Your average slug is more popular than the media these days. The Trump administration has declared the press the opposition party and enemy of the people. Fake news and stories filled with inaccurate or incomplete facts are receiving unprecedented attention.
Given that environment, it will be tempting for many Americans to tune out as journalists wax poetic about the virtues of “Sunshine Week,” which began Sunday. The initiative is now in its 12th year and is being led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Reporters for Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with the Gridiron Club and Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. But the public should not tune them out — not only because journalists deserve a fair hearing, but because the public deserves a government accessible enough that it can be held accountable by the everyday American as much as (sometimes more than) the professional journalist.
Sunshine Week is a nonpartisan effort held annually to remind Americans about the importance of Freedom of Information laws that date back half a century and have served as a bedrock of every level of our democracy.
Those are not just pretty words. The more the public knows, the more it can make informed decisions about who should lead us, which policies are broken, and which policies need to be improved, not scrapped. It helps the citizen concerned about spending by the local school board keep tabs on how administrative pay increases correlate with per-pupil funding and academic achievement. The more open the laws are, the harder it is for police departments everywhere to not be completely transparent about police shootings that threaten to tear communities apart.
It’s what allowed the North Carolina Open Government Coalition to quiz nine local governments throughout the state and 19 state officials about their use and preservation of text messages, where policy is increasingly being molded and talking points crafted. It’s the reason South Carolinian Dinedra Smith could gather enough information about the possible wrongful conviction of her brother in a home invasion to persuade law enforcement officials and local and national media to take a second look at the case.
And the laws serve as a bulwark against fake news because they allow individuals to put their hands on original documents and examine source material that can be used to rebut conspiracies or ferret out misleading claims by elected officials. That also makes it possible for the public to keep tabs on the media.
While media outlets may be leading the charge to celebrate such an invaluable democratic tool, the public should be its greatest defender, because without it, our most basic constitutional rights would be shells of themselves.