In the wake of heightened government secrecy in the post-9/11 era, one media outlet has responded by making freedom of information news coverage a full-time job.
The government secrecy beat at Cox News Service’s Washington Bureau was the brainchild of bureau chief Andy Alexander, who dreamed up the position in response to the heightened levels of secrecy — not just in the Bush administration but at state and local levels.
“We saw what I think was an unmistakable pattern of growing secrecy that just seemed to be spreading across the country at all levels of government,” Alexander said.
Under the Bush administration, “secrecy has been advanced in a myriad of ways, including excessive classification, brazen assertions of ‘executive privilege’ and ‘state secrets,’ new control markings to restrict ‘sensitive but unclassified’ information, and new limits on Freedom of Information Act requests,” according to “Government Secrecy: Decisions Without Democracy,” a recent report by OpenTheGovernment.org.
Alexander’s interest was heightened because he had recently been asked to be chairman of the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Freedom of Information Committee.
“We saw it as an important public policy debate that raises questions about both the limits of secrecy and of personal privacy,” Alexander said, noting that the debate grew noticeably in the wake of 9/11.
Rebecca Carr has manned the government secrecy beat since January 2005. She previously covered terrorism and the attacks on Sept 11, 2001.
“I just started digging around, and what I found was information disappearing from government-run Web sites, documents once readily available being pulled off the shelves at the National Archives,” Carr said. “I found a public that was desensitized after 9/11 in terms of what they should have access to.”
In addition to covering the U.S. attorney firings and other ongoing scandals at the Department of Justice and in the executive branch, Carr’s recent work includes tracking open government and freedom of information legislation, reporting on citizen- and government-initiated oversight efforts, and covering some of the many instances of questionable behavior in the current administration, as they relate to government secrecy.
“Covering secrecy is a critical issue,” Carr said. “You’re writing about everything from whistleblowers who are being ignored, to government programs no one knows about that violate civil liberties, to little communities in the post-9/11 era who have no idea that their water is being infected with chemicals.”
Carr’s work is distributed within the Cox family, which includes 17 daily newspapers, as well as on the New York Times’ wire service.
“It probably is the most important beat that you can have right now, especially given this administration’s propensity to secrecy,” Carr said. “And you can’t just lay the blame with the Bush administration; it’s Congress, too.”
Covering a secrecy beat presents its problems, many of which center on government secrecy itself.
Carr is subject to the very limitations on public information that she writes about. For instance, one public records request Carr made when she first started work on the beat more than 2½ years ago is still pending at the Justice Department.
“One of the administration’s favorite games now is to delay, and delay, and delay,” she said.
Carr said the current era of secrecy is unparalleled in American history, and the public’s right to know is in peril.
“This is an administration that wouldn’t even let the mothers and fathers of slain soldiers in Iraq view the flag-draped coffins of their children coming home, or take pictures of them,” Carr said. “What does that say?”
Alexander freely acknowledges that news about the freedom of information probably is not at the top of the average news consumer’s agenda. But relating stories about government secrecy to Cox Newspapers’ readers has been a focus from the start.
“We made an initial threshold decision that where possible, we would write about this from the standpoint of average readers, as opposed to writing about bureaucratic debates,” Alexander said.
“One of our early stories dealt with the debate over what the government should give to citizens, and it focused on a woman in Maryland who had been battling the military for information on what they had been dumping at a chemical site not far from her house. And that was a perfect example for us. There are many citizens who want to know these things,” he said.
Alexander gets the impression that reader response and interest to articles about government secrecy have been increasing over time, though it is difficult to gauge in finite terms because much of the response is directed at a reader’s local newspaper, instead of to the bureau where the content was actually produced.
It is also unclear whether the reader response stems from increased coverage on these topics, which readers may have come to expect, or because of the focus Democrats have been putting on government secrecy, Alexander said.
“We know from surveys that people are increasingly concerned about government secrecy,” and people want to participate in “intellectually stimulating debates about the limits of privacy and openness,” he said.
However, the current news climate for the print media has not been kind to the government secrecy beat.
“It’s harder to get these stories in the paper, just because news holes are tighter,” Alexander said. “It’s hard to sustain it given how newspaper staffs are stretched now.”
However, there seems to be no lack on interest on the Internet, where people have an easier time seeking these articles out.
“I find that some newspapers aren’t interested in writing about open government,” Carr said. “There’s more interest in these stories on the Net than in a traditional newspaper, but that’s OK because these stories should be where the audience is.”
When the beat was first created, there were endless discussions about the sensitive nature of journalists covering government secrecy and the freedom of information, Alexander said. The media has an undeniable stake in these issues and an industrywide interest in broader access.
“We’ve also been careful not to go into this in an advocacy role. We recognize that there are different decisions that need to be made in society,” Alexander said. “We try to be very, very careful to present both sides of the issue.”
While the media may be aware of its own stake in the freedom of information, this may also lead them to forget that it is not just a journalism issue and that the public is concerned about secrecy, too.
“I think there’s a real hesitancy by journalists to cover these issues because they think they’re writing about journalism,” Carr said.
Too often, journalists think the public does not know or care about FOIA, she said.
“The public does care about its right to know,” Carr said. “It affects the public far more than it affects journalists.”
Carr reiterated that the media has a responsibility to cover secrecy for the benefit of the general public.
“If you ignore it, then the next generation is going to wake up 20 years later and realize how much ground we lost,” she said.
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