Open government, free press keys to democracy

Happy Sunshine Week!

No, I’m not talking about the hope for more sunny days now that we’ve set our clocks ahead.

Rather, national Sunshine Week, which kicks off today, was created in 2005 to educate the public about the importance of open government and transparency.

In fact, every discussion or decision made by government is your business, and you, as a citizen, have a right to know about it. Likewise, every document — whether it’s on paper, in the form of a video or audio recording or in a computer hard drive — is owned by you. That’s what makes America great.

The problem is, sometimes those in government forget that.

That’s why laws exist that require our government officials to make their records and their meetings open to the public. And that’s why the role of the news media is so important.

If the media wasn’t prodding, how long do you think it would be until public meetings became not-so-public and government spending became even more out of hand than it is now?

Sure, individual taxpayers can make the very same requests that the media does. (In fact, I wish everyone would, in an effort to keep our government officials on their toes.) But even when those individual requests are honored, it just doesn’t carry the same magnitude as a request from a newspaper that buys ink by the barrel and is read by tens of thousands of readers every single day — not counting the 1.1 million people who read us online last month.

This is exactly why my phone rings almost every day with people offering news tips that they want us to investigate and bring to the public’s attention.

At a time when the news media is under constant scrutiny, it’s very important for the public to remember that it’s your local newspapers — like the Tribune Chronicle — that represent your needs and concerns every time we file a public record request.

There is never a day that a Tribune reporter doesn’t ask for a police report or a court docket. We ask for government spending plans, police dash camera videos and letters and emails exchanged among your elected officials. We ask questions about disciplinary action involving teachers that teach our kids, about hiring practices in county government and whether local jails are treating inmates humanely. We collect real estate transfers, property tax records, election results and so many other items they cannot all be named here. All these requests are made according to Ohio’s Open Records laws, commonly referred to as “Sunshine laws.”

The media’s role was explained very well by Arizona Sen. John McCain when he appeared last month on NBC’s Meet The Press.

“I hate the press … But the fact is, we need you,” McCain said. “We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital. … If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

His comments came on the heels of a tweet by President Donald Trump accusing the “fake news media” of being “the enemy of the American people.”

The news media certainly is NOT the enemy of the people. We are, in fact, just the opposite.

I am very passionate about the very important role media plays in democracy. That’s why you will find in today’s edition stories about the importance of strong Sunshine laws and a strong press. The Tribune Chronicle also will publish more stories on these topics throughout the week.

I hope you find them interesting and informative. Sunshine Week lasts only seven days, but its importance exists every day.