Coming clean on open records

February 5, 2004

Doug Clifton writes about the Plain Dealer’s battles to keep records open and meetings open.

Doug’s an editor-in-chief so he isn’t really allowed to speak in the plain language the rest of us enjoy in vast wastes of the blogosphere. He’s obliged, as the representative of that Institution We Call the Press, to uphold the myth that we are Guardians of the Rights of the People.

What he’s really guarding is our right to do our jobs as we see fit. Sometimes our needs serve the Public Good, and sometimes they merely provide interesting news stories. But a lot of the time I weary of us maintaining this pretense that all this suffering, all the lawsuits, all the battles with bureaucrats, all the showdowns with government power, is about Serving the Public and Protecting Democracy. It isn’t. It’s about removing government roadblocks that keep us from finding news.

I’m not denigrating the fight against government secrecy and obstruction — both are cancers that need some chemo. I just wish we’d be more up-front about why we’re so zealous about it.

The stories these open-government battles produce do tend to get rascals thrown out, and many of us got in this biz because we liked the idea of being the ones handing out all the walking papers. But it’s a bit of sham to say the Public Good is why we do it. We do it because the we need those kinds of stories.

We also need to feel we’re providing a public service — it’s one of the rationalizations for making half the money of the average car salesman — so we’re always gussying up our intentions, wrapping ourselves in the First Amendment and so on.

Maybe this is just another of those useful myths — one of those things we know isn’t precisely true but comes in handy in times of strife. Poor me, I’ve never had much use for mythology.

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