Freedom of Information still a vital need for democracy

The news media are taking quite a bruising these days. Politicians, including the current occupant of the White House, revel in bashing reporters, newspapers, television and cable networks, Internet news outlets and just about anyone else who dares to shed light or comment on the workings of government.

Ironically, the fierce criticism against the news media is directed at the very core of why the press exists in the first place – to serve as a watchdog on government. While currently most attention is focused on the national media’s coverage of the federal government, looking at a few examples of how the news media operate in local communities demonstrates why they continue to serve a vital need.

Bell is a small city in Southern California of about 37,000 residents. It is one of the poorest communities in Los Angeles County. You wouldn’t have known that, though, by looking at the salaries of its local officials. 

The city’s chief administrative officer was paid more than $787,000. He started in 1993 and made sure that he received healthy raises every year for nearly two decades. The police chief was pulling down $457,000 – far more than the top cop in the nearby City of Los Angeles – with arguably a lot less to do than his counterpart in the nation’s second-most populous city. The assistant city manager was no remuneration slouch either – making more than $375,000 annually.

It didn’t stop there. The part-time city council members were paid $100,000. In fact, loads of government officials were sharing the wealth, courtesy of the taxpayers.

This little boondoggle would have gone on happily (for its beneficiaries) were it not for two intervening factors: Reporters from the Los Angeles Times and the California Public Records Act. Using the state’s law requiring governments to turn over documents, including financial records, to the public and press, the newspaper published a series of stories about Bell’s finances.

The newspaper’s coverage led to eight city officials being hauled out in handcuffs and subsequent convictions in what the county district attorney called “corruption on steroids.” The scheme’s ring leaders – the city manager and his deputy – got 12-year prison terms, and the city recouped some of its money by seizing their pension accounts. Other officials received varying sentences.

On the other side of the country, a television station in West Virginia was instrumental in bringing to light another corruption scheme that resulted in the shakeup of that state’s highest court.

Charleston station WCHS-TV found that West Virginia Supreme Court justices really enjoyed redecorating, especially at the expense of the taxpayers. The station uncovered expenditures that included a $32,000 sectional sofa, a $28,000 rug, an $8,000 office chair and a $7,500 custom floor design – and that was just the beginning, as renovations and expenditures eventually topped $3.7 million.

The station’s reporting led to impeachments, resignations and federal criminal convictions. It led to changes in policy, too. Last November, voters in that state approved a constitutional amendment that returned control of the high court’s budget to the legislature.

Stories like these are broken regularly by local news media across the country, and they have a clear and lasting impact on their communities. They also illustrate the need for a strong press that vigorously carries out its watchdog duties. To do their job, the news media need the tools afforded by state open-record laws that provide access to government records. Transparency in spending is the first step in holding government accountable.

So, as we celebrate the importance of Freedom of Information this week, let’s set aside the polarizing rhetoric against the press for a moment and remember that the news media do have a fundamental purpose in the democracy – the watchdog function – and when they vigorously carry it out, we all benefit.

ROBERT D. RICHARDS is the John and Ann Curley Professor of First Amendment Studies at Penn State University where he is also the founding director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment.

CNHI News Serice