EDITORIAL: Celebrate, demand public transparency
York Dispatch investigative reporter David Weissman has been taking a close look at the York City Ice Arena, which one former city official said has had "problems from day one" and is now the subject of a criminal investigation.
With the news media increasingly under assault for doing its job — that is, reporting stories that reveal uncomfortable truths — it is more important than ever this year to pause and reflect on the tenets commemorated by Sunshine Week.
The annual week-long initiative, which this year runs through Saturday, is intended to focus attention on the importance of government transparency and the public’s right to know what its elected officials are doing in their name and with their tax dollars.
Launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week has become an annual reminder of the dangers of shadowy government dealings and the importance of freedom of information.
Journalists and citizens have long faced headwinds when seeking public information. Even Freedom of Information Laws — designed to expedite the process of making public information available to the public — have been used to deflect or delay access to materials. Rather than the avenue of last resort, many bureaucrats consider them a prerequisite; and attendant costs can be prohibitive.
But added to those unwelcome hurdles has been an attack on free and fair reporting led by none other than the holder of the nation’s highest office.
Then-candidate Donald Trump’s insistence on making the reporters who covered his campaign a target of public derision at political rallies was petty, dangerous and, frankly, sickening. His insistence since taking office that every story that reflects poorly on him or his administration is somehow phony is patently ridiculous, not to mention an insult to all right-thinking Americans.
Too many of Trump’s supporters, unfortunately, would rather take the intellectually lazy path of dismissing legitimate reporting than reassessing their own political views.
The result is an increasing if undeserved animosity to a free press and its practitioners.
So the arrival of Sunshine Week offers a welcome reminder that, baseless criticism aside, the public needs a robust, unfettered press to fight efforts at every level of government to operate behind closed doors.
That includes in Pennsylvania, where, despite a recent report that found the state’s 10-year-old Right to Know laws are working generally well, there are still blind spots at the top levels of government.
Take, for example, ongoing efforts by reporters to learn what, specifically, the state Senate security force does and to see the reports it files. The 14-member force operates largely outside the public eye, despite the public footing its annual $700,000 budget.
And, yes, even amid the continuing fallout from the Harvey Weinstein accusations and the resulting #metoo movement, Pennsylvania’ state lawmakers continue to refuse to make public sexual harassment records involving themselves. Look no further than the state’s Right to Know Law, in which lawmakers gave themselves special protections when it comes to withholding state records.
So there’s room for improvement. And make no mistake, access to public information is vital to informing the public.
It is through deep dives amid public records that Dispatch reporter David Weissman was able to document how York County’s prison system benefited financially from a “telephone tax” on the families of inmates. Weissman also uncovered mismanagement at the York City Ice Arena through materials obtained through Right to Know requests, along with a series of internal emails from another source. Similar Weissman and education reporter Junior Gonzalez watchdog reports pulled back the curtains on a lack of meaningful oversight at the Helen Thackston Charter School.
Important stories, all, and reflections of the type of public service than can come about only when public access and freedom of information are unfettered.
At every level of government, in ways big and small and, especially, at a time when so many are working so hard to discredit the work of the nation’s reporters, Sunshine Week reminds us of the importance of a free press. And at every level of society, in ways big and small, that free press reminds us of the importance of access to public information.