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Sunshine Law Brings Light to Local News Reports



They have been around so long, you can take them for granted: like a parent who is forever cleaning your messes.

But the state and federal network of Sunshine Laws are much more than a bureaucratic aid to journalists' snooping; they are an important tool in helping keep average citizens aware of what important institutions are -- or aren't -- doing.

In my own case, I've used public records to indicate the Florida Aquarium bought an advertising sponsorship at WTSP-Ch. 10 which included news coverage and to find a Clear Channel executive to comment when the station started airing a show which included racial slurs.

A Freedom of Information Act request by Susan Taylor Martin resulted in Saturday's story looking hard at former Abu Ghraib commender Former Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski's claims that a shoplifting arrest at MacDill Air Force Base was trumped up. Our records guru Jeff Testerman teamed up with reporter Melanie Ave to craft a story looking at how the Hillsborough School District often overpays for land it buys -- to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars per parcel. Fortunately, Florida's open records laws are among the nation's broadest because of a simple concept: presume records are public unless there's a compelling reason to make them secret.

At a time when polls show a majority of America believe the government is secretive (and 7 of 10 believe open records keep government honest), it becomes even more important to recognize the value of laws requiring public officials operate in public and keep records open. Today kicks off Sunshine Week, a celebration in which folks are encouraged to learn more about open records laws and resist attempts to keep public records secret.

Yeah, I know. Sounds like a lot of eat-your-broccoli news nonsense. And as someone whose job involves using public records to unearth big stories, I have a vested interest in pushing this perspective.

But now, as government officials use the war on terror to cloak more of their activity -- including, say some, a war on journalists -- it becomes more important for the public to help fight attempts to shield government from the glare of public scrutiny. (There's a few ideas here)

Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, put it well in a column published by the Asbury Park Press today: "Several senior officials have estimated that 50 percent of classified information does not need to remain secret. During the 9/11 Commission, the chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean — not accustomed to dealing with classified material — asked me scores of times: Why is this material classified? I never had a satisfactory answer."

Believe it or don't, the press really is the public's surrogate when it comes to sorting through all the attempts to subvert public money and public power to individuals' ends. Help us keep everyone informed by resisting politicians' tendency to keep government -- and the people it serves -- in the dark.

As Knight-Ridder Goes, So Do Newspapers?

Word is expected Monday on whether newspaper chain Knight-Ridder will accept offers for a sale urged by its largest shareholder, Naples-based Private Capital Management, LP. Oservers say it will determined how much a mardon-day newspaper chain is worth. Journalists fear it weill only serve as further proof that public companies which own newspapers cannot meet the demand for profit from Wall Street and the demand for quality by the industry at the same time...

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:35pm]


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