Associated Press President and CEO Tom Curley has long been interested in freedom of information and open government issues. In question-and-answer form, he discussed this year’s Sunshine Week initiative spearheaded by media organizations.
Q. Sunshine Week 2007 marks the third year of the national effort to initiate a public dialogue in the United States about the people’s right to know. What’s different, compared to 2006 and 2005?
A. Efforts in several states reached turning points. The Sunshine Week momentum forced elected officials to choose between public service or self service. We saw some very powerful officials become openly defiant of efforts to do the public’s business in public. In a strange way they inspired a new generation of investigative reporters and stiffened the resolve of editors. Persistent reporters at local, state and federal levels helped save billions of dollars and even lives by what they were able to uncover last year.
Q. Access to local government records by the media and the public remains a contentious issue. In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency released more than 13,000 pages of employee receipts and vouchers after losing a 19-month right-to-know battle against The Associated Press and two member news organizations. In Iowa, a nonprofit group created by the Legislature to study teachers’ pay agreed to stop closed-door meetings after the AP and other media organizations filed a lawsuit. Is there an erosion of access or has progress been made in opening up records without legal recourse?
A. Results were mixed. There were a couple wins. Unfortunately, the comfort level with secrecy appears to become entrenched. The biggest setback seemed to be in the judicial branch.
Q. Have congressional efforts to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act laws accomplished their intended goal?
A. No. More damage has been done. Specifically, more documents than ever are becoming secret or classified. Government officials who cooperated with the press were targeted. Quiet coalitions of government officials at the federal level appear to have united to blunt the impact of FOIA efforts.
Q. In the trial of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby about how he learned the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame and whom he discussed it with, some reporters were called to testify. In the Balco steroids investigation, a federal judge ordered two reporters jailed after they refused to divulge their source for leaked testimony. What is the outlook for a federal shield law?
A. The Libby, eavesdropping and Balco cases showcased why a federal shield law is in the best interest of the democracy. Unfortunately, the prospects remain slim.
Q. Is the subpoenaing of high-profile journalists for trial testimony having an impact on the media’s traditional role of being a watchdog of government activity on behalf of the public?
A. Frankly, this is the area of greatest concern. So far, the evidence is that journalists are too stubborn to be cowed by personal threats and jail time. However, the threat to jail sources has to have had a chilling effect on other prospective sources. Of course, we don’t know what we’re missing. So far Americans seem willing to stand up for the greater good.
Q. Does the mix of privacy concerns by the public and heightened anxiety about national security in a war climate make it more difficult for reporters to effectively practice their craft?
A. Certainly, and some of that thinking is normal for wartime. Judging by election results and convictions of elected officials in a half-dozen states, the public attitude is shifting back toward a demand for accountability and debate. We have traveled almost six years from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The willingness to “risk” openness is growing.
Q. Media advocacy groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have issued detailed reports on how dangerous the world has become for media workers. What effect is the targeting of journalists having on newsgathering?
A. The Associated Press has lost four staff members in Iraq. We know that three were executed. The media have become the target. We spend hours a day on security. Clearly, our movements are restricted, and our ability to gather information is hampered. We believe we’re still getting the story but often not as timely or completely as we should.
Q. Campaigning for the U.S. presidency is under way. How does the intensity of the politics of a presidential campaign affect open government initiatives?
A. A campaign is the best time to win a commitment to public service. Interviews with candidates should explore the attitude toward public service or self service. Voting records and dealmaking behavior should go under the microscope early. Some of the most blatant examples of self-dealing occur in larger states where daily individual scrutiny is a challenge. The election offers another chance to inform voters.
Q. What role can citizen journalists and participatory networks play in advancing the dialogue about the people’s right to know?
A. The citizen community has produced some of the most exciting counters to cover-ups. The growth in public involvement and sophistication in information gathering and distributing are among the most positive signs in connecting the people to their elected or appointed representatives.
Q. No other news organization has defended reporting in more states and federal courtrooms across a broader range of issues than AP in its 161-year history. Do you see that changing?
A. We must intensify our vigilance. We added one more lawyer to the payroll for 2007. While we try to pick our fights carefully, the sad reality is that more in government are presuming confidentiality rather than openness. We are intensifying our training of reporters and editors and working with journalists at other organizations and citizen groups where appropriate. As Sunshine Week has demonstrated, we will succeed if we, too, serve the people.