The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” attributed to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1913, doesn’t refer to keeping your kitchen germ-free. It’s the idea that only through transparency and application of the First Amendment can Americans monitor what their governments are doing.
Sunshine Week, set aside to advocate the concept of open government, today finds the press itself under fire from those who no longer trust what is being reported. Yet if we can’t rely on government’s watchdogs to keep us informed, who else can perform that vital function?
To get to the root of this national skepticism, here are a few possible causes:
• Technology. The evolution of the World Wide Web and its deluge of news, data, entertainment, connectivity and immediacy has opened a Pandora’s box into the Information Age. Now information flows constantly into those little plastic boxes in our pockets or purses, which don’t come with a filter. That world of data at our fingertips includes a good deal of misinformation disguised as news.
This is what “fake news” really is, consisting of rumors or half-truths concocted into stories on websites seeking clickbait for sponsors. There’s a big difference between such subterfuge and genuine news from reliable sources, even when the latter is viewed as slanted or critical of those in power.
Social media offers a way for people to share information and personal contact over a digital picket fence. But it, too, can veer to the dark side by spreading false innuendo that can go viral like wildfire in a non-discerning world.
How does a reader tell the difference? Check the origin. If there is real reporting behind it rather than shadowy tales passed from one agenda-driven source to another, it has a better chance of being reliable.
• The corruption of power. Sparring between the media and government leaders is as old as the republic, even if most grudgingly acknowledge the key role of journalists rather than label them “enemies of America.” In a recent interview, former President George W. Bush, who faced perhaps more criticism than any chief executive, called a free press “indispensable to democracy.”
Those elected or appointed to serve in government are mostly good people with honest intentions, but some can be corrupted by the lure of power. Many seek to line the pockets of themselves and their cronies, amassing power for the sake of playing dictator. Yet voters don’t elect kings, lords or overseers but public servants who often must be reminded that in a government of, by and for the people, the people are in charge.
Crooked officials are like vampires when it comes to sunshine, seeking to block transparency when the public’s money and trust are abused. The greatest deterrent to corruption is to keep the shades up and the windows clear to follow tax dollars and monitor government actions.
At times, obstacles are thrown at the public’s right to know. Last year, the Georgia General Assembly extended the period of time college athletic departments can delay releasing public information, at the reported request of a football coach. This year, it has considered a bill that could delay access to civil court records filed electronically.
Often the excuse behind such limits is the inconvenience and expense needed to fulfill record requests. While that may be valid to a point, it’s not a good reason to limit the public’s right to information to which it is entitled. (Learn more about pending state legislation at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation website).
Remember, public records aren’t just for the news media but should be available to everyone. Many citizen watchdog groups and individuals take on this role, all with the intent of sharing public information with everyone.
• Complacency. There are times Americans take the right to know for granted and don’t stand up to those out to limit it. A recent Pew Research study showed that while nearly 90 percent of respondents favored fair and open elections, only two-thirds called it vital for the media to have the right to criticize government leaders, including only half of Republicans.
Many seem to trust the politicians they elect, but in turn push for tougher scrutiny for those on the opposing side. In a free society, all elected officials must be held to high standards of transparency and ethical behavior. In turn, those in office should remain responsive to everyone they serve, not just the ones who write them checks.
• The media itself. The news industry at times has failed to maintain trust through its own excesses and failures. The furious competition for viewers/readers and their dollars on print, broadcast and digital platforms has spawned an increasingly balkanized, niche-driven market where masses of information are sometimes tailored to provide only what people want to hear or see. The scramble to be first has led many news outlets to cut corners in exercising good judgment, restraint, taste and accuracy.
When news outlets produce stories that are sloppy or slanted, they lose readers’ trust, something hard to regain. Those of us in this business must always embrace our sacred trust and hold ourselves to a high standard.
To keep government open and honest, Americans should shed partisan blinders at times to focus on what matters most: holding everyone in public service accountable. Whatever our specific political beliefs, the First Amendment’s 45 words at the top of this page should tie us together as the key ideal in our nation’s mission, during Sunshine Week and beyond.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.