The people’s law
Open government serves Arkansans, not media
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.