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Openness has its downsides

In the 1970s, Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun threatened not to cooperate with White House requests that details of President Ford’s movements and schedule not be publicized because, Greenspun said, he did not approve of Ford’s rhetoric in the wake of two assassination attempts. Ford had been making what Greenspun considered taunting statements about how he would not be denied his right to travel and speak out.

Last month the Las Vegas Sun pressured elected state officials into starting to release their schedules. The newspaper reported that all six state government executive officials elected statewide will begin this practice. The change comes not in response to any public demand but to a demand by the newspaper itself. “The announcements came after the Sun asked Nevada’s governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, secretary of state, attorney general, and controller to provide a weekly calendar to the public,” the Sun reported.

The article gave a quote from Nevada Press Association director Barry Smith in support of the change: “It’s really a matter of transparency, that their jobs are public jobs and they’re public figures. It really shouldn’t be a big deal to say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing today.’ … They’re the executives running the state of Nevada, and we’d like to think they’re hard at work on our behalf and shouldn’t just assume.”

The Sun sought out no quotes that were critical of the new policy.

One of my rules as a journalist is that when everyone is going in one direction, it’s a good idea to ask why. If the press is busy demonizing Edward Snowdon or commercial airport baggage inspectors, it’s a good idea to ask, “Why is this bad?” If the press is happily glorifying a people’s coup d’etat in the streets of Cairo or every proposal for openness in government, it’s a good idea to ask, “Why is this good?”

Besides, it’s our job to scrutinize both sides of the stories we cover. The Sun didn’t do that. Where were the interviews with people who questioned the policy of putting the schedules of public figures out there for the sometimes unstable members of the public? The story was slanted in favor of openness. Why is this good?

When Robert List was Nevada’s governor, I was at the governor’s mansion one day as a television reporter. While I was loading some of my gear into my car on the street at the side of the mansion, I noticed the governor’s wife and daughter a block or so away, riding bikes alone toward the mansion. I swung my camera up and shot footage of them as they came toward me, passed, and headed into the mansion grounds. I figured it would make good footage for some future piece on the first lady.

I ended up never using the footage. I didn’t want people to realize they were that unprotected. (The first family is no longer that exposed, by the way. More security has been added to the governor’s budget.)

Back to the Sun story, the article at one point said the schedules are for “the public” and at another point says the governor’s office will provide its schedules “to Nevada media outlets.” Those are two different things. Some of the six officials plan to post their schedules on websites, making their movements known to all. If these schedules are intended for the public, what exactly is the public expected to do with them? SHOULD the public know how to follow the lieutenant governor or controller or attorney general about? These are questions that the Sun’s coverage should have dealt with.

In the days after September 11, news coverage of airport baggage security was so slanted in favor of a government program over a commercial program that Susan Spencer of CBS News ran a piece that contained an interview with supporters only of the government program. That kind of one-sided coverage helped get us the wonderful, smooth-running, well-oiled airport baggage inspection system we now have.

When a newspaper decides to advance its own proposal for public policy, it has a greater responsibility than ever to give that proposal tough scrutiny — which is what the Sun usually and rightfully does for the proposals of others. The newspaper’s own proposal should certainly not be covered by the same journalist who is pushing it.

In this case, the Sun pursued its own policy agenda, convinced public officials to make a change without any serious news coverage in advance exploring the possible consequences, and then gave it one-sided coverage after it was already in place. That’s an uncooked story. If tragedy follows, will the newspaper take credit for that, too? Let’s hope it never comes to that.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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