April 6, 2004

April 6, 2004 | Commentary on

Stonewalling your Right to Know

Ever wonder why journalists seem so cynical? Maybe you would be, too, if the following exchange between a New York reporter and a local "public servant" was typical of your day at the office:

Journalist: "Why can't you provide these school payroll records electronically?"

Bureaucrat: "Ummm … we just don't."

Journalist: "But under the Freedom of Information law, if you're capable of providing them electronically, you're required to do so."

Bureaucrat: "Yeah … but we don't follow that."

Taxpayers in White Plains, N.Y. who wonder why public schools there keep demanding more money even as test scores decline probably would like to see those payroll records, too, right? Thanks to Freedom of Information (FOI) laws covering government at all levels in America, We the People have the right to see such government records, and journalists are our proxies. When bureaucrats tell reporters "no," they're telling We the People "no."

So you should worry about the fact that there are now only two kinds of journalists in America -- those who have been ignored, lied to, laughed at, given the royal run-around or otherwise prevented from doing their jobs on your behalf … and those who will be.

It's not always simple obstinacy such as that endured by The Journal News journalist cited above (who finally got those payroll records but only after an unnecessary and lengthy struggle). Sometimes it's sheer incompetence, or at least the appearance of it. Consider The Providence Journal reporter who asked his local tax assessors office for a copy of the database of property tax assessments. Journalists often write stories about property tax assessments so taxpayers can see who is paying how much and reach conclusions about the fairness of the assessments.

Public officials told the Rhode Island reporter he couldn't have the database because the assessor's office didn't know how to run the state's computer system. They changed their tune when the reporter told them he would be happy to print their names and their answer if they wanted to stick to it. They lost no time contacting a state tax official who told them the one-line command to copy the database to a disk, which they handed over to the reporter.

Parochialism can be an impediment as well. That's what a Tulsa World reporter found when she asked a local school superintendent for an electronic copy of his system's payroll. The superintendent declined because "the ladies don't want everyone knowing their ages."

Usually, though, public officials force journalists seeking public records via FOI laws to jump through all sorts of unreasonable bureaucratic hoops, then claim "the records don't exist" or "that's not covered by the FOI," even when the requested records are covered by the law.

Putting local, state and federal records on computers has proven a bonanza to government officials who don't want to be held accountable. Sure, journalists are told, we can provide those documents electronically -- but "it will cost you $10,000 for re-programming our system." In fact, making a copy of a computerized document can usually be accomplished with only a few keystrokes.

Why do bureaucrats and elected officials regularly disregard FOI laws? David Sobel, general counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., put it well: "The greatest obstacle to the effective use of Freedom of Information Act laws is bureaucratic culture. That culture promotes secrecy and resists openness."

In other words, human nature being what it is, most of the time, most government officials -- regardless of political party or office -- want to make themselves look like they're doing their jobs well, so they shun the accountability that comes with genuine transparency in government. And so journalists get the run-around when they ask for documents.

Should you care? You bet. As Patrick "Give me liberty or give me death" Henry said in 1787, "the liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them." Were Mr. Henry with us today, he might put it like this: "When insolent officials thumb their noses at journalists, it's you and I getting the shaft."

Want to do something? Check out the National Freedom of Information Coalition's Web site. Also, see the First Amendment Center's Web site. Organizations such as these are fighting for your right to know -- and they could use some help.

Mark Tapscott is The Heritage Foundation's director of media services and its Guardabassi Fellow for Media and Public Policy.

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