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There once was a man who lived in an ivory structure in a very important city. He had asked for the opportunity to live there, knowing full well his every move would be watched, his ever utterance analyzed, his every policy scrutinized.

He got his wish, and he's not very happy that his every move is watched, his every utterance is analyzed and his every policy is scrutinized.

Life is easier when nobody questions your actions. This nation's Founding Fathers had plenty of their moments with the press. Just because they saw wisdom in preserving the rights of a free press doesn't mean they always appreciated the difficulties presented by a free press.

"As for what is not true you will always find abundance in the newspapers," Jefferson once wrote to a colleague. "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle."

Ouch!

This from the man who drafted the First Amendment protections of a free press.

The newspapers of Jefferson's era were radically partisan, far beyond what today's most harsh critic can cite in today's media. Jefferson didn't express regret for the ideal of a free press and its importance to U.S. freedoms, but he had plenty to say about what he considered flawed practitioners of the craft.

Journalists are criticized regularly for not telling the whole story. Journalist are also criticized for constantly digging for information. The two criticisms are incompatible.

Here in Northwest Arkansas, there's been criticism of the efforts to get details in the case of now-fired Fayetteville Public Schools Superintendent Matthew Wendt. The school board fired him after revelations of an affair with a school district employee and the woman's accusations of sexual harassment.

Why do you need to know everything, we're asked. Isn't there anything such as privacy anymore?

People are voluntarily giving up more privacy online than any journalist will ever ask them to. There are extramarital affairs of all sorts going on that journalists will never pry into. But it's beyond ludicrous to suggest the circumstances surrounding the firing of a $230,000-a-year, taxpayer-paid superintendent constitutes privacy. I don't speak for the news operation at this newspaper, but what reporters have asked for are documents that formed the basis for the decision to terminate Wendt. Doing so is (1) trying to tell the whole story and (2) trying to give the public the information they need to know to evaluate the response of their elected school board.

By whole story, does it mean ever salacious detail? Not at all. Journalists always have decisions to make about what's necessary to give the public a clear picture of what's happened. They do that by acquiring as much information as possible, then using their judgment to evaluate what needs to be included in a thorough news account.

Believe me or not, but there is a driving force within government to keep information secret, information that would help readers more fully understand what their elected officials and public employees are doing. Some of them are much better than others, but even the best will eventually come across some fact they'd just as soon the public not know. Perhaps they won't hide it, but they won't make it easily accessible, either.

Journalists try to tell as complete a story as possible at a given moment. Every nugget of information withheld from public inspection makes doing so all the more difficult.

For years, I spoke with reporters about how to interview. For example, it's not uncommon for a law enforcement agency to issue a terse press release saying something like "A weapon was found in the building with the victim's body." For a journalist, that's a terrible sentence, begging lots of questions: Was the weapon a baseball bat, a knife, a bazooka or a gun? OK, it's a gun. Does that mean a rifle or a handgun? OK, a handgun. Does that mean a revolver or a semi-automatic?

Who found the weapon? Was the building a house or a business? Was the victim a he or a she? How do you know he's a victim?

Are those questions just about being nosy, or is it about clarity? It's exactly the kind of precision a detective needs to have in writing up his investigative notes. Accuracy is made possible by getting answers to questions.

Hidden information makes reporting less clear. Journalists strive for the best obtainable version of events or discussions, but when someone's trying to ensure information isn't obtainable, is the public served? Should journalists just shrug and move on? No way, no matter what our president wants.

Yes, we make lots of noise about Freedom of Information and ensuring public access, not just the media's. That's because informed citizens make better citizens. Secrecy in government, on the other hand, serves to keep the people in the dark and the powerful in power.

Commentary on 08/13/2018

Print Headline: Staying in the know

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