Open government: Keeping a watchful eye

If the opportunity arises for you to speak with a candidate for public office — and it should because there are a lot of them out there — you should use this handy 10-question list from the Project on Government Oversight.

My two favorites:

2. How will you make it easy to tell who is influencing government policies?

3. How will you make it easy to tell who is influencing elections?

See if you can get a straight answer.

Hat tip to the N.C. Press Association.

What to do at UNC…

Another day, another story about the scandals that have engulfed the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for going on three years. How is it possible this hasn’t been cleaned up yet?

It’s gotten to be more than embarrassing. It’s shameful. Shameful that it happened. Shameful that it continues. It started with the athletic department, spread to academics and has moved into fund-raising. It’s as if the school began investigating some rotten timber in the den and has discovered roaches in the kitchen and bats in the attic. What infestation will they find next?

It’s past time for transparency, but doesn’t UNC seem to continue to be opaque? From today’s story in the News & Observer about the resignation of Matt Kupec and his relationship with Tami Hansbrough, mother of Tyler Hansbrough. The News & Observer sought to obtain a copy of the dental foundation audit and related expense records four weeks ago, but the foundation’s new director, Paul Gardner, said they were not public record because the foundation is a nonprofit and not a public agency. He forwarded The N&O’s request to UNC-CH’s legal department, which so far has not provided information.

Here’s my unsolicited advice to the top brass at the university and the university system: Once the News & Observer gets onto a story, the paper isn’t going to let go. (I would think it is something UNC leadership has learned by now.) That tenacity means several things, and it certainly means this: You can’t control the story, the release of the information or how it is going to look. Stop trying. When the reporter calls, it’s likely he or she already knows what you wish you could handle quietly. Quiet will no longer work on this story.
I don’t know how this will end — not well, I suspect — but, for the sake of the university, the wisest course is to be as open as possible — more open than the university seems to be.
Update: On Facebook, Philip Meyer passed on some PR strategy 101: “Trapped administrators need to follow a counter-intuitive strategy: get the bad news out, get it all out, and get it out fast. Letting it dribble out a little at a time just makes the damage worse. Machiavelli advised that, and so did my former colleague Clarence Jones.”
Wednesday update: And the bad news continues to dribble out.

A National First Amendment Association

Just for a moment, think about the power and influence of the NRA. Think about its power over both its members and politicians. Think about how, despite gun violence that is unparalleled in the First World, the right of Americans to own assault weapons and pounds of ammo is not in danger. Think about the NRA’s undying and uncompromising defense of the 2nd Amendment.

OK, now imagine that the 1st Amendment had the same sort of organization exercising that kind of power and influence. Pretty cool idea, huh? Wendy Kaminer imagines just such a thing, although without much hope of one.

We need a Free Speech Association, an FSA, with the commitment and clout of the NRA, but we’re unlikely to see one emerge anytime soon, from right or left. Several small advocacy groups, like the National Coalition Against Censorship, are devoted to First Amendment rights; the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a fierce defender of speech rights on college campuses. But more powerful lobbying groups on both sides tend to protect their own speech rights, while ignoring or endeavoring to suppress the rights of others.

She makes a pretty good case, too, that we believe in free speech for me but not for thee.

In a slightly wandering way — the way my mind works — I thought about that as I read the latest report card on North Carolina’s access to public records. It’s a F, a grade that would make any parent blanch if their child brought it home. Sadly, I doubt our state, city or county elected officials will care much. After all, the grades they got for accountability weren’t much better.

From The Charlotte Observer: North Carolina public record laws fail to provide oversight for requests and lack a way to appeal denied requests in a cost- and time-efficient way, according to the study. The only way to appeal a denied request is through a lawsuit.

Joann Hager, a Lincoln County animal rights activist, has twice used North Carolina’s open record law. On Monday, Hager said she isn’t surprised the state ranks among the worst for access to public records.

“You can ask, but you probably won’t get public records,” Hager said. “That’s pretty much the way it is. They know there is no enforcement.”

News organizations experience this often. A public board will violate the law, either by meeting in secret or refusing to release records. The news organization will have to hire an attorney to threaten a suit, or actually have to file a suit. It happens time and time again because there is no punishment. And it happens at taxpayers’ expense because we pay the government lawyers.

But if there were an organization with thousands of members raising hell at the slightest encroachment of public access to its own government? Personally, it seems as if that fits within the misson of both the Tea Party and the ACLU.


Guns vs. public access

Self-respecting news organizations do not respond well to bullying or intimidation. Wthe journalists feel they are right, they aren’t likely to change. Pressure on them to do one thing often causes the opposite reaction.

I applaud WRAL for standing tall in the face of gun owners who feel threatened by the station’s publication of a searchable database of the streets — not the addresses or names — where people with gun permits live. WRAL’s database is, of course, public record. (I wish the Second Amendment folks cared equally about the First Amendment, as I wrote about earlier.)

The targeted complaints, (WRAL-TV’s VP) Hammel said, were unlikely to make the organization back away from an issue.

“As far as we’re concerned, it creates the opposite effect,” Hammel said. “We have the resolve to report news.”

I hope the N&O, from which that quote comes, takes the next step and editorializes in support of its competitor.

Meet the press

A tale as old as time: Politicians preferring to do the people’s business out of sight.

The Huffington Post: Reporters were kicked out of Mitt Romney’s talk at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday night.

It’s not a Republican thing. President Obama did the same thing when he spoke with the same group, the Business Roundtable. And it’s not just a national thing.

WRAL‘s description of a planned meeting between N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis and the president of the NAACP: He said Tillis finally agreed to a May 23rd meeting with restrictions including an approved guest list and a media blackout.

I know it is naive to think that politicians would talk policy in public. Banning the news media or having “a media blackout” suggests that the politicians have something they want to say, but they don’t want the public to hear. Which is probably true. And which doesn’t inspire trust.

What’s more unsettling is that the public really doesn’t seem to care about being shut out. And the politicians know it.

Reading the morning paper

About this time in 2011, during one of my rants that the newsroom didn’t have the staff to do all the things that we needed to do, my publisher and I decided to take a different course. Rather than expand the staff — the budget was under too much duress — we agreed that the news staff would focus its efforts on the newspapers of Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. They are the biggest circulation days and, more important, they produce the most revenue. From then until I left last December, the journalistic focus was to produce the best newspaper possible on those days. If we had to sacrifice a story or photo on Monday or Tuesday to make Wednesday or Sunday better, so be it. (Monday and Tuesday, in particular, are loss leaders.)

I don’t know if it made any difference in the results — there are too many variables in circulation and advertising to credit or blame one factor — and I didn’t stay long enough to continue watching it. But it did ease some of the stress in the newsroom and, I think, produced strong journalism.

That’s what I think of when I read about New Orleans Times-Picayune’s decision. We didn’t discuss dropping publication of any day. Our financial position wasn’t even close to that. Frankly, I think that helping newspaper readers break the habit of reading a daily paper is unwise. After all, they don’t seem to have any difficulty in doing that themselves.

On Friday, Mark Glaser at MediaShift introduced a poll asking readers how often they want to read your local newspaper in print. (Go vote. Right now, “daily” is ahead.) I’m a daily reader. It’s not that the paper is complete or up-to-date. It isn’t. But I have the newsprint habit. For me, it’s not the same as watching television or cruising the web for news in the morning, both of which I also do. I simply like the experience of turning the pages and reading on paper.

That, and I like to support the efforts of civic journalism. I’m not convinced you can be a fully informed citizen without reading the paper. But that’s just me.



Understanding Amendment One: N.C. is better than this

Update: Well, that didn’t go quite the way I thought.

I’m trying to wrap my head around the polling that says that so many likely North Carolina voters — 46% — don’t fully understand the so-called marriage amendment. I get that uninformed people go to the polls and vote. (How is anyone really supposed to know which judgeship candidate to vote for? Or the Council of State positions?) I also get that misinformed people vote. Happens in every election.

What puzzles me is how they can not understand that the marriage amendment is not an up or down vote on gay marriage.

53% of voters in the state support either gay marriage or civil unions, yet a majority also support the amendment that would ban both. The reason for that disconnect is even with just 24 hours until election day only 46% of voters realize the proposal bans both gay marriage and civil unions. Those informed voters oppose the amendment by a 61-37 margin but there may not be enough time left to get the rest of the electorate up to speed.

Now, I know that sowing confusion was purposeful in how the amendment was written. The wording is broad and full of misdirection. The Republican representative who championed the amendment through the House as much as admitted it to the Fayetteville Observer on Sunday. “(Rep. Paul) Stam, the Raleigh lawmaker, said he wanted a more narrowly worded amendment but was ‘overruled’ by ‘national experts’ he identified as the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal advocacy group.” (That story buried the lede, if you ask me.)

Still, with all the publicity of the last week, I am befuddled by the polling that suggests tens of thousands of people don’t understand what it means. Newspapers across the state — country, actually — have written endlessly about it. TV stations have run report after report. Facebook and Twitter has been lit up over the past few days.

I know that readership of newspapers is down, and viewership of TV news isn’t great. But is this a case of people getting all their information from friends and acquaintances, information that is incomplete or wrong? Is that what is going to decide an amendment to the state Constitution? Say it ain’t so. North Carolina is better than this.

For the record, I think the amendment has a decent chance of going down…and I’m betting it will be closer than the 14-18-point range by which the polls predict it will pass. Perhaps that is my heart talking rather than my head, but I think people are learning what the amendment really means and I think the energized anti-turnout may well turn the tide.

“Good government should always trump politics.”

I had a funny dream the other night. Well, it wasn’t funny, but it is fun to think about.

It seems that the state’s top Republicans called a surprise news conference in Raleigh. The media was abuzz, not knowing what would bring Thom Tillis, Phil Berger and Pat McCrory to Raleigh when the General Assembly wasn’t meeting.

McCrory stepped to the microphone. He had volunteered to make the announcement because he expected to be governor of all North Carolinians soon. He wanted to start clean.

“Thank you for coming on such short notice. Like you, we have seen the polls that indicate how North Carolinians feel about same-sex marriage and civil unions. Likely voters plan to vote in favor of Amendment One ensuring that marriage is between a man and a women, and that pleases us. However, the polls also indicate that people are confused about the amendment, and that once it is explained to them, they oppose it.”

Berger and Tillis shifted uncomfortably behind McCrory. They had championed the amendment and led it through the legislature. They weren’t sure they liked what was coming, even thought they had agreed to it.

McCrory pressed on.

“We don’t like that. We don’t like the idea that a poorly worded amendment obscures what we think is good law. We don’t like that people don’t understand what they’re voting on. We want people to make the right choice for the right reasons, not because our amendment writers screwed up. We don’t like that we have so divided the good members of the clergy. When God-loving ministers can’t even agree on what the Bible says, we’re in some kind of uncharted territory.”

He swallowed. “Consequently, we are asking the General Assembly to reconvene in an emergency session and withdraw this amendment. We will rewrite it and put it back on the ballot next year. We want voters to understand exactly what they are voting on so that the will of the people is truly represented. If they vote to support a marriage amendment, which we think they will, fine. But if they kill the amendment, then so be it.

“We know this is an unusual occurrence. We know that we may pay at the ballot box. But we learned in school that good government always should trump politics. And we learned from our parents that doing the right thing, even when it was hard, should always trump doing something underhanded.

“When I am elected governor of this great state in November, I will represent all of the people in North Carolina and their voices should be heard. Thank you.”

I said it was a dream. Still, it’s fun to think about.


North Carolina: Just barely passing

North Carolina can be proud. It didn’t fail in the State Integrity Investigation results. Its overall grade was a C-minus.

It did receive an F in public access to information, which will not surprise any journalist, an F in state budget process, and an F in redistricting, which will not surprise any Guilford County resident.

From the analysis: When an influential North Carolina lawmaker named Stephen LaRoque helped sponsor and pass a 2011 bill loosening regulations on billboards, he was the co-owner of five billboards and president of a firm that owned four others.

But when LaRoque asked the North Carolina Ethics Commission to review his key legislative role, it found no conflict, citing what it called a “safe harbor” stemming from the fact that his law would benefit everyone owning billboards.

The case reflected what many analysts say is the prevailing state of North Carolina’s ethics regulations: A lengthy set of rules has been enacted to help keep public officials honest, but enforcement has sometimes not been strict. They also complain that the extensive rules haven’t adequately curbed the influence of monied interests on state policymaking.

No surprise that the latest Elon University Poll found that only 27% of North Carolinians approve of the way the General assembly is doing its job.

Proud is the wrong descriptor for what it should be. Ashamed is more like it.


Where’s the leadership?

I teach a little of Milton’s Areopagitca to my Elon class. (My class is thankful that it is only a little.) I include it because it provides the foundation for a discussion of freedom of speech and press. I like the idea that when truth and falsehood collide, truth wins.

That’s one reason this Q. & A. with Chris Robichaud of the Harvard Kennedy School caught my attention.

How can we live in an age so rich in information, with so many educated people across the world, and still seem to be susceptible to such embarrassing and deep ignorance? You would have hoped at this point that a civil society would agree on the basic facts and could get about disagreeing about the interesting things – what to do about them. That’s where disagreements are supposed to happen.

But no, we don’t even agree on the basic facts….

In this country, and this is just a confession, a lot of us were just stunned at the Birther debate. Not at first – you always expect some absurdity to arise when you have a presidential candidate whose name is Barack Hussein Obama, who’s black. That’s going terrify a certain portion of the population.

But after a while, I mean…I think that the number of people who became convinced that he wasn’t a US citizen grew after he was elected President. You start to wonder, “What the hell?” I know that’s just one example, and that may be unfair because it seems so fringe (and yet the numbers suggest it’s not as fringe as we would like). But all the same, it just causes you to scratch your head and go, “What’s going on?

He goes on to talk about the ignorance of the presidential debates where no one is interested in getting to the truth. He suggests that neither the politicians nor the media are doing much to improve the discussion, and I think he’s right. I’d like to say there is an opportunity for the mainstream media here, but I’m not confident they want to grab it.

The question is how much people really want to get to the truth, particularly if it means separating them from their emotion-fueled opinions. If tat is there, the media will follow. But the media certainly will not lead.