Freedom of information is more than access to government records, although that’s a good start.
FOI is also about access to the makers of those records, the elected officials and the countless civil servants it takes to run this country.
The most important tool in your FOI toolbox — one heavily used in the early days of this nation but maybe gone rusty these days — is a healthy sense of skepticism. The one that goes “Really???” when you’re fed “information” electronically, in press releases or by government officials. “Information” that seems just a little too good, a little too perfect, a little too plentiful.
The feeling that something is amiss when agency employees are forbidden to communicate with reporters unless they are tracked or monitored by public information officers on behalf of the bosses.
How’s your sense of skepticism?
The skepticism of crime reporters in one of the 50 largest U.S. cities is buzzing as they receive regular “watchlogs” from the police department that say entire days go by with “No significant activity.” Is the city the crime-free utopia its inhabitants wish it was? Of course not. Those same crime writers can document instances where murder and mayhem were going on while the logs listed “No significant event.”
What’s going on? In this day when something can go viral immediately, when presidential candidates have to worry about what tie they wear or what cereal they eat, some of those in government have become wary. They’ve decided to control what the news media, and therefore the public, knows. They’ve hired public relations professionals to present the “best face” of government to the public.
That’s fine and good as long as you see it for what it is. Part of a PIO’s job is to make the boss look good. Yours is to find the truth. Sometimes they’re not the same thing.
Often government wants to pick and choose what information you know. Oh, it’s not all Pollyanna. Some will give it to you straight. Others, they’ll let out some of the “bad” stuff, but only after they’ve done some damage control on it or coached some key “spokespeople” on how to handle it.
It can turn reporters into unintentional “spokespeople” themselves. If we leave that sense of skepticism in the toolbox because we’re tired, we’re overworked or frankly, we don’t really care — we just want to file our copy and go home — that’s just what we become.
If we wanted to be public relations people, we’d have gone into that field.
But we had a different vision for ourselves. We wanted to tell people’s stories and the stories of this nation. We wanted to make a difference. We wanted to find and tell the truth.
Sometimes government helps us do that. Sometimes PIOs understand that. But more and more, they don’t.
So why aren’t we screaming mad? That’s what we’re asking you! Many of you are being very quiet (c’mon — unless you live under a rock, you KNOW it’s happening in your neck of the woods).
But we at SPJ can’t do that. We’ve committed since 1909 to advocate for you, to sound the alarm when we need to. That’s part of our job, and what you, through your membership dues, “pay” us to do.
As such, we’re the first organization to sign up behind a new group called Stop the New American Censorship, which is starting to scream loud and strong: We won’t do it anymore.
We won’t be spoon-fed what government wants to “share” and obstructed when it doesn’t. PIOs won’t be our “friends” on Facebook or in our personal lives. Many of them are “good guys,” but we can’t be afraid to irk them when truth and spin diverge.
We will demand to talk to government employees without the employee or journalist reporting the contact to the authorities. Because, among other reasons, confidential conversations are critical to holding government accountable.
SNAC needs our help. Its first step is to get a letter published in The Washington Post calling on the president/ president-to-be and all politicians throughout the country to give us back access to the people who work in government, to allow us to report unobstructed and allow our readers/viewers/listeners to see our true government, warts and all.
To do that, first SNAC needs a little moolah. Not a lot. Even $10 from you will make a difference. See more at the SNAC website.
SNAC is also looking for real-life instances where this is going on so they can get an accurate picture of the problem. Email me at email@example.com and I’ll pass it along.
Then start hollering. And get your buddies going too. Drag that ol’ sense of skepticism out of your toolbox and blow off the dust. Then start using it. At SPJ, we’re nearly 8,000 strong. And we have friends.
Take back your craft, your job, your country. Or not, Pollyanna. It’s up to you.
Note: This column has been updated to remove a reference to a specific city.