By Brian Hannon
Will President Trump’s tough stance on journalists and access to information be repudiated or emulated by state and local officials? That’s a question some open government advocates in New England are now asking.
The Obama Administration was notoriously aggressive in its prosecution of leakers and by most accounts fell short of the transparency standards he set when taking office. But President Trump has distinguished himself by relentlessly criticizing the media and reconsidering pro-transparency policies.
After calling for investigations into leaks, the Trump Administration this week arrested a federal contractor who is accused of disclosing classified documents. This follows Trump’s renewal of his campaign pitch for changing libel laws to enable lawsuits against news organizations and moves earlier this year to hinder communications from government agencies. In April, the administration announced that White House’s visitor log will no longer be an open book and its open data portal will be closed. And then there are the ongoing tweets attacking journalists and claiming their work to be fake news.
This hostility to the Fourth Estate and the public’s right to know has advocates concerned. They warn that attempts to strictly control the flow of information have the potential to cause a trickle-down effect for members of the public seeking government data, or even embolden those in state and municipal agencies to take a more restrictive stance toward material that, by law, should be freely available.
New England First Amendment Coalition Executive Director Justin Silverman said obtaining public records and accessing government information can be challenging under any administration, but actions undertaken since Trump took office pose a serious concern.
“Time will tell whether the Trump Administration’s contempt for journalists will trickle-down to the local level and make information more difficult to obtain,” Silverman said. “Secrecy can exist on all levels of government and I fear the tone set by our president will embolden others to withhold information that should be disclosed.”
A survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center conducted March 13-27 found that 73 percent of respondents believe friction between the Trump Administration and the media hampers the flow of information to the public. That included 88 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of Republicans among the 4,151 adults polled.
“Large majorities feel the relationship is unhealthy and that the ongoing tensions are impeding Americans’ access to important political news,” according to the Pew Center.
Lynn Walsh, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said it may become more difficult for those outside the media to gain information from government agencies, including at the state and local levels, because of more restrictive measures against the press.
“Would they stop there,” she asked. “If no one seems that upset about it, will they keep trying to take more First Amendment rights away?”
Walsh said she doesn’t believe concerns over public data access are exaggerated or simply a talking point in political conversation; the issue could become a reality for citizens seeking information from their communities.
“If local, state, regional organizations see that the president of the United States and his staff think it is OK . . . to not allow whole agencies and all their employees [to] share information with the public, what is going to stop them from doing the same,” Wash said.
She added, “If it trickles down to local and state levels, I think the damage is even more detrimental to the public, because this is where information from the government is needed more than ever to make decisions about how to live your day-to-day life.”
However, Judith Meyer, a representative of the Maine Press Association, the state’s professional newspaper organization, doesn’t foresee increased difficulties in accessing public information.
“We’re not seeing that in Maine,” said Meyer, the executive editor of the Sun Journal in Lewiston.
Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which grants citizen access to public records with the aim of transparency and government accountability, has been an effective measure, Meyer said.
She explained that any administration policy shuttering the White House against the prying eyes of the media cannot be used to restrict public access to state and local government data.
Joshua M. Roiland, a University of Maine assistant professor of journalism, does not believe information restriction will become a significant problem for the general public. People, he said, are now more likely to seek information through the Internet rather than through formal requests to municipal departments.
Yet Roiland suggested members of the public should remain aware, educate themselves and communicate through community events and media literacy forums.
“Consume as much news as you can from as many different sources as you can,” he said. “Pay attention. Be critical. Share ‘real news’ on social media. Engage with critics in a way that helps them see how their assumptions are problematic.”
Ensuring government information remains accessible is a responsibility that falls to everyone, journalists and the general public alike.
“Throwing one’s hands up is not an option,” Roiland said.
Brian Hannon is an instructor of Composition and History at Maine Maritime Academy and a freelance writer. He has been published in The Washington Post and The Russia Journal, and worked as a staff writer for The Prague Post and Foster’s Daily Democrat and an editor for Community Newspaper Company. He lives in Castine, Maine, and can be reached at email@example.com.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.