Today is the final day of the annual celebration of open government those of us in the news business call Sunshine Week. I almost missed it.
Simply put, Sunshine Week “is a national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.’’ I got that from the national newspaper website.
Being late to recognize a celebration that started last Sunday could be symbolic, I suppose. More than a few times in my decades as a newspaper reporter, my requests for government records came back late. That didn’t happen all of the time, just often enough to be frustrating in a business that runs on deadlines, a business that prides itself on representing other members of the public in guaranteeing their right to know what their government is doing.
In fairness to the generally dedicated women and men who work in government offices at all levels, most of the time requests for records and documents were handled in a routine and timely manner. That’s the way it’s supposed to work with public records, and it usually did. Often in those otherwise routine instances, the keeper of the record would ask why I wanted the information or what I intended to do with it. Then I had to find a polite way to say, “That’s none of your business, really. If the record is open, I can have it.”
I didn’t take offense at the question. It’s a natural enough thing to wonder. And I came to realize that many of those agency workers weren’t trying to keep the information secret. They were only unsure about the law and their duties under it. A time or two the person charged with delivering the record simply was curious. Once when asked, I replied, “Why do you want to know?’’ The worker said she’d been there for 10 years surrounded by tons of records and no one had ever asked to see one of them. She just wondered why I might want something no one had ever wanted before, that’s all. Fair enough, I’d say.
Later, after I left the news business and went to work for state government for a few years, I understood her curiosity. For a time, I was in charge of open records requests for the Department of Public Safety. We had tons of records — fire investigations, crash reports, highway safety studies, emergency management documents, driver licensing statistics and so on. I was surprised sometimes how few requests we received for most of those records.
Freedom of information is at the heart of the public’s right to know. It’s terribly important, perhaps never more so than these days. So much misinformation and false documentation is being spewed out from so many sources that it’s vital to be able to actually go to the source, request and receive the specific documents and review the information right there on paper — or on the computer screen. Some people still may disbelieve the information, but at least they’ll have it, with a legitimate, identified source.
I recognize that not every citizen has the time or means to dig into public records. That’s why news reporters do it. They are members of the public who do the digging for other members of the public. I guess that’s why so many of us in the news business are so ready to do battle whenever a record request is delayed or denied. We’re fighting for a whole lot more than just ourselves.
Here’s what Jim Zachary, deputy national editor of Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., said in a piece on Sunshine Week:
“Whether talking about the White House, the statehouse or the county courthouse, all the documents held in government halls belong to the people, and all the business conducted by our governors is public business. We believe our government — your government — can only be of, by and for the people when it is out in front of the people.’’
If you haven’t already celebrated Sunshine Week, do it today. It’s never too late to recognize the importance of openness in government.