OP-ED: Times of extraordinary government power require more accountability and transparency, not less

Christopher Baxter
Spotlight PA
Spotlight PA team at work.

Armed with expansive emergency powers, Gov. Tom Wolf has placed unprecedented restrictions on our lives to slow the spread of the coronavirus. He has closed schools, shut down huge numbers of businesses and ordered people to stay in their homes.

But with these extraordinary powers comes the extraordinary need for more oversight, not less.

Consider the stakes of the decisions coming from our state government. A designation that a small business is not “life-sustaining” could mean the difference between solvency and bankruptcy. A determination that a business is “essential” exposes committed workers to the front-lines of the virus, putting them more at risk. Delays in widespread mitigation efforts, such as releasing prisoners or ordering people to stay home, could cost people their lives.

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How are these decisions being made? Who is influencing them? Are they being carried out in a way that is fair and equitable to all? We all deserve the answers to these questions, and it’s the journalists who cover our state Capitol who can demand them. In their absence, we risk the kind of waste, fraud and abuse we know will come from enhanced power, even in times when we agree extraordinary measures must be taken to save lives.

And yet, as this crisis unfolds, so too does the continued deterioration of local newsrooms across the U.S., forcing publications to shut down, lay off workers, impose furloughs and cut pay. When the consolidation of power is at its greatest, when the consequences are at their peak for every one of us, we need journalists demanding accountability the most.

In September, we launched Spotlight PA, an independent, reader-funded newsroom focused on holding the Pennsylvania state government to account. The project, led by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, now provides content to 25 different newsrooms across the state, including The York Dispatch.

As part of that effort, supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and more than a dozen other nonprofit institutions and community foundations, including York County Community Foundation, we brought a team of 12 to Harrisburg in the largest-ever infusion of reporting talent. That’s now paying dividends on an exponential scale, as Spotlight PA’s accountability reporting has been at the forefront of coronavirus coverage in Pennsylvania, providing people in communities in all corners of the state the news and information they need to stay safe and make informed decisions.

Christopher Baxter

And we’re getting results. A waiver issued to Gov. Tom Wolf's former cabinet supply company was rescinded after Spotlight PA and our partners at PA Post questioned how it qualified as "life-sustaining." Similarly, a candy company owned by Sen. Joe Scarnati closed after inquiries from the news organizations. The state began broadcasting its daily coronavirus briefings with Spanish subtitles after Spotlight PA reported on the lack of multilingual options. Lawmakers introduced a bill to change workers' compensation rules after Spotlight PA reported it could be difficult for people to prove they got sick with the coronavirus at work. And officials started publishing county-by-county statistics on coronavirus infections after Spotlight PA exposed that the state was using an antiquated law to keep detailed statistics about the outbreak secret.

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This unique and creative effort to better cover Pennsylvania’s state Capitol depends on support from readers like you, and now more than ever, we need you to join the effort. For a tax-deductible donation of just $15/month, you can become a sustaining sponsor of our work in your community, ensuring we can continue to provide readers in York with the statewide news and information you need to be informed and empowered.

The government isn’t making our work easy. State officials from the governor on down have released far less data about the coronavirus in Pennsylvania than other states, and state departments have essentially stopped processing public records requests.

We all have a right to know how these decisions are made. And to get those answers, we need your support. In order to hold our leaders accountable during this crisis and beyond, we need journalists who are able to work nonstop to get us the truth we deserve. Now more than ever, this is a 100% essential public service, one that I hope we all can agree is worth supporting.

— Christopher Baxter is the editor in chief of Spotlight PA.