5 instances of official disdain for press, public

Thursday, November 1, 2007

If the past few weeks are any indication, government officials’ expectations of the news media have fallen to astonishingly low levels.

These expectations, of course, rarely have been high, as officials often assume the press gathers news for every story like paparazzi and reports each item like tabloids. A flurry of five recent events, however, suggests officials have almost no confidence that news organizations can be trusted to cover responsibly even the most important stories.

1. Wisconsin stonewall. As journalists descended upon small Crandon, Wis., to cover an off-duty sheriff deputy’s shooting rampage that left himself and six others dead, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen didn’t fully brief the news media on the killings. Nor did he bring in public relations staff to help residents manage the coverage.

Instead, Van Hollen stonewalled the media, refusing to release autopsy findings, crime-scene evidence and recordings of some 911 calls. He also directed law enforcement officials in Crandon to stop talking to the press and, claiming to represent the victims’ families, requested that Crandon residents also ignore reporters’ questions. Most residents acceded to this request, leaving the media unable to report important details about the shootings and how the killings affected the small community.

2. Phoenix takedown. A similar outcry over basic reporting came from Phoenix, where Maricopa County prosecutor Andrew Thomas pressured The Arizona Republic and KPNX-TV to remove from their joint Web site a story that included links to county Web pages listing Thomas’ home address. The purpose of the story, the news outlets said, was to demonstrate how easily personal information can be obtained online. Although it was the county, not the media, that published Thomas’ address, Thomas still blamed the media.

“It’s one thing to have information on public records somewhere in the Internet but quite another to flag that information in a story posted on a popular Web site,” Thomas told the Associated Press. “It’s an abuse of media power.”

3. Ohio hide & seek. In Ohio, concerns about how the news media might use online information appear to be one reason the state’s highest court rejected The Cincinnati Enquirer’s efforts to obtain the names of all Ohioans convicted of drunk driving since 1973. While acknowledging both that it had the list and that the newspaper could compile the same list by searching through records in Ohio’s 88 counties, the Ohio Department of Public Safety nevertheless refused to release the list in electronic form, citing federal and state privacy laws. The court sided with the department, dismissing the case without even considering the merits of the newspaper’s appeal.

4. 900,000 secret people. A federal judge in New York similarly held that the government can refuse to produce records in a form that would make it easier for the press to do its job.

At issue in this case were the names, positions and salaries of federal employees, which the government — with few exceptions — has released since 1816. Between 1989 and 2004, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse based at Syracuse University made this information public through a database.

In 2004, the government redacted or refused to provide much of the information it had previously produced, citing vague national-security and personal-privacy interests. In court documents, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management said concerns about releasing this information arose in 2001, when terrorist attacks “heightened OPM’s awareness of the vulnerability of federal employees to terrorist attacks anywhere within the United States based solely on the fact that personnel work for the federal government.”

At or about the same time, OPM said, OPM determined that employees in specific occupations were “more vulnerable and likely to be exposed to harassment and unwarranted attention as a direct result of their work, whether it be to further criminal purposes or merely to vent misplaced frustrations.”

Despite the historical openness of this information, Chief U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue refused to order OPM to provide it. As a result, the names, salaries and positions of more than 900,000 federal employees that once had been available are now shielded from public view.

5. Earth to NASA … However misplaced the government’s desire to protect its employees from media attention and public venting, it pales in comparison to NASA’s recent decision to withhold the results of a national survey of pilots concerning the extent of safety problems in the airline industry. That survey, the AP reported, reveals that near collisions and runway interference occur far more frequently than the government previously recognized.

So why did NASA withhold this vital information? Because, in NASA’s opinion, the news media cannot be trusted with the survey results.

“Release of the requested data, which are sensitive and safety-related, could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, the air carriers and general aviation companies whose pilots participated in the survey,” NASA associate administrator Thomas S. Luedtke wrote in his letter denying the AP’s request for the survey. Luedtke also cited pilot confidentiality as a reason, although all pilots who participated in the survey did so anonymously.

(Yesterday the AP reported that NASA had apparently relented and promised to reveal the survey results.)

The ultimate loser in all of these cases, of course, is the public, not the press. While government officials often cloak their self-serving secrecy in the indignant charge that the media “only want to sell newspapers,” they ignore the fact that the public is buying those newspapers, a public with the right and the need to obtain and understand as much information as possible about how government works.

Officials who believe the press is irresponsible must remember that the press is the conduit, not the consumer. The consumer is the citizen, the taxpayer who pays the officials’ salaries, the voter who retains the officials or removes them from their positions. If officials want the public to exercise those rights and powers responsibly, they must — whatever the officials’ negative feelings about the news media — ensure the public is provided the information necessary to do so.

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