Guest View: Sunshine Week not just about press
CARSON CITY – Just inside the front door of the Nevada Capitol, where they have a view of everyone who enters or leaves, are the busts of two of the state’s best-known modern-day journalists.
Coincidence? I’d hope not.
Chris Schaller, a writer and wit who died in 1984, and Guy Shipler, the dean of the capital press corps who died in 1996, are commemorated in bronze and given vigilant positions in the hallway of power.
Their spots – where Schaller can keep an eye on the official portraits of governors List, O’Callaghan and Laxalt, while across the way Shipler watches the paintings of Guinn, Miller and Bryan – are symbolic, of course. The job of keeping watch on government is done by living journalists all over the state.
But the spirit is the same. And now, in more ways than ever, it’s a job that can be accomplished by anyone with a desire to keep themselves and their fellow citizens informed.
This is Sunshine Week, designated by newspapers across the nation to draw attention to the role the press plays in an open and democratic government. It’s a good time to explain why newspapers spend so much effort keeping meetings open, records public and officials honest.
Because it doesn’t work any other way.
“What are the three branches of government,” Schaller once was asked, “and what do they do?”
“The executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch,” he replied. “I’m not telling you what they do, because there’s a difference between that and what they’re supposed to do. Ask your government teacher what they’re supposed to do. When you’re older, I’ll tell you what they actually do.”
What they are supposed to do – by law – is discuss and decide the issues of the day in open, public meetings. They let people know when and where they are going to meet, and what is going to be discussed. The records of what is being done, by whom, for how much money, also are available to anyone who wants to look.
The reasons are as fundamental to democracy as the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, where the First Amendment guarantees the freedoms of press, religion and speech. If everyone is able to express and hear any idea, no matter how unpopular or farfetched, then the best solutions will rise to the top and become the policies by which we are governed.
Just as important, those policies will carry the power of truth. They will carry the force of credibility, because they will be above suspicion. If our government keeps no secrets from us, then it truly has nothing to hide.
Schaller and Shipler have bronze busts in the Capitol in part because each had a foot in the door of state government. A former sports writer and city editor, Schaller later worked for three governors. Shipler, who wrote for Time and Newsweek magazines among others, also spent 13 years as a member of the Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission. They had influence because they remained frank and insightful.
Shipler, writing about the coming communication explosion before anyone knew what a blog was or how to Google, said journalists have “too often given way to the temptation to follow the apparently acceptable route of suspicion, rumor and a lot of colorful pizzazz. Result: Nobody knows what to believe, and confusion reigns.”
In the Information Age, and particularly during a presidential election year, it may seem everyone is distracted by colorful pizzazz. But it’s also true that it is much easier today for nonjournalists to listen and read for themselves what their leaders say and do, research issues at the source and express their opinions of government policies. They can create their own sunshine.
Despite this new ease of access, however, there remain dark pockets of information held in secret by government keepers who sometimes believe the people they work for – the taxpaying public – can’t be trusted with it.
Just this month, in the midst of a medical crisis over shared syringes in Nevada clinics, officials doled out the details rather than telling us all they knew. And the state’s Judicial Discipline Commission, where Shipler served so many years, still thinks it’s more important to protect the reputations of judges under investigation than to reassure the public that justice is being done.
The role of the journalist always has been to represent the public – to be their eyes and ears. It doesn’t count for much, though, if the people aren’t paying attention.
Sunshine Week is not just about journalists and politicians. It’s also about the responsibilities of citizens to insist on an open government, to inform themselves of the issues and to exercise their right to participate in the decision-making process.
Because it doesn’t really work any other way.
– Barry Smith is executive director of the Nevada Press Association. To read more about Sunshine Week, go to http://www.sunshineweek.org.