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REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION FOUNDATION
INFORMAL METHODS OF COMBATING SECRECY IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT
By Ernest Morgan, Ph.D.
The Freedom of Information Foundation Columbia, Missouri
Freedom of Information Foundation Series Number 6, May 1976
Made possible by a grant from the American
Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.
Click HERE for other GREAT JOURNALISM LINKS
The late Dr. Morgan served on the faculty of the School of
Journalism of the University of Missouri-Columbia since 1969.
He covered the county courthouse and the city hall
beats during 14 years as a reporter and editor
on The Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller-Times.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction. . . . . . . . . 1
Background. . . . . . . . . . 4
Keeping 'Em Honest. . . . . . 8
Training Reporters. . . . . . 12
Conclusions . . . . . . . . . 18
Selected Bibliography . . . . 28
This publication is an independent paper financed from a grant to
the Freedom of Information Foundation from the American Newspaper
Publishers Association Foundation in order to promote discussion
of issues vital to the free press. The opinions and conclusions
expressed in this paper are those of the author.
The thorough and imaginative research of Steve Weinberg, then a
graduate student at the School of Journalism of the University of
Missouri - Columbia, contributed significantly to this paper. The
staff of the Freedom of Information Center was also most helpful.
"Sue the bastards," a metropolitan city editor said when
asked how the closing of public records and public meetings by
local public officials can be fought. He expressed the anger of
newspaper editors over the country at denials of access to public
news, and his response was characteristic of their readiness to
go to court to get public news.
Despite that readiness, most editors questioned in a
national survey consider legal enforcement of access to local
public news a last resort for newspapers. They prefer to use more
informal means to keep public meetings and public records open.
Most of the newspapers reached in the survey employed a planned
policy aimed at educating their reporters, their readers and
public officials in the importance of freedom of information.
Perhaps because of an increase in open meetings statutes,
perhaps because of more active preventive work by newspapers,
more than half of all the editors who replied saw local access
problems as no worse than in past years. About 25 per cent
thought such problems were decreasing and only 13 per cent
thought them to be increasing. These last were the angry editors
and their replies showed not just bitterness, but a willingness
to attack secretive officials and to take the dispute to court,
Certainly their right to go to court has increased in the
past decade. Records in the Freedom of information Center,
University of Missouri-Columbia, show that by early 1976 a total
of 49 states had open meeting statutes and 48 had open records
statutes. However filled with loopholes, these statutes give news
media the right in certain situations to sue for access to public
Yet court action is. not an easy decision for an editor.
Only the wealthier papers can sue without weeping at the cost,
and cost is just one problem. A lawsuit can turn a difference of
opinion between a newspaper and a public of fiscal into overt
hostility, making a rational solution difficult, And the news
media must pick suits with care. If they don t win, they can be
in worse trouble than before. Further, the law is slow. No suit
can get a public meeting open in time for the last deadline.
Open records and open meetings statutes can be a help, but
the local media, above all the local newspapers, must come up
with their own methods of dealing with public officials who want
to hide what they are doing. This paper is an attempt to discover
the out-of-court methods used by newspaper editors to open up and
keep open the public meetings and records of their community. The
paper is based on a national survey of city editors and on
Freedom of Information Center research.
The survey was done in the summer of 1974. A questionnaire
was sent to 352 city editors chosen randomly from the Editor and
Publisher 1973 Yearbook. The papers represented were stratified
by circulation. Questionnaires went to all 38 newspapers of more
than 250,000 circulation; to half (108) of all papers of 50,000
to 250,000 circulation; to one in seven (104) of all papers of
10,000 to 50,000 circulation; and to one in seven (102) of all
papers of less than 10,000 circulation.
Total replies, after a followup mailing were 145.
At least one-third replied in each of the four categories:
13, or 34 per cent, in the category of largest papers;
41, or 38 per cent, in the next largest category;
48, or 46 per cent, in the third largest; and
43, or 42 per cent, in the smallest.
While the return is large enough for the major purpose of the
survey - the discovery of informal methods of fighting official
secrecy it is small enough to raise the question of the attitude
of those who did not reply.
It seems probable that those who sent back the questionnaire are
more interested in freedom of information matters than those who
did not reply.
Because of the light return, plans for statistical review of the
questionnaire data were dropped. The data were tabulated but
cross- tabulations and tests for significance were not attempted.
The data collected, however, do suggest strongly that size of
circulation is a significant factor in the editor's attitude
toward methods of dealing with governmental secrecy.
This paper will be presented in three parts: first, the
findings of the survey; second, a suggested program for
newspapers to follow aimed at preventing or attacking official
secrecy; and third, a list of conclusions.
Although more than half the editors who replied said they thought
the problem of access no worse than in past years, the survey
also showed that the problem is still very much here. Two out of
three editors reported one or more instances in which a reporter
had been denied access to public record or public meeting in the
Closed public meetings were more of a problem and aroused more
concern than closed records.
The larger the paper, the more likely there had been a denial in
the past year. Eighty-four per cent of the metros reported that a
reporter had been kept out; only 43 per cent of the smallest
papers reported a denial of access. It is possible that an
aggressive news policy is a factor in the difference. Larger
newspapers publish in larger, less personal communities, and they
have the professional staff to go after public news. The smallest
papers are often in communities so closely knit that
aggressiveness is bad manners.
Three-fourths of all the papers had standing instructions
for their reporters on what to do when denied access to records
of meetings. Some were elaborate and involved legal warnings and
lawyers. Others were simple.
"Basically, I tell them to go in, take a seat and dare them
to throw him/her out," a metro editor said.
About half the newspapers "sometimes" worked during
political campaigns to get local candidates to take a position on
access to public news. A quarter "always" did and a quarter
"never" did. There was no real difference in the replies from all
sizes of newspapers.
About half "sometimes" informed new officeholders of the
newspaper's attitude on access to public meetings and records.
Thirty five per cent "always" did and the rest "never." Size made
little difference in this policy, too.
One of the major methods of attack on closed meetings
mentioned by the editors was to get the information from a
friendly source and run it. However, most of the editors replying
were not satisfied with the news obtained from such sources.
There was a difference in attitude according to the size of the
editor's paper; the larger the paper the less the editor trusted
such versions of a meeting. Metro editors were dissatisfied with
source obtained news of meetings by a margin of 3-1. The editors
of the smallest papers were split evenly.
The traditional independence of newspapers was displayed in
answer to a question that asked whether the editor had ever
joined with another news medium to put pressure on secretive
officials. Two-thirds of the editors replying had never done so,
and the results were uniform across all sizes of newspapers.
The larger the paper, the more likely that the editor had
gone to law to get public news. Among the smallest papers, only
one editor in four had filed a suit or complained to a public
prosecutor, and in the next smallest papers, only one in three.
Among the next-to-largest papers (50,000 to 250,000) slightly
less than half had resorted to law. But among the metros, two out
of three editors had either filed suit or complained.
Seventy-five per cent of all editors replying reported
trying, as a matter of policy, to educate their readers in FOI
matters through news stories, columns, cartoons and other
The survey suggested that community tradition had much to do
with the degree of openness of officials with the public. One
editor told of a long struggle to get the county auditor to
release budget details. Finally, the auditor yielded to a state
law mandating openness. Asked why he fought so hard to keep
preparation of the budget secret, he said, "It's always been done
Local tradition can also be one of openness. A number of
editors reported no secrecy problems in their community. Many
were editors of the smaller papers. "This (secrecy) has never
happened because we work together with government in our
community. . . I've gotten more good done this way," one said.
Another replied, "In our small community we can t recall ever
being excluded from a meeting. If it did occur, we would get very
nasty in a front page story and editorial."
It was evident that the editors who replied believed they
had the backing of their publishers, but only two bothered to
mention the publisher as a factor. One said that without the
publisher's support in fighting secrecy, the newspaper became a
"paper tiger." Another, on a small paper, wrote in frustration,
"This newspaper's efforts are minimal. I hope that there are few
newspapers like this or all may soon be in trouble."
The questionnaire gave the editors additional space to
report at length on:
1. prior instructions given reporters in case of official
2. methods used to bring pressure on secretive officials;
3. methods used to acquaint readers with freedom of information
4. what each considered the best way to fight official secrecy.
This information will be used in the following section to
suggest a comprehensive program for preventing secrecy and
for fighting it once it occurs.
KEEPING 'EM HONEST
The survey strongly indicates that the basic way to keep
meetings open is to prepare for trouble before it starts. The
thoughtful editor has laid the groundwork for a successful fight
long before some stubborn official decides that information is
his to release when and if he likes. The editor puts print and
time into preparing his readers, his reporters and public
officials for a war that may never come because of his
1. "Educating" the public is a phrase to delight a PR man's
heart, but that is what newspapers must do to keep the doors
open. If the public is to support the newspaper in getting
public information, the public needs to be reminded
frequently of the issue at stake - its own right to know
what its servants in office are doing. "We tell them the
right to know is not ours. . .but theirs," one editor said.
Editors find opportunities to run stories that keep the FOI
issue before their readers. They publish editorials that
stress the public's right to attend public meetings and to
be present when decisions are made in the public's name.
They run freedom of information stories, even those
originating outside their circulation area. These editors
consider it news whenever a public body closes a meeting or
an official closes a public record.
It is news because it is atypical; the routine is an open
meeting, an open record.
These editors seize the chance to praise in editorials
local public officials who consider it their duty to make
public news public--in contrast to those officials somewhere
else who are keeping public information hidden.
They interview cooperative officials and publish their views on
the right of the public to know what is going on in government.
They encourage local press clubs and chapters of the
Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi, to
form FOI committees to monitor the openness of local
officials. Joint Media Committees, such as that in
Minnesota, can present a solid front of all news media to
offending officials. These same committees can also do more
for "education" of public, officials, and news people than
can a single paper. The committee can provide speakers on
FOI for parent-teacher groups and for service clubs.
During political campaigns, editors run definite
statements of the paper's intention to press for open
meetings, to demand justification for closed meetings, to
demand prior warnings of unscheduled meetings. Often, the
"editor's column" is the vehicle used.
Such articles require careful timing and perceptive
writing to be effective. It makes no sense to alienate
those officials who are routinely cooperative while trying to
warn the bad guys and "educate" the public.
Further, as several editors said, the right-to-know issue is most
effective when presented as a specific, local case. The local
issue is more pertinent, more exciting and more readable than a
similar issue in another state. But if the editor waits until a
local issue arises, he may have lost the foundation for his case.
There is no reason not to run both the general and the local FOI
2. There is no place to "begin" educating public officials,
because the education should be constant; but the aggressive
editor makes a special effort during local political
campaigns. He works to make each candidate at least aware of
the FOI issue and to get each on record as committed to open
meetings, open records, open dealings with the public.
He works to make right-to-know an issue in the campaign, to
get the candidates to compete, in effect, as to which will
be the most open with the public.
Reporters routinely ask candidates for their attitudes
toward governmental secrecy, arid the answers are printed.
Lists of questions on local issues sent to candidates
include one on openness. When the answers to these questions
are printed, the candidates commitment to openness is laid
out for all to see.
After the election, editors write the winners to
congratulate them and to offer support for increased openness
with the public, especially when the official is on a public body
such as a city council or school board.
The letters are an excellent place to remind the winner of his
statements on open meetings made during the campaign, without
making the reminder sound like a threat. They are also a good way
to inform the new official of the provisions of the state open
meetings open records law.
Some editors, either alone or in company with a Sigma Delta
Chi committee or other press group, appear before newly elected
public bodies to seek adoption of formal policy statements
supporting open dealings with The public and an acknowledgement
of the public's right to know. Sometimes it is advisable for such
statements to stand alone as policy. Later, if a problem of
closed meetings comes up, the editor can help to draw up a formal
policy on procedure. Such policies often include provisions for
the decision to be made at an open meeting, with recorded votes
of each individual member of the public body, and with a
justification given. The policy sometimes adds a pledge to make
prior announcement of unscheduled meetings and a promise that
public business other than that for which a meeting was closed
will not be discussed.
Some papers use a powerful device that makes the closing of
a public meeting a political risk. The device is simply a daily,
routine listing of the meetings of public bodies in the paper's
A Tennessee paper uses a box on its second front page. The box
begins with these words: "Because the people must know. This
column is to inform the public when and where decisions are to be
made in the public's behalf so that each citizen may attend
meetings and speak his mind." Then follows a listing of meetings,
times and places. The existence of the list, induces caution in
officials. None would like to see a notation in such a list that
a meeting of his public body is closed to the public.
One editor suggested, if closed meetings become flagrant,
the running of a scoreboard on page one: "Closed Meetings in Your
Town This Week."
A number of editors warned that the newspaper must be
careful not to alienate public officials by intimations that a
meeting will be closed long before the officials actually have
thought of closing the meeting. "These men aren't enemies and
there's no reason to treat them like enemies until we have to,"
Many editors take real pains to train their reporters for
FOI problems. Especially:
1. They make sure their reporters know the state statutes on
open meetings - open records.
2. Some newspapers supply reporters with a copy of the statute
to carry in their wallets.
3. They provide reporters with a standard procedure for trying
to deal with closed meetings. Several followed the same plan
for use when a reporter is asked to leave a meeting:
a. Advise the presiding officer formally that admission is
sought. Protest; cite provisions of the state statute.
b. Get names of the attending members of the public body.
Ask if the decision to close was made in open meeting?
c. Ask if the decision to close was made by a vote or by
the presiding officer. If it was closed by vote, who
d. Ask for justification for closing any meeting to the
public. Try to pin them down for the record.
e. Make it clear that a story will be written about the
closing of the meeting itself.
f. Keep calm. The paper wants an open meeting, not a
vendetta. If the reporter loses his temper, he loses
the fight. If a board member loses his temper, so much
the better for the story on the closing.
4. If even after challenging a closed meeting the reporter is
still kept out and if he leaves, he is ordered by his editor
to phone a news executive, who calls the paper's lawyer, who
calls the reporter for details.
At least one paper went so far as to have its reporters
carry affidavits with them to be filled out on the
telephoned instructions of the lawyer. The paper's problems
never reached this affidavit stage because its attorney and
the attorney for the public body were able to work out
access. The reporter got in at the next meeting, if not at
the one that was denied him originally.
There was no agreement among the responding editors on
whether the reporter should refuse to leave the meeting room
when requested or ordered to do so. Seine editors were
defiant and told their reporters to sit tight. One went so
far as to instruct his reporters to get the name and badge
number of the police officer who would be called to escort
him from the room. Often, of course, the meeting is simply
"recessed" if the reporter will not leave, only to resume in
another room behind a locked door.
A number of editors instruct their reporters to leave
quietly after protesting and getting whatever information
they can about the meeting to be closed. They then wait
outside and question the members of the board as they
emerge. Only two editors of the 145 who replied seemed ready
to accept a closed meeting without further argument.
One who reported no secrecy problems and who had no reason to
pressure officials, had this instruction for reporters told to
leave a closed meeting: "Stay the hell out of the way."
The question of whether the reporter should leave without
help from the police seems to come down to how secretive the
public body has been in the past. If there is a tradition of
secrecy, a series of abuses, the editor may want to dramatize the
closing by having the reporter defy the public body and invite
arrest. But if the group has no history of prior closings, it may
be wise for the reporter to leave - after protesting, of course.
If the reporter refuses to leave, he can turn a one-time
closing into a feud that might have been avoided. Dramatic action
by the reporter could make the public officials so defensive that
they continue being secretive to justify the first closed
meeting. Many a meeting has been closed capriciously and without
precedent, only to be regretted the next morning when the front-
page story comes out. A phone call or two and it blows over.
But there is another reason for editors to think twice
before instructing reporters to sit out a request to leave a
meeting. Defiance of government is not approved by many
Americans, especially in that age group which reads newspapers.
No matter how unnecessary the secrecy, no matter how illogical
the justification given for the closing, many Americans will see
the refusal of the reporter to leave as arrogant interference
with constituted authority.
Their support is likely to go to the public body rather than
to the newspaper. Only if the public body has a publicized
history of secrecy and only if the newspaper is a trusted
institution will the reporter's dramatics be likely to gain
Every editor who replied would run stories on the closing.
Several stressed publication of the names of the officials
meeting privately. Many felt that single stories were sufficient
to deal with the problem of a single closed meeting. Then, if the
problem grew, their pressure would increase. Although many
editors were concerned that too much pressure would worsen the
situation, most emphasized that newspapers must place some
pressure on public officials to keep public information public.
One said at an FOI meeting, "You've got to be aggressive
about forcing the issue. You must show willingness to take it to
court. Aggressiveness frequently is enough to force your way into
meetings. They see the world doesn't collapse if the meeting is
covered. One problem is that the press is too willing to accept
SUGGESTED WAYS TO INCREASE PRESSURE INCLUDED:
1. Editorials, naming the officials.
2. Keeping count of the number of closed meetings,
mentioning the new number in each new story of a closing.
3. Area roundups, in which the offending body's secrecy is
contrasted with the openness of other public officials.
4. Letters from the editor to each member of a public body that
has repeatedly met privately. The editor asks what was
discussed, what was decided. Is each member still convinced
that the secrecy was justified? The sending of the letter is
run as one news story, another being based on the replies,
or lack of replies.
5. Pictures of the closed door behind which the closed meeting
is going on.
6. White space dummied for a multi-column head, with
"Editorial" at the top and lower down a few lines to the
effect that the space was reserved for news out of the
closed meeting attended by. . . Newspapers in India used
this device to protest the recent censorship of the
government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The device was
quickly prohibited by Mrs. Gandhi's government.
7. Editors' attempts to end the war through personal contact.
"The main thing is to be tough," one editor said of attempts to
end hostility between officials and the news media. "We make no
deals on what the law says is open, but we respect what should be
Another expressed one reason to avoid suit if possible:
"Too often a cause celbre is made out of an issues. When a paper
goes to court on this, all sorts of other motives crop up and it
quickly can become a case of þpress prosecution.' We have found
on a local level that no one person can resist persistent but
out-of-court pressure for long."
But when nothing else works, when the paper has the money, a
good case and a strong state statute to work with, most editors
were ready to sue.
And when an end to the war, or at least a truce, arrives,
the editors recommended enjoying the occasion quietly, not in
print. Further, they strongly suggested continuing coverage of
the once-closed meeting. One of the tragicomedies of official
life is to open up after hell-raising over closed meetings, only
to find that nobody, including the newspaper, is interested
enough in the meetings to attend them.
1. When fighting official secrecy, newspapers arguments gain
greatest force when they keep the high ground of the
democratic ideal - a voting public able to govern itself
because it is informed about public affairs. When working
for open meetings, newspapers should argue in the name of
the public, not in the name of the press.
It is the public, of which the press is only a part,
that is excluded when a meeting is closed or a record book
slammed shut. If newspapers argue only the press right to
attend public meetings, they are suggesting a right superior
to the public's. Not only is the public unlikely to grant
this superiority, it resents the suggestion that the press
has a right it does not have. An argument of superior right
based on the First Amendment might be effective in court,
but it will not be well received by the readers.
Further, a sophisticated public official can attack
such a claim as selfish--the newspaper sells news for a
profit and is only agitating to get into those "necessarily"
closed meetings so it will have something to sell. The same
official, though, is put on the defensive when he is shown
to be excluding the public, the people who put him into
office and whose money he is spending and whose authority he
is using. Then the official must justify the closing; he
cannot attack the public as he can attack the press.
The argument that the newspaper has a right to attend
public meetings as a representative of the public is easier
to support; some of the public may even back the newspapers
since they seem to think no better of officials than of the
press. Public officials won't agree; they naturally look on
themselves as the public's representatives and they don t
welcome the press as a competitor or as a watchdog of
government. The representation argument is not one to use
with a mayor who wants to close it all up.
2. The closing of a public meeting or record must become
NEWS, an atypical event. All news media must consider denial
of access to public news an action contrary to routine, an
extraordinary event for which extraordinary justification
must be given. The burden must be on the official to justify
denial, not on the newspaper to show why the meeting should
be open. The presumption must be that all meetings and all
records are open to the public unless clear reasons can be
given for closing them.
This is not meant as an argument that all public
business should be published. Experienced news people know
of matters better left out of the paper, for the public
benefit and to avoid terrible injury to innocent persons.
But the choice of what is to be kept secret cannot be left
to officials who may have a personal interest in secrecy.
3. Newspapers, like all news media, share in the blame for some
governmental secrecy. Much of the reporting of public
affairs is superficial, and it is inaccurate more often than
newspaper editors and broadcast news directors want to
admit. Every experienced editor has suffered the humiliation
of hearing a respected, serious public official speak with
professional contempt of the press coverage of his office.
Officials complain, with reason, of emphasis on minor
conflict, of a hunt for good guys and bad guys, of sheer
ignorance of government, of carelessness, of a fascination
for dramatic trivia, of significant material slighted or
ignored because of its complexity, and inevitably of
Public officials never explain how any reporter could
sensationalize news as dull as most of that coming out of
government. They are referring, of course, to the normal
search for the unusual angle that newspapers follow in an
attempt to make governmental news palatable to readers.
Naturally, many complaints are self-serving, but enough
are valid to make it no wonder that even the ablest public
officials are tempted to close public meetings when
sensitive issues are to be discussed. Emphatically, the
distrust of officials for the press is no excuse for them to
close their shop to reporters, but American newspaper
editors can do something about that distrust. Editors can
re-examine governmental reporting with an eye to
significance, and they can see to it that their government
reporters are better prepared than they are now.
Journalism schools can take part blame for the poor
preparation of reporters assigned to cover local government.
Schools turn out eager young people who can write a breaking
news story, more or less, but few of them can read a balance
sheet and some of them don t know the difference between
city and county government.
The schools are beginning to require more than basic
economics and political science courses of their students;
some are developing public finance and government courses
adapted for journalists.
But the key to preparation lies with newspapers. The
schools will give newspapers the kind of reporters they
demand, eventually, and the papers can see to it that their
reporters training in government continues after they are
assigned to a government beat. A reporter's understanding of
city government grows rapidly once he begins covering
practical affairs at city hail, but he will learn more,
understand more, and be harder to satisfy if he reads the
same books and professional magazines as the city manager
and if he attends the same conferences and short courses.
Newspapers contribute to secrecy in another way, one
that they can be proud of. Local reporting has become more
aggressive in recent years. Newspapers now report areas of
government that were ignored before. Local officials can no
longer feel that the press will safely overlook information
they would like kept confidential. The temptation to close
public meetings and records in self-defense naturally
becomes stronger. It is a rare mayor or city manager who
sees it as much his duty to keep the public informed as to
keep the city government running smoothly.
Officials are particularly tempted to close up when
the reporter's aggressiveness is extreme. Some reporters,
notably younger ones, carry the unfortunate idea of
"adversary of government" on to enmity. At times, such
reporters show themselves openly contemptuous of public
officials; their sole idea of news is the expos‚ . As
gatherers of governmental news they have little value, and
they injure the newspaper they work for. Not only do they
poison the relationship between the paper and government
officials, but they give the official a plausible argument
for secrecy. The current fever for "adversary reporting" -
with a vengeance - may work itself out, but while it lasts
it is a danger.
Some newspapers also contribute to official secrecy by
not screaming loudly enough at the closing of a public
meeting or public record. Some papers do not feel the
responsibility to bring governmental information to their
readers; others are in a community where secrecy is routine
and the paper hesitates to set the boat rocking. And f or
some papers, secretive public officials offer a news
advantage over the competition, especially over broadcast
Any reporter long on a beat has developed sources who
will give him a version of what went on behind the closed
door. If the competition has no such source, the newspaper
can score a clear beat. While the paper may gain, its
readers lose because the version offered may not be complete
and it is difficult to check out.
No matter how skeptical the reporter, that friendly source's
version smells of self interest.
4. Stave off open war with officials as long as possible.
Roaring fights with officialdom are exciting and they make
entertaining copy, but they can be taken as symbols that the
public is not getting the information to which it is
entitled. Editors can go a long way to prevent war if they
maintain a strong relationship with public officials and if
there is no misunderstanding about the paper's reaction to
It is worth an editor's time to find out, through
personal contact, the real reason for a desire for secrecy.
Although corruption is always a possibility, it is rarely
the reason for a closed meeting. Much more often, officials
close up to keep their options clear - if they are not on
the record, they cannot be seen as changing their minds
later. Or they want to avoid second-guessing from the public
- it is simpler to present the public with a decision than
to go through the trouble and political danger of public
hearings and to listen to the arguments of "outsiders." They
may want to prevent the organization of opposition before a
policy is announced, or to conceal dissent which could
weaken the force of a public board's eventual decision. They
may want to sound out support for a proposal that could
wither if it got early publicity.
They may simply be high-handed people to whom the
concept of public right-to-know is foreign.
None of these is sufficient reason in our society for
governmental secrecy, but even a sincere official, faced
with possible community dissension and personal political
troubles, will be tempted to offer the public a sudden
policy, the product of a closed meeting - if they think they
can. get away with it. If these officials deal with a
trusted paper that treats public affairs seriously and
covers them competently, if they know the editor and if they
know that the editor's reaction to secrecy will be a quick
appeal for public support, then secrecy will be much less
While almost every editor who replied to the
questionnaire alluded somehow to seeking public support in
disputes over official secrecy, public support is not always
forthcoming. Several editors showed disappointment and
The editor of one small Midwest paper said, "We
continue to hit this issue (secrecy) hard, of course, in
almost every way we can, but the effects are - to put it
mildly - negligible. We have done all these things -
especially front page editorials, news stories and
subsequent editorials - and nothing seems to work."
Another said, "Unfortunately, most citizens are not
very much concerned. There are, in fact, a good many people
who believe public bodies should be allowed to meet in
private more or less at will,"
But most editors exhibited at least the implicit belief
that newspapers would have some public support, especially
when a dispute is local and when its significance is clear.
"Make an issue of a case when what is being covered up
is obviously important to the public. You can t stir up the
public over a principle (right-to-know), What is being
covered up must be important, significant," the editor of a
Some editors have attempted to make an individual
official's secrecy an issue when he comes up for reelection
with mixed results. Several warned of officials reelected
despite well-publicized histories of secrecy, officials who
stayed in office hostile toward the newspaper but warmed by
a feeling that, their previous action had been validated by
public vote. It is hard to imagine a worse situation for the
public's right-to-know, and the possibility of such a horror
suggests that newspapers should consider carefully before
making an individual candidate's practice of secrecy a major
issue in a political campaign.
With public support, newspapers will get public
information whether officials want to give it or not.
Without that support, newspapers will get whirL public
officials want to give them, if the officials choose to be
State open meetings-open records legislation can help
in gaining public backing, but ultimately the public's
support will go to that group it trusts most. Fortunately
for newspapers, public trust comes from the single function
editors have the most control over - professional reporting.
The editor of a Midwest newspaper put it: "Good solid
reporting is the best way to fight secrecy in government.
But it is also necessary to use a strong open meeting or
open record law occasionally. These do not replace good
reporting; they supplement it."
Cross, Harold L. The People's Right to Know. New York:
Columbia University Press, 1953.
Fisher, Paul. "The Experience With State Access Legislation:
An Overview of the Battle for Open Records."
Grassroots Editor, March-April, 1972, pp. 14-18, 37.
Freedom of Information Center Summary Paper No. 25,
"Access Problems on the Local Level." Columbia, MO School of
Journalism, University of Missouri-Columbia, October, 1968.
Johnston, William F. "Reporters and the Public Business."
The Quill, March, 1974, pp. 25-28.
Mayhew, Arthur E. "Battle for Open Meetings Must Be Won
at Local Level." PNPA Press, December, 1972, pp. 4-5
Ridings, Donald J. Access to Information in Missouri.
Freedom of Information Center Report No. 19.
Columbia, Missouri: School of Journalism,
University of Missouri-Columbia, October, 1959.
Stein, M. L "News Access Isn't Only a Washington Problem."
Saturday Review, August 14, 1971, pp. 50-51, 56.
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