Who Cares About the Right to Know?

JAMES S. KEAT

September 19, 1992|By JAMES S. KEAT

When public officials try to hold back information on what they are up to, newspaper people like to proclaim ''the public's right to know.''

Yet the public more often than not sees the quest for open government as a squabble between officials and ''the media'' that doesn't concern them. They think editors who struggle to gain access to official meetings or documents are just doing it to ''sell newspapers.''

Whatever does ''sell newspapers'' -- some of us in the business are still trying to figure out what it is -- news of officialdom doesn't rank high. Still, the thought that newspaper people really might think that the free flow of information is a virtue in itself doesn't wash with much of the public. Why the cynicism?

Press-bashers, official and otherwise, will say we just aren't trusted.

Even if that were true -- and there is plenty of evidence it is not -- it wouldn't be enough of an explanation.

Whatever our motive, you would think that citizens would appreciate someone's trying to shine a light in the darker corners of government. But when the time comes to do battle, with some notable exceptions the citizenry doesn't get aroused.

Two years ago, a small group of editors worked hard to force more public business in Maryland into the open by seeking revisions in the state's open-meetings law. They figured civic activists around the state would pitch in to help with examples of abuse. With a very few exceptions, they were wrong. Editorials denouncing secrecy and imploring readers for signs of support drew little response.

It isn't that citizens believe their representatives ought to work in the dark. The increasing remoteness of government from the governed is a major factor in the widespread malaise about politicians. But most citizens choose to be bystanders in the political process.

And there's the inconsistency that puzzles and frustrates those of us in journalism who really believe our principal responsibility is serving the public's right to know.

Only in some small towns do voters still come in numbers to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and property. Citizens don't show up even to watch the process in most instances. There are probably more kibitzers in the criminal courtrooms than uninvolved observers at meetings of local councils and boards.

That's where the press comes in. (I am avoiding the term ''media'' because there is hardly any on-the-spot reporting of this kind of local news by television or radio.) If the public has a right to know what its representatives are up to but can't or won't go see for itself, the burden falls on newspapers. If journalists demand access to public business, it is on behalf of their readers.

There's a long-standing joke among some reporters in the Maryland State House: They insist on opening governmental doors that are closed to them, then regret it because it means they have to sit through the meetings. There's a real truth hidden in this self-deprecating humor: Reporters want access for their readers' sake, not their own or their publishers'.

So why don't those readers care?

Why don't they make the connection between journalists forcing their way into secret meetings or insisting on reading needlessly confidential documents and the protection of the public's interests? Why do most citizens perceive governmental secrecy as an issue important only to ''them''?

I don't know. I wish I did. There are more fights to be fought before Maryland's state and local governments truly function in the open.

Representative government simply can't work unless the people being represented know what's going on. How else could they make their views known if they disagree, or know which rascals to throw out at election time?

Thomas Jefferson, who hated the newspapers of his day (with considerable reason), said that if he were forced to choose between representative government without a free press or a free press without representative government, he would unhesitatingly choose the latter. Jefferson recognized, as did the other Founding Fathers, that information is the fuel that makes the political process run. And for better or worse, citizens get most of their information about local government from the press.

Until they are ready to go knock on those closed doors themselves, they had better help us do it for them. No one else will.

James S. Keat is editorial-page coordinator for The Baltimore Sun.

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