In search of true transparency

Published 7:31 pm Saturday, March 21, 2015

During the past week, in honor of Sunshine Week, this page has featured a variety of guest columnists and editorial cartoons explaining the importance of various facets of the state and federal freedom of information acts.

Some folks may have thought we went a bit overboard by devoting as much time and space to the topics of government transparency and freedom of information as we have done this week. Surely there are other important issues we might have chosen to focus upon instead. And there are certain folks in Suffolk who probably wish we had done just that. Some of them probably even consider it a bit self-serving for the Suffolk News-Herald to have beaten this drum all week.

But transparency in government isn’t just a matter of appeasing the media. In fact, the media’s claim to government transparency only gains legitimacy in relationship to its role as a representative of the people.

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A government of, by and for the people is necessarily — at least as designed and intended — responsible and responsive to those people. But it is impossible for every constituent to be plugged in regarding every issue of government. Standing in for the governed and then reporting back to them about their government is one of the primary reasons the media exists in a representative democracy.

It follows, therefore, that the media has a vested interest in government transparency. We cannot tell our readers or our viewers what their government is doing if it’s done in secret meetings, via secretive documents or with the perspective that secrecy should be anything but the rarest exception to the rule that government business should be conducted in the open.

In fact, many government agencies, from the local level right up to the federal level, would like you to think government transparency, freedom of information and open meetings are media issues. After all, pretty much the only people with lower approval ratings than elected officials and bureaucrats are journalists. So if we journalists get our eyes poked once in a while, big deal, right?

But don’t buy it. When elected or appointed government officials at any level attempt to shut the press out of public business, the disdain and antipathy they project is directed not so much at the media as at the law and the people who live under it.

When reporters are booted from open meetings, your elected officials are also excluding you. When bureaucrats charge journalists exorbitant fees for public records, they declare those records to be off limits to anyone unwilling or unable to pay the price. When elected officials skirt transparent government through loopholes and shenanigans, the affront is not so much to the media as it is to the public.

As important as freedom of information is to the media, it should be even more so to the people in whose stead the media stands. And as vital as government transparency is in a representative democracy or constitutional republic, no citizen should ever be satisfied with platitudinous pronouncements on its behalf. Citizens and the media must require that elected and appointed government officials put actions to their words.

Those who would gain the goodwill of voters by trumpeting the concept of transparency, while trampling it underfoot by their actions, are even greater threats than those who make no pretense of protecting the public’s right to know. Just as the latter must not be allowed to succeed in their tyranny, the former must not be allowed to succeed in their deception.

There’s just too much at stake to ignore the importance of true government transparency.