This is Sunshine Week in America, and given our recent rains it would be nice to have some warm, sunny days.
But that’s not what Sunshine Week is really about. Instead, it is even better than decent weather. It’s about the best way to counteract today’s persistent flow of fake news.
The first sunshine laws were enacted by the state of Utah in 1898, followed closely by similar laws in Florida in 1905. All 50 states have such laws on the books today, most of them having been passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an era during which the Watergate scandal slowly emerged, with the late Richard Nixon waving goodbye to his presidency from the steps to a Marine helicopter.
The federal government climbed on board in 1976, with passage of the Government in the Sunshine Act, part of the panoply of Freedom of Information Act movement.
It’s ironic such laws were passed, given that lawmakers, as a group, tend to detest the effect of sunshine laws, the focus of which is to require government to conduct its business out in the open. No more closed doors and smoky back rooms — at least not in theory.
In practice, sunshine laws tend not to achieve their intended purpose unless an aroused media and public demand accountability from those we elect to public office. That is true at every level of government in the United States.
In fact, lawmakers fear sunshine laws so completely that many of them spend their time in office trying to devise policy that will prevent such laws from being enforced. As long as the public is vigilant, those avoidance tactics won’t work.
That’s where the media comes in. As much as some of our leaders insult and denigrate the news media, the fact is that without hard-nosed reporters asking the important questions, there is no telling where America would be today.
But news reporters are just the point men and women in pressuring government officials to work out in the open. And we certainly have no monopoly when it comes to demanding and getting access to public records, which carry that designation for a very specific reason — the public pays for those policies and records with their tax dollars, so it doesn’t really matter what the public record happens to be, we all should have equal access to that information.
The internet makes getting public information exponentially easier to obtain — a few keystrokes will get you just about any public document — but the web also makes it more difficult to believe. Just a casual surf through various supposed news sites can reveal to you all sorts of lies and distortions of the truth. You know the world is round, but try googling “flat Earth” and see what you get. Do people actually believe the Earth is flat? The short answer after just some preliminary research seems to be they do.
Our guess is the battle between Congress, the Trump administration and the general, non-politician public will ultimately generate a new record in freedom-of-information requests. There are just too many unanswered questions, and Americans are, historically, a society that wants, and needs to know the facts.
Sunshine Week’s bottom line is that you should enjoy the time you spend with today’s newspaper, and the time you may spend later today surfing news sites on the web or watching your favorite network TV news show this evening.
Then, consider what our democracy and our nation might be without these services that bring the truth to your eyes and your fingertips.