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Editor column: Journalists unite to keep government in the light

Published July 20, 2013 6:44 pm

Two cases • Swallow, NSA situations require a balance.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On Wednesday, the Utah Legislature passed a bill creating a committee to investigate Attorney General John Swallow, a bill that included input from lawyers representing Utah news media.

On Thursday, several journalism groups, including the American Society of News Editors, joined major technology companies and other groups in calling on President Barack Obama and Congress to reveal more information about massive electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency.

What's the connection? Transparency.

Journalists rarely get involved in the governing process. We do best when we stay on the outside and describe the sausage-making. But there is one area where we do weigh in, and that is open government. Transparency is at the heart of government by the people for the people, and it is also at the heart of journalism's mission to inform.

We are passionate about open government because it is a fight we fight every day. Tribune reporters file hundreds of GRAMA (state) and FOIA (federal) requests for information each year. Hardly a day goes by without a filing, and in many cases we are seeking information that government agencies should just be handing over without a formal request.

And it is not just a few investigative reporters. Virtually every writer on staff files requests for government records. Even sports writers file them for information on college and high school athletic programs.

The Tribune also invests staff time and legal costs to challenge government agencies that hold back. It took three years and a lawsuit in 3rd District Court to get Sandy City to reveal what it was paying in bonuses to its executives.

With 2011's HB477 debacle likely still on their minds, legislators earlier this month asked the Utah Media Coalition for help on the Swallow committee bill to ensure the process had adequate sunlight.

Legislators are in an odd position. They have a legislative body that needs to function as an investigative one. What's more, this committee has to investigate in the midst of other investigations, including criminal investigations.

Because of that, the media coalition's ultra-sharp attorneys — Jeffrey J. Hunt of Parr Brown and Michael J. O'Brien of Jones Waldo — saw reason for small exceptions to the Utah Open Meetings Act.

Working with the Legislature's attorney, Hunt and O'Brien offered important language that kept those exceptions as narrow as possible. There likely will be times when this committee is closed to the public, but as crafted the bill still puts the public front and center for this important public process.

Similarly, the tech companies, journalism organizations and other groups are asking the president and Congress to pass a law to create a national "transparency report" that gives statistics on how frequently electronic eavesdropping happens.

Again, the groups recognize that there may be legitimate secrecy — for national security in this case — but a healthy democracy demands as much public information as possible.

"This information about how and how often the government is using these legal authorities is important to the American people, who are entitled to have an informed public debate," the groups wrote.

So there you have it, clear as day.

Tim Fitzpatrick is deputy editor of The Tribune. He can be reached at fitz@sltrib.com.






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