There was a time when newspapers wouldn't even print news about TV. Both media viewed each other through jaundiced eyes. But over the past week, journalists—print, television and radio—have joined in an effort, called Sunshine Week, to educate the public about their rights to government information and the government's attempts to deprive them of those rights, often under the invocation of “national security.”
The Bush administration is choking off information, and chilling it when it can't choke it, by hunting down and punishing those who dare to break ranks in the government or do their jobs as journalists.
The “un-information” campaign goes from stonewalling at the White House to beating up on WJAR's Jim Taricani, an investigative reporter in Providence R.I., for exposing corruption and properly protecting a source.
Sam Donaldson, the highest-profile White House reporter of his generation, says that not since the Nixon Administration has there been such animus from the White House, and we would add that perhaps never has there been as widespread and organized an attempt to control information.
Add to that the impending renewal of some Patriot Act restrictions on civil liberties, then throw in the content crackdown at the FCC that has news departments talking about time-delays on live newscasts, and we are in danger of surrendering our fundamental right to criticize the government or hold it accountable for the duration of a war on terrorism that may have no end date.
(Note to new FCC Chairman Kevin Martin: Declaring uncomfortable content “indecent” is the third rail of censorship. You're leaning that way. Don't fall.)
It's not just journalists who are worried. “We believe that our political system can still maintain our security while maximizing the freedoms that are our birthright. Individual liberties are not negotiable, even in the face of terrorism.” Those words come not from a bleeding-heart but from former Rep. Bob Barr, the libertarian conservative Republican from Georgia, who, like others in both parties, fears a nation where rights are being trampled,
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), for one, is pushing bills that attempt to restore some of the balance between the legitimate protection of government secrets and the public's right to know. Another important effort is a bill to create a federal shield law that would exempt reporters from being forced to reveal confidential sources to federal investigators, sponsored by Rep. Mike Pence, a Republican (and former radio talk host) from Indiana. This is an issue and a concern that crosses all party lines.
At the moment, the Department of Homeland Security is something like a Swiss bank for corporate information. Post-9/11 restrictions on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests allow corporations to shield information on conduct that affects public health and safety. Leahy's bill, the Restore FOIA Act, would narrow some of those FOIA exemptions and restore protections for whistle-blowers.
Corporate leaders of our industry must flex some of those rusty muscles and speak out loudly and often on the issue. America's free press is crucial to keeping our nation free.