November 11, 2004

November 11, 2004 | Commentary on

Internet Revolution is Forcing Transparency

Debates about "red states" and "blue states" aside, the 2004 presidential campaign made one thing clear: The Internet is rapidly establishing real-time transparency in government and the media as the sine qua non of American public policy.

That's good news for the American voter, because for the most part government and the major media remain for now much as they have been for the past half-century -- too remote, restrictive and elitist.

Revolutions aren't won in a day and sometimes progress is slow, so friends of openness in government can take heart knowing they're on the winning side. Here are three reasons why their victory is inevitable:

First, the Blogosphere has ended Big Media's monopoly on deciding what is news and how it should be covered. A relative handful of influential editors and producers at media outlets such as The New York Times and CBS News no longer shape the national agenda.

Consider those exploding cigars of Dan Rather's National Guard memos and the Times' "lost munitions" story. Within hours of Rather's Guard memos broadcast, Powerlineblog.com, LittleGreenFootballs.com and other bloggers exposed the memos as fakes. Within a week, Rather's story was a major embarrassment for the once-respected Tiffany Network.

The process was repeated with the Times story that suggested terrorists stole 380 tons of a powerful explosive from Saddam Hussein's Al Qaqaa munitions depot because Bush failed to guard it properly during the U.S. military's drive to Baghdad.

As with the Rather National Guard memos, within hours bloggers such as FroggyRuminations.com and TruthLaidBear.com exposed huge holes in the lost munitions story. The bloggers charged the Times with inexcusably sloppy research and with excluding key details indicating the munitions were gone long before the first U.S. troops arrived at Al Qaqaa.

These episodes demonstrate San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor's maxim that people reading the news collectively often know more about a topic than the journalists reporting it. No media organization's research staff can match the collective fact-checking power and speed of bloggers. Thus, Big Media is on notice: Report it straight or risk public humiliation.

The second reason victory is inevitable concerns public officials. Bloggers forcing more media transparency today can force more transparency in government tomorrow, from the most obscure bureaucracy to the White House. It will be tougher to bring about in government because the light of accountability is anathema to so many bureaucrats and office-holders. But happen it will.

Finally, the Internet is sparking an explosion of publicly available data from government at all levels and putting it in the hands of millions of citizens, journalists, political and community activists, academics and think-tank experts with the skills to make sense of the numbers. Government officials can no longer control the means of measuring the success or failure of public policies.

For example, perhaps you are skeptical of claims taxes must be increased so more can be spent on local schools. Find out how much is really being spent and where those tax dollars come from on the U.S. Census Bureau's Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data Web site at http://www.census.gov/govs/www/school.html.

Or maybe you want to know how many problems health inspectors found in a facility you're considering for your elderly parent. Go to the Department of Health and Human Services web site at http://www.medicare.gov/NHCompare.

Like Agent Mulder's truth that is "out there," data on virtually every topic imaginable is becoming available at little or no cost. Millions of people across America know how to access and analyze such data, thanks to the availability of software programs such as Microsoft Excel.

As public awareness of the utility and accessibility of such data grows, so will the demand for more access and more data. Pressure on government to put more of its internal processes on the Internet will grow. A logical starting place is the federal government's Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS), which contains millions of internal reports on the performance of thousands of government contractors.

How long before vast networks of Internet-savvy citizen analysts apply the same immense fact-checking power to pork-laden government programs as the emerging Blogosphere is now doing with Big Media? Then the Freedom of Information Act will have real muscle.

Mark Tapscott is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire