The peo­ple’s law

Open gov­ern­ment serves Arkansans, not me­dia

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

Yes, we hear it. When we’re in pub­lic, among peo­ple who know who we are or peo­ple who call us friends and fam­ily, it’s there. Some­times it’s in the form of a lit­tle gen­tle teas­ing from folks who don’t re­ally mean it. Some­times it has a lit­tle harder edge, ac­com­pa­nied by a sly wink. Some­times, it’s meant to mock, de­mean or in­sult.

“There goes a mem­ber of the dis­hon­est me­dia.”

“Made up any fake news lately?” “Why don’t you peo­ple pick on some­one else?”

It doesn’t re­ally bother us. It’s part of what we do, much like a sports of­fi­cial who ex­pects to anger half of those watch­ing at any par­tic­u­lar mo­ment of the game.

We’re par­tic­u­larly im­mune when such barbs come from the po­lit­i­cal class. We’re the folks who watch them, who re­port what they do and say, and who try to help the vot­ers hold them ac­count­able when they break their prom­ises. It is, by its na­ture, an ad­ver­sar­ial dy­namic. It’s no won­der a politi­cian would have hard feel­ings to­ward some jour­nal­ists just try­ing to do their jobs. Be­sides, no one ever lost many votes trash­ing the me­dia.

Some­one is al­ways go­ing to be mad at us, and that’s OK. What does bother us, how­ever, is when politi­cians, in their zeal to teach their me­dia ad­ver­saries a les­son, start do­ing harm to the pub­lic at large. And politi­cians in at the state Capi­tol in Lit­tle Rock are threat­en­ing to do just that.

Ef­forts to weaken the state’s Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act have been abun­dant in this ses­sion of the state Leg­is­la­ture. This ses­sion rep­re­sents the most vi­cious at­tack on the pub­lic’s right to know since the law was en­acted in 1967.

There have been var­i­ous pro­pos­als — some suc­cess­ful — to do things like ex­empt from dis­clo­sure in­for­ma­tion about the peo­ple pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity at your child’s school and to give gov­ern­ment agen­cies the chance to hide reams of doc­u­ments by fun­nel­ing them through a lawyer’s of­fice.

Some law­mak­ers seem al­most glee­ful in sup­port­ing changes to the FOIA if they know it’s go­ing to cause a re­porter, editor or other me­dia mem­ber dis­com­fort.

In their rush to strike back at their sup­posed op­pres­sors, these law­mak­ers are for­get­ting that the ac­cess to gov­ern­ment isn’t meant for the me­dia in par­tic­u­lar, but for the pub­lic at large. When they make a law that pre­vents a re­porter from get­ting in­for­ma­tion on the ac­tiv­i­ties of gov­ern­ment, they’re pre­vent­ing you from do­ing it, too, dear reader.

It is shal­low think­ing in­deed to sup­port leg­is­la­tion sim­ply be­cause it of­fends or ir­ri­tates a per­ceived en­emy. It takes deeper think­ing and greater lead­er­ship to look past per­sonal dif­fer­ences to see and sup­port what is in the long-term best in­ter­ests of ev­ery­one.

The sil­ver lin­ing is a few lights have been com­ing on in re­cent days at the Capi­tol. A cou­ple of poorly thought-out pro­pos­als have fallen by the way­side. One would have ex­empted ac­cess to law en­force­ment ac­ci­dent re­ports for 30 days, while an­other would have al­lowed a gov­ern­ment agency an un­de­ter­mined amount of time re­spond to records re­quests.

There are still some bad bills out there, and a few more that could be made less harm­ful to the pub­lic’s right to know if the law­mak­ers run­ning the leg­is­la­tion would just take a mo­ment to think things through in light of what’s best for his or her con­stituents. And it would help if they would re­mem­ber that the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act is not the me­dia’s law; it’s the peo­ple’s law.

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