I have two media-related thoughts today, this first day after the inauguration of Barack Obama.
First, I’m heartened to hear President Obama wants more transparency in government. And I hope that leads to better protection of the openness of public records and information. Every young journalist can tell you how he or she has been stymied, trying to gain access to information that is ostensibly available to the public. Does the average person know that he has a right to know how the state legislature is spending his tax dollars–and does he know how to procure the paperwork that shows him where his money is going? Perhaps. But maybe, often, not. If a reporter, who has the time, directive, know-how and her newspaper’s money and support behind her, can’t get ahold of public information, what makes anyone think that Jane Doe off the street will be able to?
I can tell you that I’ve filed some FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests in my time and then waited months and months for a response from the appropriate government agency. And I’ve been told it would cost outrageous amounts of money to produce the actual paperwork. A J-school professor once told me to always provide a CD-ROM, just in case the people claim the info is on a computer and would require reams of paper to print out. Of course, that doesn’t do you much good if the requested info is actually in paper form and requires reams of paper to copy. But hopefully, an administration that is less hostile to FOIA request and openness in general will make the process of accessing information that you and I have a right to know much easier.
Secondly, did you hear about the Wall Street Journal editors and execs receiving a mailbox full of strange white powder? Luckily, the powder was determined to be harmless. Thank goodness it wasn’t something deadly. But still. Scary. I’ve received some weird stuff in the mail before, but it’s been limited to benign things, like hand-printed tracts about vegetarianism and videotapes of old Hopalong Cassidy movies. Even the hate mail I’ve received–and every reporter worth her salt has gotten at least a few such letters–has been relatively low-key. I can’t imagine receiving a letter or package and having to actually worry about whether my health–or my life–has been seriously threatened.
Of course, once the experts announced that the white powder in the WSJ staffer’s mailboxes was more likely to be flour than anthrax, I had to grumble about something else: the postmark on the envelopes was from Tennessee. Great job, anonymous powder-mailer. Way to make our state look good. I sincerely hope we don’t have more of that sort of thing to look forward to.