Government officials from the White House to the field house, and every public building in between, often react to probing questions from investigative journalists and civic watchdogs with exaggerated levels of irritation normally reserved for invasions of swarming gnats at picnics.
The give-and-take is inherently laced with tension and animosity as crafty, cagey and sometimes corrupt public officials duck and dodge dogged reporters digging up details.
But this edgy relationship, which is essential in a healthy democracy, has turned ugly lately as hostile government forces aggressively try to intimidate those who question their motives, methods and manipulations.
That’s not so healthy.
Here are some recent examples of “Big Brother” on the attack:
- The Justice Department, in a militant campaign to plug news “leaks,” seizes phone records of Associated Press reporters in Washington, D.C. The impact? AP’s boss says nervous government employees are refusing to talk to its staffers about anything government-related — even mundane inquiries — and that undermines an open discussion of important issues.
- Angry at a newspaper chain’s investigation of his administration’s environmental record, Maine’s governor and his staff stop talking to reporters from the media company’s publications. Pique is one thing, but it’s wrong for elected officials to boycott journalists because they don’t like an investigation.
- State lawmakers in Wisconsin call for the expulsion of a non-partisan, nonprofit watchdog — the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism — from its small space on the campus of UW-Madison, without explaining their motivation. Payback for investigations? If so it’s a craven abuse of legislative power, but thankfully Gov. Scott Walker is rejecting the effort.
Still, the beat goes on, with even higher stakes.
Chicagoan Chris Bury, a former “Nightline” correspondent for ABC News, gave a chilling talk at the BGA’s annual investigative reporting awards in May.
He recounted and then lamented the Obama administration’s unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers — insiders who alert the media or outside enforcement agencies to government waste, misconduct, inefficiency and invasions of privacy.
Since then, Edward Snowden, the former national security contractor who is on the run after leaking government secrets, has become a global story.
Part of the fallout is a welcome public debate over whether Snowden is a legitimate whistleblower, in the traditional sense, or a traitor, in the war against terrorism.
That complicated question will eventually be sorted out, but the Snowden case shouldn’t become a rallying cry against whistleblower protection in all 50 states.
Because without whistleblowers, many important investigations of public health, safety, fraud and corruption — from Watergate to cigarette studies to oil spills to the work of the BGA and our Sun-Times partners — would never see the light of day.
As Bury noted, most exposes begin with a whistleblower — it’s what enables us, in the BGA’s words, to “shine a light on government and hold public officials accountable” — and a majority of Americans apparently value the concept, according to a recent Rasmussen poll in which 63 percent believe a government that’s too powerful is more dangerous than one that’s not powerful enough.
So here’s a takeaway as we reflect on the freedom and liberty this Independence Day weekend celebrates:
Even in the age of terrorism, we need to watch government more than government needs to watch us.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.