FOIA at Fifty — Does access to information really matter?

We can’t be in an ideological battle to redeem the soul of this country if we don’t have the facts. Tavis Smiley

Back at the dawn of the digital age my prescient brother sold the potential of pricey technology by answering the inevitable question ”Whadya sellin’?” with the ubiquitous retort ”Whadya need?” Though the goal was to sell the product, the first step was to identify the customer’s need – the gadget wouldn’t matter till the buyer “felt the pain.”

Truth to tell, few Americans will specify “open government” or “transparency” high on their Litany of Felt Needs. Fewer still will recognize their lack of access to information by and about the government as a major source of pain or as a detriment to living a fulfilled life. The Founding Fathers highlighted identified the five basic freedoms in the First Amendment as the Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly and Petition.

Here I have to quote Gene Policinski, CEO of the Newseum Institute, who advised readers that “you may not think of the First Amendment in working terms. More likely, you don’t think of it at all – or if you do, it’s associated with harpsichord music and Colonial Times.” (DesMoines Register, April 18, 2015) As Policinski suggests, for most citizens “open government” is a remote and nebulous yawn.

And yet Policinski wakens us with the truth that “while all 10 of the amendments in the Bill of Rights protect our rights, it’s the First Amendment that defines the core freedoms we use every day.”

The first challenge for advocates of transparency and accountability is to make government information matter — only then will the body politic care, or even notice, if, how, by whom and why the information chain is frayed or broken. The unfortunate but no less true that the need for government information is too often best illuminated by the failure of the system to fulfill the promise.

The ongoing crisis in Flint offers a case study: Serving the public watchdog role incumbent on investigative journalism, the Huffington Post reports in detail the failure of the government to uphold its information responsibility:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/flint-lead-water- epa_us_569522a8e4b086bc1cd5373c )

Though illustrative of incredible failure, the article demonstrates the ways in which reliable information matters, and why government alone plays the essential role as collector, organizer and point of access to information that matters – when it matters and to whom it matters. Whether it’s politics, incompetence or sheer negligence, the broken chain of government information lies at the core of the water crisis in Flint.

A very different but deeply distressing diatribe appears in a recent issue of Slate . The article exposes the racist manipulation of information gathered and managed by malevolent forces within the government.

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/01/what_the_fbi_s_surveillance_of_martin_luther_king_says_about_modern_spying.html)

These unspeakable realities expose the ugly underside of open government.   At the same time the contemporary allegories illustrate beyond question that information by and about the government matters not only in terms of national security but in the daily lives of the American people. The stories underscore the fact that ordinary citizens and their representatives bear responsibility for what is an inalienable right, a powerful force and a trust.

Information is a tool, useful and usable for good or for harm. Those who understand the power of information as a tool wield power, the critical power to provide reliable, essential, needed information or the power to derail, delude or destroy. The anecdotes underscore the lesson that information matters, that reliable, access to information by and about the government is at the core of this democracy.

It follows then, “as night the day”, that misinformation, the lack of information, hoarded information, the misuse or misinterpretation of information, the failure to collect or to disclose information subvert the common good. To protect the common good requires constant vigilance on the part of every American.

There are signs that the digital age is heightening awareness that information matters. One compelling example is a recent Internews study supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. The extensive study grapples with the compelling question from the government perspective. Entitled Why Information Matters the study concludes that “without information, people can neither understand nor effectively respond to the events that shape their world.”

http://www.internews.org/sites/default/files/resources/150513Internews_WhyInformationMatters.pdf

Never one to shield the reader from harsh truth, including the truth that information matters, master of the literary thriller Tom Clancy warned his readers that “the control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.”

The bulwark of access to information by and about the government is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted fifty years ago in July 1966. Discussions have already begun concerning the law, the rights it protects, the need for revision. The time is now to make the case that information by and about the government matters to the American people.

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