In August, I was approached by the Mainstream Media Project, a nonprofit group that helps a variety of public interest causes by lining up academic experts to talk to radio and television hosts about the issues of the day.
I was asked to pitch in on a campaign on civil liberties after Sept. 11, focusing on freedom of information.
As co-chair of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and as executive director of an academic center dedicated to studying FOI law, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up: I was going to go on the air and rally support for FOI from Joe Public! It was exciting stuff. I’d give the access proponent’s view of developments in FOI, then take a few calls on some shows.
From the first show – on an NPR station in California – to the last interview I did just days before this writing, I was struck by several things that kept repeating themselves, station after station, interview after interview.
First, the hosts are concerned citizens with concerned citizens listening. I was heartened by the knowledge base displayed by the callers, and for the most part, even those who disagreed vehemently with my positions were respectful and rational.
That people disagreed vehemently with my position was the major surprise. I thought FOI was a bipartisan issue, one that all Americans, regardless of ideology, could agree upon. This apparently has changed drastically, and no one thought to mention it to me!
I was quickly labeled a liberal gadfly by many callers. They seemed to prefer complete secrecy, so long as it comes from their party of choice, and could not fathom an issue in American life that was not resolvable through pure ideology. Others agreed with my position, but wanted to turn the discussion into a political food fight for much the same reason.
I ducked the politics and stuck with my message: FOI is good government, good democracy and good public policy. It seemed irresistible, yet a good percentage of callers disagreed with even my “motherhood-and-apple pie” argument.
“Why don’t you people just let the President run the country like he and his people see fit?” one testy caller asked.
I was dumbfounded. “Really?” I asked. “Is complete deference to the Executive Branch really going to serve the nation well in times of crisis? How does that fulfill the citizen’s role in a democracy?”
Silence. Then a click. I had won the battle, but lost the war. That caller was no more convinced of the goodness of FOI than many of our nation’s political leaders.
That’s when it hit me: We must spread the word, in as many ways as we can, that FOI is just good for us. It’s a message few Americans hear, and FOI depends for its very likelihood on the support of the electorate. If the people value its inherent goodness for democracy, then regardless of politics, it will stand the test of time.
I was struck, time and again on the air, by how little the hosts – well-meaning, well-informed people – knew of FOI’s historical and theoretical origins. The hosts knew FOI was a good thing, and they wanted more of it, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on the reason why. When I pointed out to one host that without public access to information about those being detained by our government, no one outside the Justice Department had any means of determining the health and welfare of the detainees, the host seemed stunned.
“I’ve never really thought about it that way,” he said.
And that is the great frustration for FOI advocates: Despite our best efforts, it is ultimately everyone’s job to press for greater access in these troubled times. A few radio talk shows convinced me that we have a long way to go. FOI has become, to many Americans, not a bedrock principle of democracy, but an ideological football to be tossed around. Access to government is the ultimate bipartisan issue, and we should strive to make that clear, every chance we get.
Charles Davis is co-chair of SPJ’s FOI Committee and executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia.