Opinion: Celebrating Sunshine Week from coast to coast
We are in the middle of Sunshine Week, the seven-day period once each year when newspaper people focus extra attention on the importance of open government, the First Amendment and a free press.
Open government is a pretty big deal to reporters and editors and photographers. The actions and policy decisions of government at any level — federal, state, city, county, tribal or whatever — impact the lives of citizens across this great land. News people pay attention to those actions and policies, and they take offense any time they happen upon attempts to hide information or make policy decisions in secret.
News people care deeply about transparency in government. By news people, I'm referring to people who work in such positions as reporter, editor or photographer for newspapers and serious broadcast outlets. I even mean some bloggers who seek out and post or publish information in a factual way. I don't mean the countless opinion writers, talking heads on television, bombastic talk-show hosts on radio and thousands upon thousands of blog sites and internet screed-meisters who seek only to entertain, confuse, deceive or drive some particular philosophy or partisan argument.
The thing is, though, Sunshine Week ought to be observed and celebrated by every citizen in every community from coast to coast and border to border. Sunshine Week is for them, the citizens. They're the ones who benefit by open government, by a free and unfettered press digging and digging, figuratively carrying flashlights through their world until a bright light illuminates the darkest corners of the most obscure agencies and boards of government.
News people are citizens, too, you know. We — and I still consider myself part of the crazy collection of misfits who make up the real news business — are no more and no less than any other citizen. We just decided at some point in our lives to go into careers that allowed and encouraged us to chase facts and deliver information to the rest of you. Some people decide to be hairstylists or lawyers or teachers or soldiers or state troopers or performers. Many of those people have neither the time nor the inclination to attend routine government meetings or pore through audits and annual reports to see if their government is doing what it's supposed to be doing.
News people sit through the meetings and pore through the audits and reports. They ask question after question. They put up with suddenly ended phone calls and emphatically slammed doors. These days they put up with angry officials and politicians calling them fake. They gather information, organize it as best they can into an understandable form and deliver it to the public. If it isn't enough information, they dig some more and publish some more. That's the job.
Real news people aren't in it for political gain or partisan purpose. They do their job because they believe in the nation's Constitution, and they believe in their fellow citizens. They believe that, given enough factual information, the public will gain a better knowledge of what their government is doing for them or to them. They live with the hope that the information they ferret out and make public will help others understand what's going on around them, so that the public can make the important decisions democracy demands if it is to survive.
Here's an excerpt from a Sunshine Week piece written by a Georgia newspaper editor named Jim Zachary: "Open government is not a political platform. It is a basic American right. The political landscape is more polarized than ever, and there seems to be little common ground for conservatives and progressives. Transparency — keeping the light on the people's business — ought to be something everyone can agree on.''
Back in high school, I worked on the student newspaper and became a member of Quill and Scroll. The group's motto was a biblical quote, "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make ye free.'' Through my 40-plus years as a news reporter, I chased facts, hoping enough facts would lead to some truths.
I'm older now, but I still try to believe that, but it isn't always easy. Sunshine Week gives me a boost.