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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.                                   Published by 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.



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.



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,

if necessary.
     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

past year.

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

this way."
     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.

     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

circulation area.
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,"

one said.


     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?

          Where? When?

     c.   Ask if the decision to close was made by a vote or by

          the presiding officer. If it was closed by vote, who

          voted how.

     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

public support.

     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


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

     metro said,

          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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