With the commemoration last week of Sunshine Week — an annual plea for transparency, open government, and “sunshine” to illuminate the truth and to keep it out of the darkness — similar stories are being shared of the lengths of some governmental entities to control information, manipulate public dialogue, and use secrecy for seemingly unsavory gain.
One example: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — whose information and guidance has to be seen right now as nothing short of life and death — has long banned reporters from its facilities, even though they are public buildings. “There are no credentials to allow reporters to enter, although journalists could be vetted as easily as the thousands of employees are,” the Society of Professional Journalists’ Kathryn Foxhall wrote in an op-ed last week. “Reporters cannot enter the facilities except under controlled circumstances like official meetings.”
Under the administration of President Barack Obama, the “CDC had to clear anything important through its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services,” Foxhall reported, citing the firsthand experiences of New York Times reporter Donald McNeil, Jr. “Under the Trump administration, (McNeil) said, ‘If you don’t talk to people off the record, you don’t talk to anyone because nobody is being allowed to say anything on the record,’ unless it is cleared through various layers, sometimes including the White House.”
Such practices, which clearly snub the public’s right to know, echo complaints the Society of Professional Journalists and others have been making since the Obama days. Before becoming president, he promised the most transparent administration ever. But, “Transparency has gotten worse,” the society and 40 other organizations stated in a letter in August 2016. They complained about federal officials blocking reporters’ requests to interview staffers, deadline-busting delays in responding to requests for public information, officials insisting on anonymity, even for mundane or noncontroversial stories, and more — much of which should sound quite familiar to media in Duluth attempting to access City Hall and the police department.
Unsurprisingly, the barriers to the public’s right to know were only “exacerbated under the Trump administration,” amounting to “extreme censorship and damage to everyone’s understanding of government,” the Society of Professional Journalists also wrote. “The U.S. government’s rules prohibit employees from speaking to the press without notification or oversight by authorities, often by using public information officers as gatekeepers.”
With President Joe Biden, who had been vice president in the Obama administration, the concerns persist.
Another example: In 2019, Kaiser Health reporter Christina Jewett found that the Food and Drug Administration had for nearly 20 years allowed medical-device companies to file reports of injuries and malfunctions outside of a public database, as Foxhall included in her column. This left “doctors and medical sleuths in the dark,” Jewett wrote. In the six months she worked on her series of reports, Jewett wasn’t allowed by the FDA to speak to any of its experts. She had to build her stories from Freedom of Information Act-obtained documents and interviews with people outside the agency.
Such secrecy and lack of public access is concerning. Alarming even. Flat-out wrong. As Community Newspaper Holdings National Editor Jim Zachary of Georgia reminded in an op-ed for Sunshine Week last year, “All the business (that the) government does, whether in open public meetings or behind closed doors, is your business. … Every last penny (the) government spends is your money. … It is your right to know every transaction, every decision, every expenditure and every deliberation. … Whether talking about the White House, the statehouse, or the county courthouse, all the documents held in government halls belong to the people, and all the business conducted by our governors is public business.
“We believe our government — your government — can only be of, by, and for the people when it is out in front of the people.”
The legitimate free press and its commitment to accuracy, fairness, and inclusion of all viewpoints is critical to our representative democracy. The press is the public’s representative and watchdog. Limiting the press or forcing journalists to follow time-sucking procedures shortchanges the public’s ability to be informed participants in public processes that affect all. It hampers journalists’ constitutionally protected right to document and report.
Drawing attention to such issues — and to remedying them — is what Sunshine Week is all about. Open and responsive government is something all of us, from Duluth to D.C., can insist on all 52 weeks of every year.