Saturday, May 05, 2007




By David Cox, Managing Editor
The South Missourian News, Thayer

Even though public officials attend workshops entitled “How to Manage the Media,” or more innocuously, “Media Relations,” the surest way for a public official to get on the wrong side of the press is to see the press as something to manage. As if it could be.

It’s called the “free press” for a reason. The press is sometimes too intrusive, occasionally irresponsible and always unpredictable. But while it sometimes abuses its freedom, the press remains a free nation’s best safeguard against tyranny.

That’s not true in other countries. In Russia the state does indeed manage the press; in fact, the state owns the press. Since President Vladimir Putin took control, the Kremlin has managed to drive the free press out of business and seized all the major media outlets.

The good news for Putin is he gets only good press. The bad news is the Russian people, who briefly tasted freedom in the 1990s, don’t believe Putin or the press he controls. They’re comfortable with that, strange as it sounds to our ears. Russians expect their leaders to lie to them and are amused that we naive Americans expect the truth from our leaders (there is a ray of hope;
Internet bloggers are an active force in Russia and, to a limited degree, expose the media’s most blatant whoppers, just as they do in the United States).

The First Amendment to the Constitution grants freedom of the press. Freedom of the press is, in reality, freedom of access for every American. When the independent, privately held press acts, it acts on behalf of the people. It may be a reporter who files a Freedom of Information complaint to gain access to an illegally closed meeting or to see illegally withheld public records, but every citizen has the same right of access as the press.

We do speak on behalf of the people when we demand access under the law. And when access is denied, we are compelled (not by law, but by principle) to expose the official who denied it.

A tip for public officials, especially those who have just taken office: The most effective formula for getting good press is to do good work.

We can hear the groans from veteran politicians who read this and are ready to retort with a story about how the press “done me wrong.” We would be dishonest to deny that many in this profession sully their credibility by unfairly attacking public officials. But for every innocent elected official (no, that’s really not an oxymoron) harmed by an overly aggressive press, a dozen politicians get away with abusing the public trust because of a too-timid press.

The Missouri Sunshine Law is among the strongest sunshine laws in the country. This has helped not only the press but every citizen gain access to meetings and records. Now it’s a new year and a new crop of officials has been sworn in.

We in the press are always uneasy when we see all the new faces, knowing from experience that most of them don’t know what the Freedom of Information Act requires. So, Mr. or Ms. Public Servant, here it is, in a nutshell: You are a public servant, and therefore whatever you say and whatever you do when it comes to the public’s business must be done in public.

There are a few specific, narrowly defined exceptions, but whenever there is a question over whether or not something is public, state law falls on the side of openness. We urge you to take time to familiarize yourself with state law governing freedom of information so you know exactly what is demanded. And if you, for whatever reason, try to conceal public information or conduct
public business in private, we will assume the worst — that whatever you’re up to does not serve the public good. You can count on us and our reckless colleagues to hound you — publicly — until you obey the law.

Try managing that.