Monday, March 11, 2013

Light vs Blight

Is it someone's idea of a joke to celebrate Sunshine Week at the same time the geniuses in charge keep pretending that Daylight Saving Time magically bestows an extra hour of wonderful sleep-deprived glare upon us?

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.


Kat said...

I know that nobody is clamoring for me to submit my Times comments, but in honor of sunshine week, here goes. This was actually in response to another reader comment-- the commenter felt the big lesson to be learned is that the military should secure their intel better --but it was a way to take digs at Bill Keller's oped on Bradley Manning's leak. I recommend you read the Mr. Keller's piece, but if you don't have the time or inclination the summary is thus: The NYT behaved exactly right.
Here's my comment:
Indeed! The lesson learned is that the military needs to do a better job securing their information. What if this information had fallen into the hands of someone that could not so easily be smeared.-- say, a Harvard educated Rand analyst with high level security clearance?
Fortunately we have embedded journalists who will share for us exactly how the war is going-- remember Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch? When you control the message, our troops stay safe.

James F Traynor said...

Square jawed, patriotic Pat Tillman gave his life for his country. Shot, mortared, God knows what, through the agency of the true blue Special Forces, his own buddies, for Chist's sake. Or maybe not. And then they lied about it.
Poor, brave, honest Jessica Lynch. At least the poor kid didn't die and she is, at least physically, in one functioning piece ( I sincerely hope). Yeah Kat, I remember them. Thanks for the fucking reminder. But that's o.k., I would have remembered them anyway. My apologies, I'm in a rotten mood.

Kat said...

I'm in a rotten mood too. Sometimes I think it sure would be nice if the "guns are the last defense against tyranny of the government" crowd would understand that the government probably is a lot more threatened by words than anyone's cache of guns.

Bonnie said...

Regarding daylight savings time, I read these quotes yesterday:
"You will never find anybody who can give you a clear and compelling reason why we observe Daylight Saving Time." -- Dave Barry
"Only the government would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket." -- AmerIndian, when told of Daylight Saving Time

Zee said...


I'm trying to scare the government on both fronts, but I don't think it's working!

Karen Garcia said...

In case you weren't already irritated enough, David Brooks has written another mess of a column, frothing at the mouth about publicity-shy hero frackers and farmers as linchpins of our great American economy. My response:

The people leading the oil and gas revolution in the USA may be unknown simply because they don't dare show their faces as they busily frack and drill the North American continent to death. Their spoils will then be sold on the open global market to the highest bidders. What's extracted in America will not necessarily stay in America, unless you count the blood and sweat of all the temporary workers who will end up every bit as depleted as the environment they are helping to destroy.

The public interest group Food and Water Watch has put out a study showing that despite lack of evidence, the oil and gas barons and their willing partners at the Dept. of Energy keep touting the same old debunked trickle-down economic fairy tale. A few Wall Street plutocrats will make billions, and the rest of us, no doubt, will continue seeing the usual pain at the pump. There is no American Hugo Chavez waiting in the wings to give away any excess oil and gas to poverty-stricken families.

Communities will be turned into ghost towns as they face permanent contamination of their water, and soil. And, as is usual in cases of epic pollution, the public will bear the cost of the SuperFund clean-ups and the disease outbreaks, while the fracketeers will be laughing all the way to the bailed-out TBTF banks sharing in the windfall.

When this latest noxious greed-bubble bursts, the only people left gasping, choking, and paying will be the ones who'll have to actually live among the ruins.

Here's the link to the above-cited report by Food and Water Watch:

Denis Neville said...

Obama - smelling like sulphur - on Chavez’s death: “The United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people.”

i.e., oil patch USA (linchpin of our great American economy), as Venezuela, an OPEC member, sits on the world's second-largest oil reserves.

"Trickery: an extremely ancient joke" by Anton Chekhov:

In England, in olden times, criminals sentenced to death were given the right to sell their bodies while they were still alive to anatomists and physiologists. The criminals could give the money they received from this sale to their families, or they could spend it on drink. One criminal, guilty of a terrible crime, called over a renowned medical man, and after much haggling sold him his body for two guineas. No sooner had the criminal received the money than he burst into peals of laughter.

"What are you laughing at, my good man?" the astonished anatomist asked.

"You've bought me as a man who's to be hanged, y'r honour," the criminal guffawed. "But I tricked you, I did! You see, y'r honour, I am to be burned at the stake. Ho ho ho!"

spreadoption said...

Apropos our glum mood ---

The Power of Negative Thinking - Coach Bob Knight's latest book. Nasty guy, interesting philosophy. The power of positive thinking lies in hope and optimism; the power of negative thinking is in considering the risks and preparing for them.

Read also, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

It's not about being morose, it's about discovering the truth (Thanks, Karen!), seeing the realities, fighting if it's worthwhile, accepting if it's not, and then getting ready.

Denis Neville said...

"Tin soldiers and Nixon coming…I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.” - Neil Young

Most Americans blamed the Kent State students for their own deaths. The New York Times published a letter written by a Mississippi defending the Ohio National Guardsmen, saying the student demonstrators got what they deserved.

“An Answer to the Mississippi Doctor,” also published in the NYT:

“We, the older generation, have much to answer for. We have allowed our country to decay and deteriorate. We were too permissive of our own government. We stood by passively while our elected officials inched us into the bottomless pit of Vietnam. While our land, water and air were polluted and fouled for decades by profit-hungry industry, we were reticent and compliant, each of us devoting our energies to the pursuit of happiness and material gain in the Horatio Alger tradition. The college kids simply cannot see us spending hundreds of billions on Vietnams and ABMs while our cities rot and people are hungry. They see our priorities aborted and our principles perverted to favor a military-industrial complex. So they protest.” - Joseph Kelner, lawyer who sued the authorities on behalf of the student victims of the Kent State shootings in 1970, from recent New York Times obituary

It's a different world now. The revolution never came.

spreadoption said...

Denis, Thank you for that profoundly interesting reminder about Kent State. It is striking indeed that "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." All the responsible parties were exonerated - even praised! - then as now.

Yes, it is a different world now. Or is it really the same, lacking only a protest movement of any significance? The difference now may be that none of our protests get much off the ground at all. This is not the '60s. Occupy got shut down promptly. Same with Chris Hedges' lawsuit against Obama's NDAA.

Now as then, enlightened protesters remain a distinct minority. We make some noise now and then, but nobody cares much. That's the way it is.

Yes, the revolution never came. Then. I can't believe it's coming now. The kids have known only Reaganism for their whole lives. It's how they think. Whenever I've asked them, over the past 10 years, "Where is the outrage" they've looked as if they don't understand the question.

Will there come a point where the middle class gets beaten down so low they finally wake up and dust off the guillotines? I doubt it.

And even if they do, it'll be Kent State on steroids. Remember Waco? Our government has exercised the power of negative thinking and they're prepared for us. Our 2nd Amendment rights don't stand a chance.

Tony Ferrera said...

Just came across your blog after replying to a Krugman articel. So glad to find it. Love the content and your use of words.

Karen Garcia said...

Thank you, Tony!