Battle Cry  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   September 2002

Battle Cry   

Its time for the news media to stand up to the assault on freedom of information.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Related reading:
   » The Information Squeeze
   » Too Free?

I've never been much of a black-and-white kind of guy.

Maybe it stems from watching too much film noir. Perhaps it's all those good-bad protagonists and tough broads with hearts of gold and murky-in-Albuquerque atmospheres that have left me with a great appreciation for nuance and shades of gray. (We'll talk about those wonderfully evil, Jane Greer-style femmes fatales some other time.)

Or maybe it simply stems from a misspent lifetime as a journalist who has seen too many "However, comma" paragraphs.

Whatever, I've never been too comfortable about absolutes.

Few things scare me more than people who know, absolutely know (with apologies to the rock group Fastball) The Way. True believers have been responsible for exponentially more carnage than the Charles Mansons of the world could ever imagine.

And don't get me started on reporters who settle on good guys and bad guys, to the point that they're perfectly content to throw balance and fairness out the window.

That said, there are some things that are so outrageous that they require not a campaign but a crusade, a call to the barricades.

American journalism is facing one of them now.

In a powerful piece that begins on page 20, AJR contributing writer Charles Layton paints a profoundly upsetting picture of freedom of information under fire.

Little by little, step by step, sources of information are being choked off--by the Justice Department, by the governor's office, by the local sheriff.

Freedom of information requests are ignored. Previously public records are sealed. Sunshine laws are eclipsed.

Since September 11, "national security" has often been invoked as the reason for withholding information, in many instances laughably.

Privacy concerns, spurred by the vast reach of the Internet, have led to well-intentioned but shortsighted laws to place records off-limits.

And sometimes, numerous First Amendment audits show, officials simply ignore their responsibilities out of mindless arrogance and contempt--because they can.

Make no mistake: The cumulative impact of this barrage has serious ramifications, and not just for journalists. As Tim Franklin, editor of the Orlando Sentinel, puts it, "We are confronted with a broad move toward secrecy and restricted public access that could reshape how Americans do business and monitor their government for decades."

Franklin should know. He spoke after his paper went through a bruising battle to get ahold of the autopsy pictures of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt. The paper didn't want to publish them. It wanted to study them as part of its effort to reduce the number of racing fatalities.

And that goes to the heart of the matter. There are perfectly good reasons why news organizations need access to data. It's about public interest, not prurient interest.

Fortunately, the American Society of Newspaper Editors' freedom of information committee is mobilizing for combat.

The committee, under the leadership of Doug Clifton, editor of Cleveland's Plain Dealer, is joining forces with other First Amendment stalwarts. And it hopes to galvanize the nation's media companies and newsrooms.

To prevail, news organizations are going to have to get beyond their traditional--and generally well-founded--reluctance to enter the fray. They are going to have to be more aggressive in wielding the twin axes of FOIA and state sunshine laws. They are going to have to refuse to take no for an answer. They are going to have to respond to foot-dragging with lawsuits.

Editorialists need to be pressed into service. And editors have to get past looking at stories about withholding information as so much inside baseball. This isn't about journalists' prerogatives. It's about the public's rights.

I've known Doug Clifton since we worked together at the Miami Herald two decades ago. I know his commitment to freedom of information. And I'd say Doug ranks right up there when it comes to aggressively pursuing his objectives.

That's good. Because don't underestimate the degree of difficulty of the challenge. The adversaries are formidable. Perhaps none more so than the enemy within--apathy.

Clifton told Layton that thus far he finds "a lack of real passion all across editorland" when it comes to taking on government secrecy.

That's got to change. To lose after an epic struggle would be bad enough. To simply cede this vitally important territory with just a whimper would be truly tragic.

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