Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is there anybody out there?

The power implicit in the First Amendment freedoms of press and speech ultimately comes from the actions they evoke, not merely through exposing hidden deeds to the light.

Those words sounds a bit lofty, but the framers assumed that by guaranteeing a free press, freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances that Americans would actually use those rights instead of just arguing about them.

Freedom plus apathy equals status quo.

Over the past 20 years I’ve had the frequent opportunity to work with Idaho legislators in various attempts to improve Idaho’s “Sunshine Laws” -- those portions of state code protecting the peoples’ right to know by requiring the government to hold open meetings and maintain open records. The result has been a minor tweak here and there and occasional leaps forward, but Idaho remains well behind much of the rest of the country in requiring the government to be open.

It’s always struck me as odd that a state as politically conservative as Idaho seems to be so trusting of its government that its citizens allow weak Sunshine Laws to go unchallenged. When members of the journalism community meet with legislators to improve these laws, we often hear the same reply: “This is a newspaper bill. Why aren’t the people demanding this sort of change? You just want this information to help you sell papers.”

It’s a pretty compelling, if flawed, argument. The most obvious response is that the people elected these legislators to represent them and to see that their rights are protected. They shouldn’t have to show up en masse to every committee meeting or legislative session. But, in the absence of an obvious demand from citizens, legislators can be forgiven for taking the easy road and not demanding real openness in government.

Why? Oversimplified, it’s because two of the most powerful lobbies in Boise are the Idaho Association of Counties and the Association of Idaho Cities, which are organized and run by elected officials with whom our legislators feel a certain kindred spirit. Sunshine Laws create messy, inefficient government, and in the vacuum of citizen silence this argument often carries the day.

I have a few correspondents who argue that the Post Register ought to recognize the apathy of Idaho citizens and serve more as an advocate than an objective reporter on certain issues. I resist this, partially because it offends what I’ve come to accept as the ethics of journalism. But more practically speaking, in time advocacy erodes journalism’s credibility, and that’s too high a price to pay.

But I am often left to wonder: Is anybody listening? And if so, to what end?


  1. Oh Roger - This is your form of advocacy. Like the editorial pages of a newspaper, there is a place for advocacy journalism. Blogs? Blogs by reporters? It's happening everywhere. I don't know that it erodes our credibility, but I do know it can enhance it if we are open in our self-disclosures and note our biases. We are in this business to be FAIR, and objectivity is actually an illusion.

  2. This isn't published in my paper (though it might be), and when I do write opinion for the PR it's published on a page clearly labeled as such. Objectivity shouldn't be so easily dismissed as an ideal. Blogs by reporters are a bad idea -- always have been. We've never allowed them. The idea that a newspaper can both openly advocate and be fair seems like the larger illusion to me.