Editor's Weekly: Finding common ground in the public's right to know
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Dear Beaconites -
National controversies in the news this week showed that Americans, much as we may disagree over politics, still share two fundamental principles.
First, government officials should not use their power for personal or partisan gain.
Second, citizens have a right to know what those officials are up to, absent compelling reasons to the contrary.
We the people also share a suspicion: that politicians don't always mean what they say when they extol the virtues of Principles 1 and 2.
They said a lot this week. Asserting faith in Principle 1, politicians of all stripes denounced the IRS for targeting tea party groups for special scrutiny. At first, low-level employees got the blame. Later, as that excuse began to unravel, the acting head of the agency lost his job.
Asserting faith in Principle 2, congressional Republicans probed again into the killing of Americans in Benghazi, Libya. The critics say that talking points about what happened were crafted with personal interest in mind, a violation of Principle 1. But Democrats claimed that the critics are themselves operating out of partisan interest, using their investigative powers to tarnish the reputation and presidential prospects of Hillary Clinton.
Sorting out controversies around Principle 1 and Principle 2 is an endless challenge for the rest of us citizens. Who's acting out of personal or partisan interest? Who's concealing information and why? Such questions are rarely easy to answer, and the prevailing climate of extreme partisan rancor makes them even harder.
As civic discourse has degenerated into soundbites and digital skirmishes, no wonder many Americans' healthy skepticism of politics has turned into corrosive cynicism. And the 24/7 news cycle only feeds the problem, encouraging round after round of charge and counter charge.
Rather than focus so heavily on who's to blame, news coverage might focus more productively on what can be done. Citizens may never know for sure what motivated the officials whose actions and policies are now under scrutiny, but we can ask how to make those actions and policies better.
In the IRS controversy, several specific questions come to mind. Can the agency develop clear standards to determine who deserves nonprofit 501(c)(4) status? How much political activity is allowed? How does the IRS differentiate political activity from issue advocacy? And beneath these questions lurks an even more basic one. Should donors to politically active groups be allowed to remain anonymous?
I haven't yet mentioned the third big controversy of the week: the Justice Department's search of AP reporters' phone records. Administration officials say the government followed appropriate guidelines designed to balance security needs with First Amendment rights. But First Amendment experts say the scope and secret nature of the search raise serious concerns about government intrusion on freedom of the press, as William Freivogel reported in the Beacon.
As was all too evident this week, the press is far from perfect. But the writers of the First Amendment knew that. They protected the press anyway so that the press, in turn, could protect Principles 1 and 2. So far, it's worked.
Going forward, as this week's controversies remind us, the health of our democracy and the health of its journalism will remain inextricably intertwined. Writing in 1904, the first Joseph Pulitzer put it better than anyone has since:
"Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations."