Op Ed 2020

Each year, leading experts on open government contribute opinion columns that are published by media outlets around the nation.

In 2020, Sunshine Week will again offer intelligent, insightful and enlightening commentary on transparency issues. Check back to this page, which will be updated as material comes in.

Meanwhile, below is a sampling of opinions for Sunshine Spring 2020. (Note: This content was created for use during Sunshine Spring 2020). 


Editorial Board, St. Louis Post- Dispatch: Journalists serve as public’s eyes and ears as pandemic restrictions grow

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Friday ordered all “non-essential” personnel in Illinois to abide by a statewide stay-at-home lockdown to limit the coronavirus spread. In both Illinois and Missouri, local governments have announced measures to minimize public circulation and block attendance at government meetings. So who counts essential during a pandemic?

Certainly, medical personnel and first responders belong at the top of the list, along with the brave people who keep supermarkets open and store shelves stocked. Pritzker and some local officials have also acknowledged what might not be obvious to the general public: Journalists are essential personnel.

The service journalists provide doesn’t always make government officials happy, but they know the life-and-death difference between getting the message out versus keeping the public uninformed.

With government meetings around St. Louis now being closed to the general public in ways that stretch officials’ legal limits, Missouri taxpayers should be extra vigilant about decisions being made in their name. Drastic budget-slashing measures are imminent. Don’t you want to know what’s going to be cut?

With the public excluded, the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners voted to hire a new police chief on Thursday. The board improvised a broadcast of its meeting via YouTube, but good luck finding any record of the vote to hire the incoming chief, Capt. Mary Barton. A decision on a new chief was not on the meeting agenda. In the poor-quality meeting video, the board went into closed session but never returned to formally adjourn as required.

The entire way this decision was made should be unacceptable to the public. And unless stricter rules are outlined, this kind of improvisation can only yield less transparency and undermining of the public’s right to know.

Read more here.


CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary, Sunshine Week: It’s always your right to know
The media is most definitely not your enemy. 
Far from being the enemy of the people, day in and day out we take our role as the Fourth Estate seriously and work hard to protect your right to know, making public records requests and attending public meetings to keep you informed.  
Why? 
Because we believe all the business government does, whether in open public meetings or behind closed doors, is your business. 
We believe every last penny government spends is your money. 
We believe it is your right to know every transaction, every decision, every expenditure and every deliberation of your government. 
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. 
Primary to our Republic is the understanding that we are the government and the government is us. 
The only powers held by federal, state or local government are the powers we give. 
So, whether it is Congress, the state’s General Assembly, county commission, city council or the board of education, it is your right to know all of the people’s business. 
When you attend local city, county or school board meetings, ask questions and hold elected representatives accountable, you are not minding their business, you are minding your own business. 
When you make a public records request, you are not asking local records custodians to give you something that just belongs to them or the office where they work. You are simply asking for your own documents. 
The Bill of Rights, specifically the First Amendment which guarantees the freedom of speech and the freedom of press, is not intended to protect the media per se. Rather, the founders built a hedge of protection around the media because the media guards and fights for the public’s right to know. 
According to a Brookings Institution report, more than 2,000 newspapers across the country ceased publication in the last 15 years or so. The shuttering of newspapers presents a very real and present danger to our most basic freedoms. That’s why communities should support their local newspapers, through subscriptions and advertising, now more than ever before.
Journalists keep an eye on government, shine the light on its actions, fight the good fight for access to documents and meetings, champion transparency and defend the First Amendment because of a core belief in your basic, fundamental rights — principally, your right to know. 
CNHI Deputy National Editor Jim Zachary is the President of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. He can be reached a jzachary@cnhi.com 

Edwin Bender, executive director of National Institute on Money in State Politics: 
Transparency Transforming

The transparency of today, as good or as bad as it is, is not the transparency of tomorrow.

Disclosure of online advertising, micro-targeting, and “true identity” issues of election-advertising spenders frame key new areas of concern for democracy advocates and for journalists — because it’s difficult to hold elected officials accountable without robust disclosure of who’s behind those candidates’ political campaigns and the issues they advocate for or against.

“Follow the money,” the decades-old adage born from the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration, is no simple task if the money is hidden behind layer upon layer of deception. It’s a type of deception practiced by Russian oligarchs to protect their standing with “elected” leaders, and their billions of rubles. It’s a type of deception practiced by dictators to retain power even when their people are starving and protesting. And it’s a type of deception practiced by unscrupulous candidates, lawmakers, and political money-launderers in this country to gain and to hold on to power.

Nixon wasn’t the first to practice this deception, and he won’t be the last — unless “we the people” make a change. That means:

  • Ask candidates to make disclosure and transparency a priority in their campaigns. And practice what they preach. Scholarly analyses show that voters elect candidates who do so.
  • Call on elected lawmakers to properly fund and staff disclosure agencies tasked with ensuring candidates run campaigns within the legal boundaries, file their campaign finance reports in a timely manner, and quickly release that information for public eyes. The Federal Election Commission is the dismal example of a disclosure agency that has been neutered by politicians who say they’re against onerous bureaucracy but who really fear accountability.
  • Support efforts to bring disclosure and accountability into the twenty-first century with technology available to any middle school student. Candidates and committees shouldn’t be filing financial reports on paper, but in many states they still do. In fact, the U.S. Senate filed paper reports until just a few years ago.
  • Demand that candidates acknowledge and denounce deceptive campaign practices and advertising — online, in direct mail, and on the television — and advocate for best practices for twenty-first century disclosure. States like California, Maryland, and Washington are exploring and implementing new online disclosure rules. Countries in Europe are setting strict standards for online activity and policing them vigorously.
  • Bring back civic education in schools. Reward high schoolers who sign up to register voters or be election judges. Give them extra credit for knocking on doors for local candidates, stuffing envelopes, or even building a candidate’s web page and developing social-media outreach.

Those opposed to disclosure and the transparency and accountability that it enables argue that it infringes on their First Amendment rights. But those who respect the First Amendment understand that it is something to be honored and cherished. No good can come of soiling it to win elections with lies and deceptions.

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Edwin Bender is executive director and a founding incorporator of the National Institute on Money in State Politics (1999). He emphasizes the need to break down barriers to public disclosure of campaign finance and related information in poor-reporting states, while pushing advances in cross-state issue analyses and web-based data aggregation and dissemination. Prior, he worked as a journalist for 10+ years at newspapers in Montana, Alaska, and Washington.

Randy Seaver, Guest Columnist, Saco Bay News: Sunshine Week Sheds Light On Importance Of Open Government

It seems ironic that this is “Sunshine Week.”

No, it has nothing to do with Daylight Saving Time, but as the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic it becomes even more important for the media to “keep a check” on our government whether federal, state or local.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors. It was founded in 2005, and its purpose is to provide the media (and the general public) with the tools and resources necessary to ensure that government operations are open and transparent. Sunshine as opposed to darkened backroom deals among government officials.

More than 200 years ago, during a debate in the British Parliament, Edmund Burke coined a phrase to describe the media: “The Fourth Estate.” It was a recognition of the media’s power and responsibilities. We have a system of checks and balances between the branches of our government in this country. The First Estate is the executive branch; the Second Estate is the legislature; and the Third Estate is the judiciary.

Spiderman comics coined the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility.”  But the media cannot exercise its power if the government operates in secret or manipulates the flow of information.

Fortunately, the media, as well as the general public, has an awesome and powerful tool in their arsenal.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 just as the Viet Nam War was heating up. FOIA provides the media with legal muscle in order to keep the public informed about government affairs.

One of the earliest and most notable uses of the FOIA was its role in the Watergate scandal. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had to use extraordinary tactics, which included FOIA, in order to get to the truth that eventually crumbled Richard Nixon’s presidency.

The media plays an important role in disseminating the news. In fact, it is the media that frames the story, whether it’s a global issue like the Corona virus, a national story such the Democratic primary or a local issue such as the city of Biddeford’s plan to construct a parking garage.

All over the globe, the media has changed drastically over the last 30 years or so. Today, news consumers have more options than ever before. Today, we have a 24-hour news cycle that is voracious, supported by advertising and highly competitive. The days of Walter Cronkite and the neighborhood paperboy are behind us.

Today, consumers have a plethora of choices about where to get their news. You can watch CNN on your smart phone while riding the subway. But how do we know whether our choice of media is trustworthy? We don’t. The cure for this problem is for you to gather your news from a variety of news sources.

If we want the media to be fair, balanced and accurate, we must ensure that reporters (and even back yard pundits) have access to the information that allows them to keep the government in check because our representative government is obligated to be open and transparent.

This year, Sunshine Week runs from March 15 to March 21 (the first day of spring).

Open your windows and pull up your blinds. Let the sun shine into your life so that you can make informed decisions and choices.

Remember, it’s your government.

Randy Seaver is a former newspaper reporter and editor. He also has nearly two decades of experience as a strategic communications consultant.  He and his wife, Laura, live in Biddeford, Maine.

By Robert Fellner, Nevada Policy Research Institute and Tod Story, ACLU of Nevada: Supreme Court case demonstrates need for government transparency organization

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — First, Oklahoma lawmakers excluded the public from the Capitol because of coronavirus concerns.

Then with the public gone, lawmakers made an emergency change to the state’s open-meetings law to let all governmental entities meet via video or teleconference, so long as people can watch or listen remotely.

Across the U.S., numerous governors, lawmakers, mayors and county officials have made similar decisions to keep the public away from public meetings — all for the sake of public health. Ironically, the sudden policy shift has played out during the annual observation of “Sunshine Week,” a seven-day period intended to highlight the importance of open-government policies.

See the full column here.

Ken Paulson is the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University: Sunshine Week: Fighting a virus with truth and transparency

By Ken Paulson

As the scope and threat of the coronavirus pandemic becomes clear, people all over the world hunger for two things: an effective vaccine and truthful information about the disease.

The former may be more than a year away, but the latter is critical to stemming the pandemic in the meantime.

This is Sunshine Week, a time each year when people like me write columns about some legislature’s wrong-headed move to limit access to public records, and then try to make the case for greater access to public information and transparency in government. But we’re facing something far more dangerous than any state legislature could conjure up. It’s a worldwide crisis worsened by governments whose impulse is to hide, control and censor news and information.

When a Chinese doctor shared with his colleagues his concerns that a mysterious new virus might be emerging, he was reprimanded and silenced. The doctor, Li Wenliang, died last month of coronavirus. After China mishandled and hid the virus from the public, the epidemic dramatically worsened. The Chinese government “is now leading a sweeping campaign to purge the public sphere of dissent, censoring news reports, harassing citizen journalists and shutting down news sites,” according to the New York Times.

Similar suppression has appeared in other nations, according to the Committee to Protect journalists. In Thailand, the prime minister has threatened to arrest journalists who publish “fake news” about the virus and Iran detained a journalist for posts critical of the government’s response, according to the CPJ.

But even a democracy is going to be tempted to manage the messaging, as the U.S. did by initially channeling the government’s comments through a single spokesman – Vice President Mike Pence. That has improved significantly over the past week.

When the public is desperate for information, government needs to maximize authoritative information from scientists and experts on the public payroll. That appropriately gives Americans what they need to know, and counters irresponsible pundits who have sought to minimize the threat to score political or ratings points.

Most encouraging, though, has been the response of state and local governments, schools and the private sector. Governments at every level resist disclosure and scrutiny, but this has been a refreshing change, with leaders saying: “Here’s what we need to do, here’s why we’re doing it and here’s how you can find out more.”

Sports leagues and private businesses, not known for transparency, have been refreshingly transparent. How many emails have you received this week that began “Out of an abundance of caution…”? There are a lot of institutions making tough decisions these days, but they’re largely doing it in partnership with the American people.

More than anything, else, though, this crisis reminds us of how wise the first generation of Americans was in demanding a free press. Despite the inevitable accusations by some that the news media were “hyping” this threat, traditional media have been measured and thorough in their coverage, making the most of their on-air medical and scientific consultants. Closer to home, local newspapers and broadcasters have devoted extensive resources to reporting how the virus will affect the communities they serve.

President Trump told the nation last week that “we are all in this together” and that’s exactly what needs to happen: the government sharing what it knows truthfully and without spin or bravado, private and public institutions engaging constructively with America’s most pressing challenge and news organizations keeping the public informed in a thorough and even-handed way.

In the end, science will prevail in curbing this virus. Yet the path to that victory can only emerge from true collaboration and collective sacrifice, fueled by a shared understanding of exactly what we’re up against. That can only come from the free flow of information.