Who Will Fight for Open Government?

Ginger Stanley. Photo credit: Style Weekly
Ginger Stanley. Photo credit: Style Weekly

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.

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19 responses to “Who Will Fight for Open Government?”

  1. And how much good will the free press do us if people won’t read newspapers? Who will pay for all this investigative journalism? My adult children are expert followers of news and blogs in their chosen fields of interest, but try and get them to read broad-based news reports, or even to watch a decent television newshour — it’s like tempting them into an alien world! They say they don’t have the time for it.

    1. That’s precisely the point. Newspapers are in trouble. Maybe their circulation and advertising has bit bottom but I doubt it. As older readers of newsprint literally die off, and as advertisers increasingly move to online media, newspapers probably have more shrinking to do. In the past, I’ve bemoaned the slashing of editorial resources. This time, I’m bemoaning the lack of resources to police open government.

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Acbar, you raised this issue in a pointed way during our discussion some many months ago in connection with the reporting of Salz on PPP roads, asking why so many powerful newspapers so often fail to do anything more than superficial reporting on so many issues that deserve so much more.

    At that time you mentioned that perhaps some of this neglect was due to who owned the newspapers, and that particular case you mentioned the Washington Post. I have been looking for answers to that question ever since, and have yet to arrive at a place from which I am comfortable enough to engage in my normal rant.

    I will say however that on one thing I am certain now: And that is that telling the truth or speaking ones mind on things that you truly believe will today far too often result in your exile from the cocktail party circuit, and easily cost you your job and friends.

    The American people today, including the elites, are afraid to speak their mind as individuals. In effect we live in a very real totalitarian culture. Figuring out why is the hard part.

  3. CrazyJD Avatar

    “Stanley cited a case pursued by White Dog Publishing against the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors”

    I’m reminded of the last line in the movie Chinatown, when a cop says to Jack Nicholson’s character, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Sage observation.

      There was a time not not so long ago when the “experts” could not decide on the order of the three best movies of all time. Who was number one? That was the Grand question.

      1/ Citizen Kane?
      2/ Casablanca?
      3/ Chinatown?

      The three great ‘Cs”. Which was the all time best?

      And why did the words: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” come off the screen at you carrying so much power and deliver so much punch? Those words come at you like knuckles anchored rock solid by a thick wrist launched by a strong arm backed by the movie’s heavy and powerful shoulder.

      The entire movie, all of Chinatown, all its actions and all its characters, and its plot and arch and nuance mix and build then focus for cumulative impact into these words:

      “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

      Those words are carried on the shoulders of genius on film. So they resonate down through generations. We all know and experience Chinatown, each and everyone of us, before we die.

      What does Chinatown have to do with the subject at hand: the death of the news, whether local, state, national, or international, the death of history?

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Given what is going on around us now, its is becoming increasingly plain that across America we have entered a new Age of Chinatown.

      More precisely stated we are in an age where Chinatowns are growing like weeds in what use to be the rich gardens of our communities, lives, and livihoods. Whether it be in our doctors offices. Or in our schools. Or in our fields and farmyards. On how we heat and light our homes. Or our ways of getting from one place to another. On in our art and recreation: what we can see, and hear, and say in our free time. And what we can hold as our sacred belief, and what we can allow our conscience to tell us and guide us. And what we can bake and sell. Indeed Chinatown now is in most everything that touches our lives.

      Little Chinatowns are spreading across our landscapes.

      Little Chinatowns are growing ever bigger, flooding into and filling in and sealing up all the nooks and crannies of our lives. In so doing, Chinatown is destroying the richness, variety, wildness, rituals, mores, customs and independence of our citizens, each life, whether each person lives it individually every day and/or collectively by the season and the year.

      Little Chinatowns are creeping across our landscapes on little feet.

      At first they come quiet as fog. Then we joke about and make fun of the weird and explicable things that are going on around us. Things like our children coming home from college carrying in their little heads suddenly big attitudes. Strange sick things like TRIGGER WARNINGS and MICRO AGGRESSIONS.

      While at the same time our governments come marching through the back door of our homes, businesses, playgrounds, churches, and roads, faceless people carrying endless little rules and regulations and tolls until suddenly they all rise up big in front of us. And they surround us and start to shove us around and now want to suffocate us. Now all is changing or threatened to the point of driving many of us into the arms of demagogues promising to protect us by killing our culture, freedom and spirit. So as to gain power over us by putting us into their thrall by promises that are sure to fail after they have become powerful while turning us into supplicants.

      How did we arrive at this point? Why is the death of local news playing such a critical part in the rise of Chinatown?

      To be continued.

      1. Fighting for open govt. is an issue when the legislators want to keep things on the QT. Problem is the people should be allowed to override stupid govt. a lot easier.

    3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      To know how we have arrived at the point of a dying newspaper press we need to know how our press started and what kept it so vibrant for so long?

      Our fuller understanding of this issue has been a long delayed. Perhaps our recent success in getting closer to answering this question in the modern era began with Catherine Drinker Bowen’s wonderful history “Miracle in Philadelphia” published in 1966.

      This book jump started renewed interest in how a few mostly agrarian colonials in backwater North America managed to pull off the most innovative and successful government in world history, and do it over a few months over a summer in 1776.

      Hundreds of books, many written by excellent historians, came to press over the next thirty years after Bowen’s book, telling us in ever more detail who the founders were, what they said, how they interacted, what they wrote, what ancient and modern histories they read, what challenges they faced, what interests and conflicts they confronted, and how they worked the issues to arrive at where they did. But despite all this new and wonderful and enlightening scholarship, something very big was missing. The essence and driver of the creative genius of our founders was still illusive.

      So the scholars spread out, digging and looking elsewhere for clues.

      Only recently did it occur to a few of them to delve more deeply and more widely into possible original sources and thus to expand their search across and far wider field of original materials written by colonials and long forgotten. Likely this started in earnest with their renewed study of the fierce and nearly lost fight to win over enough of the original 13 states to ratify the work of the Constitutional Convention, the draft document our founders produced. Hence the scholars went much farther beyond the he Federalist papers, and prominent correspondence.

      And it lead them to pour over like never before all the newspapers of the times. What an incredible treasure Trove the historians found, and they found it as if for the first time. The Colonials were rabid readers of the news, including a wild variety of collateral papers, their opinions and Op-Ed columns, and pamphlets, and flyers. This stuff was flying around all over the newly liberated colonies, written by an incredibly wide assortment of Colonials, during the fight over ratification of a radically new and unexpected Constitution that if ratified would tie the newly sovereign states together like never before in the history of the world.

      Then, seeing this treasure strove as if for the first time, suddenly scholars realized they had to go back thought the Press to the very beginnings of the colonies, to Jamestown in 1607 and work their way back up to the date of ratification of the Constitution 183 years later in 1790.

      Here, in these long ignored and forgotten stacks of old newspapers, the historians unearthed a far fuller and more basic understanding of what made America into a Nation in 1790 and what we have left of it today.

      To be continued.

      1. “To be continued” — I look forward to it.

        It has always seemed to me, the strong press in the late 18th century Colonies had to be the product of (1) the remoteness of things in the Colonies, particularly the distances between cities, and (2) the fact that we had just fought two wars, alongside the British and then against them, where the news both from abroad and from the front lines was important, maybe even life-and-death important and certainly commercially valuable. And (3) the press was where the great debates of the day here, over rebellion, and loyalty to the Crown, were conducted, in the tradition of Britain in the prior century. People had a sense of the need for a free press, and an investigative press. ‘Unbiased’ came later.

      2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
        Reed Fawell 3rd

        Acbar –

        I agree. Of course these strands of influence that focused down tightly before they bloomed into a vibrant late 18th century colonial press had deep roots going back to Magna Carta and that began to smolder ever more brightly as time passed through the 16th and 17th centuries.

        So these are the things the first Colonials (Pilgrims, Puritans, Cavaliers, or Felons) carried across the Atlantic or discovered they could not live without given the culture they carried deep in their psyche or genes.

        Here first consider only a few of the icons of fermentation – Martin Luther (1483-1546), Shakespeare (1554-1661), Galileo (1564-1642), Francis Bacon (1561- 1629), Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1616).

        Luther (1483-1546) put the bible on steroids as the foundation stone book of the people, putting the reading of God’s Word on Everyman’s nightstand, telling stories, setting rules, and building cultures grounded in Christian theology that spoke to humanist philosophy, ethics, actions and spirit in the world and after-world, as individuals, communities, states. Luther’s New Bible was the birth and rising power of the worth, value, and responsibility of each man to himself, to his community, his state, and his God, on a broad based egalitarian platform, man suddenly now answerable and dealing direct with and responsible to his God. An Every Man now had to read daily to gain and kept God’s grace.

        Shakespeare (1554-1661) doubled down on Martin Luther. The Bard created the Human. He brought every human who cared to see fully alive not only on the English stage, but in words standing alone everywhere. Shakespeare was pop culture, on steroids too, like never before or since. Every man every where suddenly could carry life around on a page, could see, feel, and learn about life, about himself and kin, and king, and others around him, in action on the vast stage of his world and amid all its forces and fates, whether within himself and at play under its stars.

        Galileo (1564-1642), a devote christian, rocked the Christian world nevertheless, and so launched this world into an enlightened age as powerful as Shakespeare’s but in different ways using different tools, including those putting the Age of Exploration and experimentation on steroids, bringing the new world far closer and more understantable.

        Francis Bacon (1561- 1629), his actions and thoughts expressed in the written word on science and politics was everywhere that ended up in the New World of British America, pushing England’s rush to there and inspiring its most influential colonials for generations, Ben. Franklin and Thom. Jefferson could have been lost without Bacon.

        Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1616), a poet and literary charmer of Queens and the common man while he was also a man too of ruthless action and an entrepreneur of astonishing accomplishment, this great man jump-started British North America and grandfathered its means of practical survival from the Susquehanna South to Georgia. Raleigh’s direct heir in body and spirit, Captain John Smith, sealed the deal by taking the Chesapeake to its headwaters into custody for all of us, and writing down for us the spirit our ancestors needed to keep it, and that we need to now more than ever.

        All these things given to the Colonials from their start were sharpened, shaped and magnified by what they encountered, absorbed and overcame in the New World, including their fierce devotion to a free, unfettered, relentless, and fearless press that probed into everything and spread everywhere.

        To be continued.

    4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Given lack of time (this article will soon go off the front page radar screen) we’ll take short cuts to describe why the Press in Colonial America became so vibrant and free. And why our press today is rapidly losing its vibrancy, value, and independence, and becoming a tool of disinformation instead.

      What does a free vibrant press need to grow, survive, and thrive? Here are some facts. It needs:

      Literate citizens. Educated citizens. Free and independent citizens.

      A free vibrant press also needs self-empowered citizens. Ones who care about and are engaged in the major issues that impact on their communities and daily lives. It needs citizens who demand to know the truth and to understand what their government is doing with their money and their lives. How it is protecting them, their property, their family, their freedom.

      A free vibrant press also needs citizens who feel that their government answers to them as citizens because that government belongs to them as citizens. It needs citizens who not only feel that they control their government, but who absolutely KNOW that they control their government because they have been informing themselves about their government daily and they have been exercising their power over their government along with their fellow citizens every day of their lives, from both within and outside their government.

      Only citizens like these demand No Taxation without Representation. And if you know your history, you know the British Crown exercised FAR FAR LESS CONTROL over our American Colonials then our government today exercises over us. And you also know that, despite that fact, our colonials went to war with the British Crown to throw off what they deemed to be the heavy yoke that the British Crown was trying to tie round their necks.

      In being able to do this and believe they could do this, the colonials had naturally created a free press. It was an essential part of their daily lives as a free people who controlled their own fate and their own government.

      If you believe these statements are mythology or pablum, you are wrong. Because you do not know your own history.

      Next we will discuss in a nutshell why and how this freedom of a whole people, and the free press it created, came about in colonial times.

    5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Starting this thread, we spoke about what our colonial forebears carried over the Atlantic with them to the New World from Virginia to New England, first at Jamestown (1607), then Plymouth Rock (1820).

      Adventurous men landed at Jamestown seeking gold and silver. The New England Pilgrims, although funded by investors, were settlers, men and women seeking their own God and way of life. After they’d battled for generations against hostile societies, they crossed a hostile ocean to land on alien shores to began again their battle for freedom in a hostile place.

      The Pilgrims barely survived their first winter, saved by Indians, legend says. The Jamestown crowd barely survived their first winters, too. Rescued by just in time resupplies, the few survivors then left at the time first innovated their way into an unexpected discovery of cash tobacco crops, and then so armed they sent for their women in 1620.

      These were adventurers all, whether seeking their own God or gold.

      Those who survived their ordeals were a very tough, and very determined and very select lot. They had to be intelligent, literate, resourceful, aware, adaptable and engaged, taking actions to survive then thrive in a hostile world. Contrary to myth, these folks came well prepared for a tough New World by those they left behind, their European ancestors like Martin Luther, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Galileo, etc.

      After this 1st wave landed, the 17th century religious and civil wars in the British Isles and Europe sent wave after wave of more of these stubborn and determined minorities and adventurers to North America. People who also were marching to their own drummers. People who also refused to conform to the dictates of others. People who also refused to bend to the demands of others. People who battled their way into a highly unknown and risky future across the Atlantic in North America.

      These people were Puritans, Quakers, Huguenots, Lutherans, English Catholics, French Protestants, Dutch, Ulster Scots, German sects, Irish Presbyterians, Irish Catholics, Scots – Irish, and many others. Contrary to popular legend the Quakers were among the toughest of this very tough bunch.

      And, given the times, a remarkable high percentage of these people were highly literate and verbal, a bible and almanac and trade and farmer reading, preaching, working, negotiating, and political people. People who not only had to work independently, often alone in hostile places with their families on isolated farms if they were to eat and feed their families, these people also paid close attention to making sure that their nearest neighbors and communities survived to protect the entire group and its faith within the community and their way of life. And they kept up with most all the goings on aboard, whether religions, science, commerce, or whatever. Franklin spent much of his life abroad, as did many others

      Plus these people spent much precious time and energy working with each another. They took this very seriously, and were expected to take it seriously, their responsibilities and duties as individuals to work within their community for their own benefit and the benefit of all their neighbors. A failure to do so threatened the lives of everyone. Hence there was constant communication, talking, socializing, praying and politicking together, and most things collective were done by all collectively while the freedom of each was closely guarded too, although this latter freedom was slower to evolve.

      An example was the Township. These townships were by far the most powerful social and political units in New England. They were run by the people regularly assembled in the Meeting House in the Township square.

      These people in these meeting houses were among the most educated and literate people in the World. They ran most everything of collective interest, and took most all responsibility for most everything in their part of the world. The one they and their neighbors inhabited. Nobody interfered with their township without their active agreement as a group assembled in the meeting house. Nobody outside the township got anything done within their township without the township’s designate magistrates doing it. For these people held the only administrative power in that part of the colony to get anything done in the Townships, like collect taxes, build a road.

      American there and then were sovereign, individually, collectively. There were no bureaucrats or Presidents, or Senators, hanging around their neighborhoods telling them with to do, or how or when to do it.

      Most all administrative and political power in the “colony” was vested in the townships people. Their will was carried out by 12 or so township people elected for very short terms of office to do very defined and limit tasks. When the states were formed at the time of the American revolution, the meeting house assembly of each Township were the ones that granted the power and permission to constitute a “state assembly” to make decisions of collective interest while reserving to the township the administrative power to execute those decisions within the township, like levy taxes, build roads.

      It believe this basic framework of power and responsibility, and the culture and society it engendered, is the base fuel that birthed and powered the America’s free and independent and vibrant press and media before, during and long after the American Revolution.

      I believe that as we tear up all of these long standing structures, cultures, and attitudes in America, and replace them with a highly centralized leviathan administrative American State, we kill the capacity of our people to look after and take responsibility for themselves, and that that includes their ability to keep going a free and independent press and media in this country. If only because our people will have lost the nerve, the guts, the will, the independence, and education to keep a free press alive.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: the media … we seem to be of two minds about the media these days.

    On one hand – all I hear is how “liberal” the media is – i.e. the “lame stream Media”.

    Then on the other hand – woe is me… the media is no longer is reporting…

    geeze… danged if you do and danged if you don’t

    besides – seems like there is no shortage of “commentary” these days – a ton of it .. bulging our of orifices aplenty, eh?


    1. The media does have a liberal bias, although that bias is less evident in local media than the national media. Regardless, liberal journalism is better than no journalism.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Regardless, liberal journalism is better than no journalism.”

    good GAWD! I bet Reed and Crazy are going to GAG now…

    besides – what keeps Conservatives from doing media anyhow?

    how can you gripe when your own guys refuse to do “good” media?

    the echo chamber is a “hive” … have you not noticed?


  6. How about those newspapers like the Virginian Pilot that wont’ print stories against their advertisers? They are not the only ones.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    I still ask – what prevents those who abhor the “liberal” press from standing up their own, “better” … Press?

    why is it that all the Conservatives can do is b_tch and moan about what they don’t like from the Press to Obamacare to immigration to BO and bad breath but prefer instead to blame, with no solutions of their own ?

    1. Because the liberal press won’t print against their advertisers. They don’t print stories like patient harm that would help individuals against mega conglomerate health corporations shed dead weight and bad doctors and get better.

      They also don’t expose a bunch of garbage that goes on wasting your tax dollars in the govt. either.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    and the Conservative press? what do they do?

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