The American press is calling attention to open government this week: Sunshine Week.
The irony here is that we have moved from a time when we had to pry information out of political leaders to an era when we are blinded by all the bright lights in the quest of politicians to use media for propaganda.
It's all a show.
I was in a position to watch it happen. When I took office, the commissioners had not yet initiated televised meetings. Nor had they opened preliminary budget planning talks with department heads.
Meetings during those early months were very open. But you had to sit in and pay attention. Reporters, stretched too thin for full coverage, often missed important background, and then showed up for only the more controversial issues.
The public stayed away. Not until the television cameras were installed did we see more attendance, often by elements that supported political opponents in the previous election. Average citizens still stayed home, even when we tried the occasional night meetings, an effort initiated in the previous term of Commissioner Julia Gouge. Staff usually outnumbered citizens.
Having been on both sides of the table, first as a reporter, then as an elected commissioner, I can relate to the efforts of the press to force elected officials at every level to be open in their activities. I can also see how it remains a problem for those in office who struggle to play by the rules when both the citizenry and the press serving the public are not participating to the same standards expected of government.
When I first covered county government, the commissioners were accessible to the point of being invisible; there was no agenda, and even the commissioners never knew when a citizen might just drop in with a request or complaint.
Sometimes, I got the story just because I happened to be there at the same time a group would come in and ask for a meeting, and get action on a request.
The main impediment to openness came from the people who walked in. I had more than one encounter with people who did not want me to write a certain story, or even report on the fact that there had been a meeting.
Prior to my assignment to cover government and education, reporters often used the minutes for their stories. This was particularly true of school board meetings that, even then, droned on for hours. My presence in the room was obviously unwelcome; sometimes, the school board attorney would attempt to interject executive session after something had been said that was a legitimate news item. The attorney and the superintendent would be shaking their heads at me as the discussion was taking place, and I would simply nod my head and continue taking notes.
Open meetings are a convenience for the media, but only if someone is there, preferably someone with background knowledge of the issues. Open meetings are inconvenient for those who fear the context of the issue at hand will be missed, manipulated or just plain untimely.
When Random House was negotiating with county officials to come to Carroll County, I had the story weeks before other reporters. I had questions, but no one wanted to give me answers, so I was about to write what I knew.
Then I was asked to sit in with a Random House spokesman and a county staffer who was fully briefed on all aspects of the move.
Yes, Random House was planning to move warehouse operations here. Yes, it would be a major employer and boon to the local economy. Yes, I had the facts and my story would be accurate, except for one thing: Timing.
If I wrote the story that Random House was coming to Westminster, it would not happen. If I held the story until it was "official," it would happen.
The reason for that was the ongoing, closed-door negotiations back in New Jersey with union workers in the warehouse that would be closed.
I faced a conundrum, at a time in my early career when I didn't know the meaning of the word. So, I asked my editor what to do. He told me to hold the story until it was official, but to get a promise from the players that I would be the first to know.
Turns out that I was able to run the story in time, but not until after another smaller paper ran it first. They had it wrong, but I had it right. And my bigger paper had more readers.
Purists in the news business would say I violated some code. But it was only one of many such scenarios I have seen over the years. I can sleep at night.
Sunshine Week is a necessary advocacy: Keep the power brokers honest.
But the judgment of newsmakers and the declining numbers of legitimate journalists who act as gatekeepers will always provide conflict, even as both try to serve the public.