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The overlooked battlefield in the war against the press

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CNN reporter Jeremy Desmond asked Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, under fire because of four deaths at his jail, for an interview. On Friday, Clarke replied on Twitter:

Donald Trump has labeled CNN as fake news. When Pres. Trump says CNN is ok again, then I might.

democracy-in-americaThe sheriff — an elected public official — has refused to respond to a press request for an interview. This particular sheriff has a nationwide reputation as a supporter of President Donald and has been considered for a position in the Donald administration.

No law compels anyone, elected or not, to speak to a journalist. But those who voted for Clarke ought to wonder how, and by whom, his performance should be examined. More troubling, however, is this: Clarke is unlikely to be the last city, county, or state elected public official, feeling empowered by President Donald’s disdain for the press, to withhold information the public is lawfully entitled to.

Imagine a reporter in a small town in a state somewhere between the coasts. She asks the town clerk (an elected public official) for the agenda of the next meeting of the town council. The town clerk refuses — without explanation. The council itself decides to change its meeting date and time without posting a legally required public notice of its intent to meet. The reporter asks the town clerk for a copy of the minutes of the council’s unannounced meeting and is again refused. The reporter calls the chair of the town council and asks for an interview. She is rebuffed.

Expect occurrences of this scenario, which journalists have experienced time and again, to increase.

Public records laws exist in all 50 states. They allow members of the public to obtain documents and other records from local, county, and state officials and agencies. Generally, the requester need not cite a reason for the request — because information in government hands belongs to the public.

That’s the law. Consider this from the state of Washington’s public records law:

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments they have created.

That reporter knows this. Yet because her newspaper’s management over the past years has halved (or worse) its staff of journalists, and because the newspaper’s ad revenue has tanked so badly, the newspaper’s bosses are unlikely to spend money to hire a lawyer to pursue the issue.

How many local, county, and state elected public officials will respond to press requests, let alone citizen requests, for information with a bald refusal? What news organization will have the cojones and the cash to contest the refusal in the Age of Donald?

Consider again this from the Washington state public records law:

The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.

President Donald’s recent gag order on federal agencies has contravened this basic principle. (Note, too, that the information being gagged has been produced with taxpayer dollars.)

The war on the press that’s most worrisome is not the war being waged by President Donald and his barkdog minions, Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. Their actions encourage small-town and big-city public officials alike to ignore open records laws and reasonable requests for information. Further, federal officials may feel empowered to delay acting on Freedom of Information Act requests until the usefulness of the information sought has passed.

It’s likely the war against the press will be fought at the local and state level, but the war at the federal level will get the most ink and airtime.


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

January 29, 2017 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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