washingtonpost.com
Lagging in the Fight for Open Government

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, March 15, 2009

Post reporters routinely file Freedom of Information Act requests to dislodge public records. Editorials warn about the dangers of government secrecy. And the newspaper is willing to sue government agencies to force disclosure of documents. It cares about the public's right to know.

So you would think that with its stature, here in the nation's capital, The Post would be the leader in fighting for transparency. It isn't.

Other newspapers are more assertive on their news pages in championing the cause. Pioneering Web sites are much better at giving readers access to government data. And some open-government advocates feel The Post hasn't done enough to curb Washington's corrosive culture of anonymity.

It's an appropriate topic today, the kick-off for national Sunshine Week, which focuses attention on the importance of open government. Last year, hundreds of newspapers participated, in print and online. Some wrote stories on how well state and local governments comply with public disclosure laws. Others carried columns and editorials. (Full disclosure: I helped launch Sunshine Week in 2005 and remain active in news industry efforts to increase freedom of information.)

In the past, The Post has declined to take part. Former executive editor Len Downie believed that the newsroom should not be seen as working in concert with editorial writers and executives. "I always kept our newsgathering completely separate from advocacy by the editorial page and the company," he says. His successor, Marcus Brauchli, agrees.

But what could be wrong with The Post writing in a fair and balanced way about a public policy issue essential to readers?

"Stand up for what you believe and get out front," admonishes Pete Weitzel, the former longtime managing editor of the Miami Herald and a noted freedom-of-information advocate.

Weitzel also believes The Post should take the lead in halting the pervasive practice of allowing public officials to hold news briefings without being named. Prime target: the "senior administration official backgrounders" in which ranking government officials brief reporters en masse on condition that they not be identified. Over the years, they've become commonplace at agencies and in the White House briefing room. The Obama administration has held at least one since taking office.

Post White House reporter Michael A. Fletcher says they're "frustrating." He adds: "I think the press corps goes along because we are hungry for the information which, as often as not, ends up being repeated in fully usable form." Press secretaries often have insisted that the briefers remain anonymous "to keep the focus on the president," who sometimes appears later on camera saying much the same thing.

But it's not the job of reporters to help a president's PR strategy.

If The Post is uncomfortable taking part in Sunshine Week, says Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups, it could focus more on excessive government secrecy in its everyday reporting or take on a major project on the topic.

Some open-government advocates say The Post didn't do enough to cover the growth of secrecy during the Bush administration.

"The Post lagged behind others in covering secrecy issues during the past eight years," says Blum. I agree.

On the Web, washingtonpost.com lags in providing access to digitized government records. In the fight for public information, this is the next battleground.

New sites are popping up that tap into local government databases to give readers an array of up-to-date information: the latest restaurant health inspections; inspection reports on nursing homes and school buses; foreclosures; liquor license applications, building permits; and more.

Washingtonpost.com provides some of that. Its "Local Explorer" section, for example, offers area crime reports, recent real estate transactions and standardized test scores by school.

"Every newspaper Web site ought to be the place for public records," says Adrian Holovaty, who left washingtonpost.com several years ago to create Everyblock.com, perhaps the nation's best site for localized public information down to the block level. It's now available for nearly a dozen cities, including the District, which Holovaty says has "the best municipal government we've found" for providing public information in digital form.

There's a powerful economic incentive for newspapers to be gateways to this information: It drives traffic to their Web sites.

Raju Narisetti, the Post managing editor who oversees washingtonpost.com, acknowledges that the Web site is playing catch-up. Tight staffing is an issue. And The Post serves multiple local governments, some more advanced than others in providing data in digital form.

But Jonathan Krim, an assistant managing editor for local news at washingtonpost.com, says it's also a matter of increasing the focus on digitizing public information. "We still don't have enough people wired to think that way," he says.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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