This is the dreaded Monday to end all Mondays, when more heart attacks happen, and traffic accidents skyrocket, and "cyberloafing" at work becomes epidemic. So let us ponder, through our untimely snores and our bleary eyes and our snickering cynicism, this blinding ephemera known as Open Government. Some history:
Sunshine Week naturally got its start in Florida, the Sunshine State. According to the official shiny website run by the brightness brigade,
The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to the state’s public records law. FSNE estimates that some 300 exemptions to open government laws were defeated in the legislative sessions that followed its three Sunshine Sundays, because of the increased public and legislative awareness that resulted from the Sunshine Sunday reports and commentary.
Several states followed Florida’s lead, and in June 2003, ASNE hosted a Freedom of Information Summit in Washington where the seeds for Sunshine Week were planted.
Though created by journalists, Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why.
Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.
Participants include news media, government officials at all levels, schools and universities, libraries and archives, individuals, non-profit and civic organizations, historians and anyone with an interest in open government.I don't know about you, but whenever somebody I don't know tells me I can become empowered and enlightened, I get very, very cranky. For example, I got very grumpy when tax-exempt billionaire Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg went on 60 Minutes last night to tell me to "lean in" in order to get ahead in life. And the fact that Sunshine Week is made possible, in part, by a grant from Bloomberg LLP does not help my mood. Mayor Mike Bloomberg is now 10th richest billionaire on the entire planet, and he's against the minimum wage and he wanted to fingerprint food stamp applicants and now he wants to ban earbuds to prevent the deafness that will close our ears to his harangues against sugary soft drinks.
Plus, the Sunshiners got the bright idea of giving President Obama a transparency award behind closed doors a couple of years ago, even though he was already well on his way to becoming the most opaque president in history. It's not just that he makes secret laws pretending to justify secret assassinations and has prosecuted more whistleblowers than in any previous administration. According to the AP, the Obama government is now actually censoring public records at an even faster clip since the beginning of his second term:
The administration cited exceptions built into the law to avoid turning over materials more than 479,000 times, a roughly 22 percent increase over the previous year. In many cases, more than one of the law's exceptions was cited in each request for information.
In a year of intense public interest over deadly U.S. drones, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, terror threats and more, the government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times — a jump over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in Obama's first year in office. The secretive CIA last year became even more secretive: Nearly 60 percent of 3,586 requests for files were withheld or censored for that reason last year, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.
Other federal agencies that invoked the national security exception included the Pentagon, Director of National Intelligence, NASA, Office of Management and Budget, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Communications Commission and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs.All told, the government is now refusing to comply with fully one-third of all requests under the Freedom of Information law. And it's taking a lot longer to get the information:
Some agencies, such as the Health and Human Services Department, took less time than the previous year to turn over files. But at the State Department, for example, even urgent requests submitted under a fast-track system covering breaking news or events when a person's life was at stake took an average two years to wait for files.
Journalists and others who need information quickly to report breaking news, for example, fared worse last year. The rate at which the government granted so-called expedited processing, which moves an urgent request to the front of the line for a speedy answer, fell from 24 percent in 2011 to 17 percent last year. The CIA denied every such request last year.Flying in the face of all fact, the White House itself hilariously claims to be celebrating its own week-long extravaganza of openness. Obama does the usual doublespeak routine, promising to be transparent about the need for transparency and setting aside a Very Special Week to Have a Conversation about Transparency. And the Good Ship Lollipop is a sweet trip to the candy shop.
Feeling depressed yet? Right after you write your letter to the government asking for your Aunt Sally's immigration records from the Year Zero, my prescription is to drop everything and go take a nap. As a matter of fact, I strongly suggest that you set your clock back an hour to really screw with the establishment. I actually did once get away (accidentally of course) with imparting this same advice on the front page of the first newspaper I ever worked for. (If this story sounds familiar, it's because I told it in my Reader Comment to Maureen Dowd's column yesterday. I've been telling it every year to my long-suffering family and friends, and now I am sharing it again with my long-suffering blog readers):
(This column) reminded me of my own first week at my first newspaper job. I was assigned to write an innocuous story reminding readers about Daylight Saving Time. I somehow managed to totally botch the piece by advising people to set their clocks back an hour, instead of ahead.
Sure that I would be fired before I even got started, I was pleasantly shocked to discover that my gaffe had inspired spasms of newsroom hilarity. It turned out the editors were all hardened atheists as well as hardened boozehounds, and they got much satisfaction dealing with all the irate readers calling to complain that they'd missed church because of me.
That paper, of course, was one of hundreds that have long since folded. Independent local journalism has been largely replaced by a concentration of national media power in fewer and fewer plutocratic hands. (i.e. Rupert Murdoch). This is hardly conducive to a healthy democracy.
As Maureen says, good writing is good writing regardless of whether it's in print or in pixels, or in the case of the NYT, both. Even George Orwell's diary has been transformed into an internet blog. For every issue of People Magazine, there are hundreds of news blogs worth reading, including one from our very own Paul Krugman. Good journalists are not only valuable, they are absolutely essential.
Before closing, I'd like to redeem myself and remind everyone to set your clocks ahead if you haven't already done so. Spring ahead, because hope springs eternal. I hope.