Sunshine Week, a nationwide event taking place this week (March 12-18), is an annual reminder that access to government information is not something we can take for granted. In fact, prior to July 4, 1967, when the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) took effect, access to federal government information was not a given at all. It took an act of Congress to counteract the tendency of government bureaucrats to over-classify, obfuscate, and procrastinate when it came to making even innocuous information available to the public.
Sunshine Week was created by the American Society of News Editors in 2005 and is now coordinated by that group in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. With these groups heading the effort, it would be easy to think of Sunshine Week as something primarily by and for journalists. Of course having access to public information is of great interest to journalists. That kind of access is essential if the press is to perform its role as a watchdog of government at all levels in this great democracy.
But Sunshine Week is more than an excuse for journalists to celebrate. It is a celebration for the public at large, because ultimately the beneficiaries of an open government are ordinary citizens who are able to be better citizens because they are better informed about the workings of their government. In this sense, journalists are not the end users, but merely the conduits for transmitting public information to the public.
However, this year’s Sunshine Week does have special significance for journalists. We now have a president who refers to the media as “the enemy of the American people.” President Trump calls the media “very dishonest” and accuses them of creating “fake news.” The term “alternative facts” has become a euphemism for “unsubstantiated assertions.” Individual reporters are singled out and reviled with personal attacks.
In this climate, where the president of the United States has not only condoned but created an attitude of government-approved hostility toward the press, Sunshine Week comes at a very good time. It should serve to remind us all that the media are not the enemy of the American people. On the contrary, the media are an ally of the people – and of this democracy – when they are able to perform their watchdog role by having access to public information.
In the present environment, one who values freedom of the press has to be glad (and relieved) that we have a federal Freedom of Information Act. One also has to be glad that we have Sunshine Week to remind us that the public has a right to much of the information the government would prefer to keep secret – information that is brought to light by our much-maligned media. ASNE and the Reporters Committee are to be commended for keeping that thought front and center.