Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Public Debate Monopoly

There can be no better example of media arrogance than Sunday’s Wisconsin State Journal story on the state’s open records law. I have actually come to be a fan of Phil Brinkman’s stories, but this condescending piece perfectly illustrates the contempt with which print media view the political process.

First of all, the article begins with:

Several former lawmakers have been ordered to jail for using state employees to work on political campaigns. But across Wisconsin government, public employees are still openly engaging in campaign work on state time and with state resources.
It is now officially a standing rule at the State Journal that every writer must begin their articles with that sentence, whether it actually pertains to the story or not. I’m actually fully expecting to see an article that begins:

"Several former lawmakers have been ordered to jail for using state employees to work on political campaigns. But after giving up five runs in the bottom of the third, the Brewers pulled pitcher Jose de la Rosa from Thursday's game against Pittsburgh."
The rest of the article goes on to describe the open records process, which is used heavily by media outlets to obtain information that they use to write their articles about government and politics. Throughout the years, newspapers have been rabid defenders of the open records process, to make sure they have full access to the most amount of information. In fact, Brinkman recently devoted a whole article to describing how heroic his paper was for their open records prowess. He likely now has a better parking spot at work as a result.

But what the article “discovers” is that – gasp! – actual real people might be taking advantage of the open records process as well. And this might include political campaigns, who use the information to – now get this – actually debate topics.

This completely confuses the State Journal, as they think they have cornered the market on what open records can and can’t be used for. Do an open records request for a story, and it’s legitimate. Do an open records request to find out whether Jim Doyle is selling off state contracts, and suddenly it’s “digging up political dirt.”

This fits perfectly with the print media’s distaste for the political process in general. In fact, the State Journal doesn’t even conceal its full-blown cheerleading for any number of campaign finance reform measures that generally limit fundraising and issue advocacy (otherwise known as political speech). When citizens and candidates don’t have the resources to tell their side of the story, guess who gets to be the predominant voice in the political process? That’s right – the newspapers, just the way they want it.

The open records law is a tool that can be used by anyone, for whatever reason they want. The law allows average citizens to hold their elected officials accountable, even if it has to be through politics. And it is a law that will help prevent the next “caucus scandal,” which means the State Journal will have to win its coveted awards covering something else.