The curtains that control what you read and hear closed some this week. They may close more. The Washington Star's collapse is an unrelieved tragedy. This city should not be a one-newspaper town. For all of its skills and undeniable achievements, The Post, as well as readers, needs the other perspective, the different rhythem, the alternative coverage and the sharpening of wit that competition produces.
A civtim of its times, The Star's disappearance is to be mourned in that special, private place where we understood that our knowledge of our world is to be diminished.
There is second threatened drawing of the information curtain. It is the proposed modifications to the Freedom of Information Act. If the more than 20 bills introduced in Congress become law, you will see and hear less about the U.S. government.
This 15-year-old act provides access to government documents that are otherwise unavailable. Among the proposed revisions are exemptions for the CIA and FBI. This, despite the fact that the CIA has never lost a court case when, under the act, it decided to oppose the release of sensitive intelligence and despite the fact the FBI cannot point out one agent who has been compromised by information disclosed under the act.
Other bills would restrict access to business information. This, despite a study by Dr. Russell Stevenson of George Washington University's National Law Center, which shows that five business confidences were threatened with disclosure and only one actually released.
The Reagan administration believes the act is too cumbersome and too expensive to administer. There is no argument about its awkwardness. Under the act's procedures, the release of information can be delayed almost endlessly. Estimates of its annual cost run to about $45 million, a figure that may seem substantial until it is compared with United Press International's two-year-old study that revealed that the annual cost of government public affairs offices is between $1 billion and $1.5 billion. How does one put a price on release of information about FBI excesses, the loss of human lives on drug experimentation or the danger of poisonous wastes in drinking water? Information on these subjects was released because of FOIA.
The act is not just an extension of press inquiry. Press requests amount to around 5 percent of the total. If the act is amended into ineffectiveness, the loss will be to us all.
A third threatened restraint on the flow of information was held up recently when, at long last, the Western press and its colleagues who believe that freedom of information is a basic human right got their backs up. In an unprecedented meeting in France, they drew a line. For six years, they had failed to develop cohesive resistance to a so-called New World Information Order that has grown ominously under the banner of UNESCO. The "order" would resolve some legitimate Third World complaints that the information revolution has outrun them. As a result, they maintain, they are not getting their stories told, and they are paying a penalty. But the same "order" would impose conditions on the substance of information, define press responsibilities and even license journalists.
All these latter proposals are signals that, in the minds of the proposers, control of information is a function of the state and that their own people and the world are entitled to know only what governments decide they should know. That is the opposite of confidence in individual judgments about governmental performance that is the touchstone of a free press. The meeting in France means that the conflict is joined, but don't be misled: the New World Information Order sits out there ready to modify what we describe as the First Amendment into oblivion.