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A tale of two countries

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  1. Freedom of Information
A change in attitude among public officials can erode access. From the Summer 2007 issue of The News Media &…

A change in attitude among public officials can erode access.

From the Summer 2007 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 12.

Here are two stories from two different countries. The first occurred in the summer of 1979. I was a reporter with The Washington Post working with a partner on an investigative series about government contracts. One afternoon, I telephoned a senior official and asked if I might interview him. Half an hour later I was seated across from him. He answered my questions with minimal defensiveness and two hours later, volunteered that whatever other answers I might seek were to be found in the file cabinets behind me. Help yourself to them, he told me.

By then it was late and he said he would have to go, but I could stay. He asked that when I was done I turn out the lights and close the door behind me. The copy machine was in the corner and I was welcome to use it. The only restriction he placed on me was that I respect the confidentiality of proprietary and personnel information. With that he departed. I remained for several hours and finally emerged with a mountain of documents. Half a year later the Post published our findings. The story would be a Pulitzer finalist, lead to congressional hearings, and, more importantly, produce much-needed reforms. And I kept my word, leaving out anything remotely related to proprietary or personnel information.

Now, to my second story. A few months ago, I attempted to contact a senior official but was unable to reach him directly. Instead, I was routed to a public information officer and asked to first submit my questions in writing. I was told that any interview would be conducted in the presence of the public information officer. I was informed that I would first be presented a slide show offering the government’s point of view. The interview would last for half an hour, no more. There was a second alternative. I could speak with the official by phone but it could only be a purely “social call” his words, not mine and everything would be off the record. I chose option No. 2, the “social call,” hoping for a substantive exchange. My optimism was misplaced.

I say these are two stories from two countries, but in fact, both occurred in America. It’s just that it feels so very much like two different countries separated not by distance but time. I will not pretend that the first account was common even 28 years ago, but it did represent a time when many in the senior ranks of government still imagined that they were answerable to citizens and that at least some reporters could be trusted to serve as public proxies.

I offer these two starkly different accounts because they reflect a sea change in attitude on the part of government officials. Of course other administrations have fallen prey to a siege mentality but this runs deeper and is more systemic. Much has been written and will be written about the legislative and regulatory subversion of public access to information the Ashcroft memo turning the Freedom of Information Act on its head, the vast expansion of classification, the proliferation of sensitive but unclassified materials, the Patriot Act and a host of other measures obstructing access to information. But such resistance to disclosure is merely an expression of an underlying pathology, a now deeply embedded culture that cannot be neatly repealed with the stroke of a pen.

As many reporters have learned of late, even the rights accorded by law depend to a frightful degree on the good faith of the parties covered. The FOIA can be foiled and frustrated by dilatory tactics, misfilings and claims of lost records. Executive office communications, as we now know, can be sidetracked by resort to separate e-mail accounts. A vice president, resisting disclosure, may claim his office to be legislative not executive when it serves his purposes. Even subpoenas fail when the courts are anemic in their support of disclosure.

Democracies function only when those in possession of information respect the underlying legitimacy of the petitioner and recognize that their responsibility runs not to party or agenda, but to citizens. It is a tired and all too easily trivialized notion to speak of the public’s right to know, but in truth, what we have witnessed in recent years is just how fragile that right is, how swiftly the legal framework can be dismantled or disregarded. In individual cases, one may prevail over such contempt for disclosure but ultimately what is called for is nothing less than a fundamental change in the culture of government that spawned it. I cannot help but wonder if the reporters of this generation or the next will know what it is to be allowed to turn out the lights and close the door behind them.

 

Ted Gup is the author of “Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life,” from Doubleday and is the Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism at Case Western Reserve University.