by James A. Bacon
Normally, when I write about the decline of the newspaper industry in Virginia, I ask, “Who will report the news?” There’s another question almost as pressing that should concern us all: “Who will fight for open government?”
In an interview with Style Weekly, Ginger Stanley, the outgoing chief of the Virginia Press Association, reminds us of the largely unlauded work that newspapers perform — lobbying and filing lawsuits — to keep government transparent.
I think one of the hardest and most consistent battles that we fight, year in and year out, is keeping information before the public that happens in public meetings. So often the attempt is to go behind closed doors and work through that closed-session process, to fashion actions and policies and just whatever procedures that public bodies are going to use.
Stanley cited a case pursued by White Dog Publishing against the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors that went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court in 2006. She also mentioned court cases pursued by the Daily Press in Newport News and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk to fight for access to public databases. Also, it’s worth noting, the newspaper lobby helped defeat legislation this session that would have blocked access to databases containing the salaries of public employees. The latter initiative was patroned, incidentally, by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Montross, who is vice chair of the Freedom of Information Act Advisory Council.
Government practitioners continually face the temptation to close proceedings, hide documents, hoard data and otherwise hold themselves unaccountable. Maintaining openness in government requires a countervailing force. Bloggers make a valuable contribution to journalism and public commentary, but we don’t have the resources to pry open the closed files of government. Only a thriving news industry can do that.
If newspapers don’t patrol the battle lines of open government in Virginia, who will? Google, Facebook, Craig’s List and other online media that have devastated the newspapers’ bottom line but contribute nothing to our communities? I don’t think so.There are currently no comments highlighted.