All Along the Watchtower

(previously published in Saco Bay News)

It seems ironic that this is “Sunshine Week.”

No, it has nothing to do with Daylight Saving Time, but as the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic it becomes even more important for the media to “keep a check” on our government whether federal, state or local.

Sunshine Week was founded in 2005, and its purpose is to provide the media (and the general public) with the tools and resources necessary to ensure that government operations are open and transparent. Sunshine as opposed to darkened backroom deals among government officials.

More than 200 years ago, during a debate in the British Parliament, Edmund Burke coined a phrase to describe the media: “The Fourth Estate.” It was a recognition of the media’s power and responsibilities. We have a system of checks and balances between the branches of our government in this country. The First Estate is the executive branch; the Second Estate is the legislature; and the Third Estate is the judiciary.

Spiderman comics coined the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility.”  But the media cannot exercise its power if the government operates in secret or manipulates the flow of information.

Fortunately, the media (and the general public) have an awesome and powerful tool in their arsenal.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 just as the Viet Nam War was heating up. FOIA provides the media with legal muscle in order to keep the public informed about government affairs.

One of the earliest and most notable uses of the FOIA was its role in the Watergate scandal. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had to use extraordinary tactics, which included FOIA, in order to get to the truth that eventually crumbled Richard Nixon’s presidency.

The media plays an important role in disseminating the news. In fact, it is the media that frames the story, whether it’s a global issue like the Corona virus, a national story such the Democratic primary or a local issue such as the city of Biddeford’s plan to construct a parking garage.

All over the globe, the media has changed drastically over the last 30 years or so. Today, news consumers have more options than ever before. Today, we have a 24-hour news cycle that is voracious, supported by advertising and highly competitive. The days of Walter Cronkite and the neighborhood paperboy are behind us.

Today, consumers have a plethora of choices about where to get their news. You can watch CNN on your smart phone while riding the subway. But how do we know whether your choice of media is trustworthy? We don’t. The cure for this problem is for you to gather your news from a variety of news sources.

If we want the media to be fair, balanced and accurate, we must ensure that reporters (and even back yard pundits) have access to the information that allows them to keep the government in check because our representative government is obligated to be open and transparent.

This year, Sunshine Week runs from March 15 to March 21 (the first day of spring).

Open your windows and pull up your blinds. Let the sun shine into your life so that you can make informed decisions and choices.

Remember, it’s your government.

 

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