Don’t take it personally?
That’s usually good advice, but today we urge the opposite reaction to all government bodies operating in the shadows, purposely avoiding public scrutiny and genuine transparency.
In other words, take closed government personally. Please!
• Take it personally when a reporter is kicked out of a city council meeting so members can hold an illegal or unnecessary executive session.
• Take it personally when public access to government records is refused, limited or attached to excessive fees.
• Take it personally when a judge jails a reporter for refusing to reveal a confidential source.
• Take it personally when government fails to limit political contributions, and ignores ties of mutual benefit between private business and elected officials.
• Take it personally when a governor issues secretive pardons.
• Take it personally when a presidential administration works vigorously to identify and criminally prosecute government whistle-blowers.
Take all of this personally because it directly affects the quality and scope of government information you get from the press.
Wouldn’t it be great if more people understood a reporter’s exclusion from a meeting also excludes them, the general public, from learning details that are being hidden?
Wouldn’t it be great if everyone embraced the notion that government openness is an essential pillar of democracy?
Wouldn’t it be great if more people remembered the press serves as their eyes and ears in the halls of government?
Wouldn’t it be great if more people became aware that jailing journalists not only intimidates the press, but also chills the public’s right to know?
Wouldn’t it be great to see thousands of citizens press Congress to pass a federal shield law protecting reporters from being locked up for doing their job?
There is a moving scene in “Return of the King” where a resurgent monarch inspires his small army to stand against overwhelming odds by delivering a stirring cry to arms.
Wouldn’t it be great to see people everywhere show that kind of passion and unity in the fight for freedom of information and the battle against government secrecy? With apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien, that speech might go something like this:
“A day may come when the courage of men fails and our freedoms die; when speech and religion are governed; when we forsake our reporters and break all bonds of fellowship with the Fourth Estate … but it is not this day!
“There may come an hour of darkness, wolves and shattered shields that bring our First Amendment crashing down … but it is not this day!
“On this day, we battle for our Bill of Rights! This day, we join with journalists in the war against government secrecy, corruption, and waste.
“This day, the press and public stand … together! This day, we fight … together!”
Wouldn’t that be great?
Brian Hunhoff is the editorial writer for the Yankton County (S.D.) Observer. He is a two-time winner of the Golden Quill award for editorial writing from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. This opinion piece was written for Sunshine Week (March 15-21), designed to promote the idea that open government is good government.