests for information that Sunshine Week advocates argue is public information and must be provided to the public.
The rhetoric of the current inhabitant of the White House — “the media is the enemy of the people” — has had consequences. He bears some responsibility for the clouds hovering over Sunshine Week.
It’s disingenuous and overly hopeful for USA Today to make this claim:
Despite our political polarization, there’s a grand total of no one who thinks government spending should go unchecked and unexamined. [emphasis added] — USA Today
Then why are Freedom of Information Act requests for data that should be publicly available increasing? And why is the federal government censoring, withholding, or claiming it can’t find information sought by citizens?
Because there are people who do not want government spending to be checked and examined. Ask local reporters who’ve had routine requests for just the meeting agenda — the agenda! — of a local government board refused. Ask local reporters seeking information on routine criminal investigations who have been told they must now file FOIA requests — only to have them refused, or worse, delayed beyond utility. Hell, try to get data out of your state and federal representatives. They’re not into sharing, either.
Secrecy is becoming the new normal, not just for cops but for other government agencies and for state lawmakers, who used to at least pretend they thought open government was good government. — Orlando Sentinel
Too few sheriffs. Too many potential governmental (and corporate) miscreants. A growing culture of secrecy. An increasing arrogance of the governors toward the governed. Readers unwilling to demand what they needinstead of blindly being fed only what they want. All this makes National Sunshine Week a tepid exercise.
Now that’s a danger to democracy.
Denny Wilkins worked as a reporter and editor at a rural New England newspaper for two decades. He has taught journalism at St. Bonaventure University for nearly a quarter of a century.