“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”― Lewis Carroll
As we approach the fifty year anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) we are challenged to balance these parallel forces of “adventure” and “explanation”. We need to consider the possibility that the “dreadful time” spent on legal and journalistic explanations of the Constitution has somehow sapped the “adventure” out of the right of the people to information by and about the government. In truth, the right to know is itself an adventure so bold, so woven into the very fabric of this democracy, that the essence may be obscured in endless explanation.
Proponents who staunchly defend the fine points of FOIA have brilliantly and adamantly fought for open government. Wise defenders of the principle creatively respond – and help to shape – evolving social structures and communication strategies. Advocates collaborate to ward off insidious threats to the people’s right to know. Still, the democratic tenet remains as implicit as it is complex. After a half century of worthy service, FOIA hovers on a precipice reconstructed by fundamental change in politics, the media, economics, technology and the body politic.
When a naïve reporter recently referred to FOIA as “obscure”, advocates wisely shifted from mere explanations to fiery examples of adventures, to stories of how and why FOIA matters – why, after a half century, FOIA is itself an adventure in preserving a democratic principle in an era of cataclysmic change.
The fact is, the right to know is by definition linked to content, complicated by the essential reality that information is implicit, invisible, elusive, built into the genetic structure of the ultimate decision or end product. Information remains inert until and unless sentient beings transform it into knowledge that supports “adventures.” It was neither a politician nor a journalist but Goethe himself who reminded us that “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” The adventure lies in the doing….”
The challenge has always been to trace, to describe, and to realize the value and essence of transparency. The sine qua non is the right of the people to hold government accountable as an authoritative and accessible source of information that ultimately matters “in the doing.” Fifty years after passage of FOIA we may need more adventure to make it real!
In an earlier blog post my emphasis was on “putting a face” on information, https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/open-government-putting-a-face-on-an-implicit-right/ I now favor the energy that “adventure” suggests. Though we need explanations of how to exercise the right to know, as FOIA turns Fifty we need adventure stories in which FOIA is the weapon the hero wields to save the day!
Adventure engages today’s body politic, not as inert consumers but active players in the challenge to sustain this democracy. Participants in the adventure who once relied on established media are overwhelmed, and often misinformed, by the political, economic and technological transformation of the media. Today’s information environment places greater demands on engaged citizens to be independent seekers, learners and interpreters of the facts, of truth.
During the build-up to “FOIA at Fifty” advocates are mounting a major campaign to “Fix FOIA”. The partisan initiative is under Congressional discussion now as members consider recent legislation, action precipitated by a recent congressional report that concluded that the FOI process “is broken and in need of serious change.” (http://www.standard.net/frontpage/2015/02/09/Lawmakers-move-to-strengthen-freedom-of-information-act.html
The challenge now is to add zest to the explanations that politics demand. My humble hope is to collect and share stories that illuminate the adventure – anecdotes that amplify the contributions of individuals who first inspired the mandate, to celebrate those who preserve that same spirit of adventure even as they craft the legal structures that preserve the essence of open government.
Journalist and writer Jon Meacham offers this guidance in the pursuit of the adventure of an informed democracy:
The American Dream may be slipping away. We have overcome such challenges before. To recover the Dream requires knowing where it came from, how it lasted so long and why it matters so much.
In fact, the Dream lasted so long, in part at least, because informed citizens have exercised their right to know. Stories that illustrate FOI at work matter so much because they illustrate the impact of the law. Adventures matter simply because “explanations take such a dreadful time.”