Our impoverished national conversation on guns appears to have a new casualty: public information.
The latest victim is the Bangor Daily News in Bangor, Me., whose request for the names of concealed gun permit holders – a public record in Maine – unleashed a firestorm. The paper withdrew its request.
The reason this sounds familiar, of course, is because of the controversy last December, when a White Plains, N.Y., newspaper (the Journal News) published the names and addresses of handgun permit holders. That newspaper, too, ended up succumbing to the outrage directed against it.
During the course of the latter controversy, the newspaper’s publisher, Janet Hasson, had this to say: “New York residents have the right to own guns with a permit and they also have a right to access public information.” Makes good sense to me. But not to the many public officials who, in each of these cases, rushed to make the information private.
Citizens who are reassured by this stampede to withhold information should consider: Secrecy is almost always the first instinct of politicians. That previous lawmakers have made a determination that the name and address of any handgun permit holder in New York State “shall be a public record” is evidence of an uncommonly enlightened understanding that certain kinds of information should be in the public domain. Why today’s readiness to deny that it is in the public interest for such information to be available? We seem to be in one of those recurring periods in our society when concerns about privacy regularly trump an allegiance to informed self-governance. Fear for loss of privacy is eminently reasonable. But we can’t afford to forget the cost of ignorance.
Nobody understood this better than Daniel Patrick Moynihan. As a New York senator, he made these remarks at a Hearing on Government Secrecy in 1997:
“Secrecy is the ultimate mode of regulation; the citizen does not even know that he or she is being regulated! It is a parallel regulatory regime with a far greater potential for damage if it malfunctions.”
The hearty appetite of leadership for secrecy is certainly exemplified by our current president. Barack Obama’s record on open information is shameful.
“Obama is the sixth administration that’s been in office since I’ve been doing Freedom of Information Act work. … It’s kind of shocking to me to say this, but of the six, this administration is the worst on FOIA issues. The worst. There’s just no question about it,” Katherine Meyer, a Washington lawyer who’s been filing FOIA cases since 1978, told POLITICO. “This administration is raising one barrier after another. … It’s gotten to the point where I’m stunned — I’m really stunned.”
So, who is out there to fight on the public’s behalf against the seduction of secrecy?
When I went to work for The Des Moines Register in 1981, we had three full-time media lawyers. They did all kinds of work for the company, but one task they undertook tirelessly was the fight for freedom of information across the state. As the leading member of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the Register worked in alliance with librarians, lawyers, educators and others to keep meetings open and records available to the public. This used to be true, in varying degrees, across the country. Now, a media lawyer in a newsroom is a rare thing indeed — and so is the assertive protection of public information. When people ask me what we are missing as newspapers relentlessly lose their footing, I think of many good answers. This may be the best.
We see the effect of this weakened commitment to fighting secrecy even at our strongest newspapers. One example lies in the long skirmish between The New York Times and Congress on President Obama’s terrorist “kill list” and our nation’s use of drones. The pattern is discouraging: The Times shares leaked information; Congress calls for an investigation. Unsettling as it is that public officials flail at the messenger instead of demanding more information, it’s troubling too to realize that the Times may be less vigorous than we’d hope in its fight to make information public. As Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote on Feb. 9:
“The real threat to national security is a government operating in secret and accountable to no one, with watchdogs that are too willing to muzzle themselves.
Top Times editors say that they are deeply committed to informing the public, but that they believe it’s only responsible to listen when government officials make a request. And, they emphasize, they often say no. Fair enough. But the bar should be set very high for agreeing to honor those requests. This one didn’t clear that bar.
What’s missing in the dark and ever-expanding world of drone warfare is a big helping of accountability, served up in the bright light of day.”
If journalists, however besieged and reduced in number, are essential as champions of open government, how did they stand on the question of newspapers seeking to bring gun-permit ownership to public light? The answer disturbed and surprised me. This comment from the Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins was typical: “Just because information is public does not make it newsworthy. People own guns for a wide range of law-abiding reasons. If you are not breaking the law, there is no compelling reason to publish the data.”
But there are countless compelling reasons to publish data that have nothing to do with breaking the law. Some newspapers bravely (and wisely) publish the salaries of all public officials, as well as top salaries of executives of businesses in their communities. Some recently have published teachers’ classroom ratings. This kind of information is:
- always terrifically well-read, and
- guaranteed to provoke outrage.
“I’ll be robbed,” say the well-paid officials. “This isn’t a fair way to judge,” say the teachers. These predictable reactions do not negate the value of putting information into the hands of people to enable them to know themselves and their communities, to lead fuller lives and be better citizens.
When I was editor of The Des Moines Register, we were accustomed to publishing the names and addresses of those who had just given birth. Neighbors could learn that Jane and John down the street had a new baby girl, say, and drop by with a card. When a controversy arose over the kidnapping of a baby, health officials responded by demanding that the public records be closed down. It soon emerged that the few known kidnappings had been from hospitals, not from homes. The addresses remained unavailable.
When I first went to work at The New York Times, AIDS was not listed as a cause of death in obituaries. It was thought – as cancer had been long before it – to carry a stigma that would disgrace the dead. Thus readers were left scratching their heads over all the young men dying of “pneumonia.” Only when the accurate cause of death began to be used could New Yorkers understand that the faceless “plague” long so foreign-sounding to them was in fact the thing responsible for the death of that gifted artist they knew. Thus does accurate information shape public attitudes.
I used to give speeches with titles such as “What You Don’t Know WILL Hurt You.” Once, at Stanford, I spoke about the responsibility of the press to print the facts, no matter how painful that might be for some. I mentioned the need to cite suicide as the cause of death. A man scolded me during the Q-and-A, saying he was glad his local editor was more humane; he had simply ignored the cause of death in his son’s recent obituary. Afterward, a young woman came up to me and said: “I knew that boy. And when he died, we were all trying to figure out what had happened. What we learned instead was that adults don’t like to talk about painful things, and that you can’t count on newspapers to print the truth.”
So why didn’t journalists champion the side of openness in the post-Newtown Journal News story? I wondered this when I heard NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik say on KPCC in Los Angeles that the paper’s work was reminiscent of a “name and shame” effort by media outlets to identify sexual offenders. Following up with Folkenflik (who ended up adding me to an All Things Considered story on the matter that evening) and with others, I concluded that journalists had three primary critiques:
- Citizens should not be given data without context.
- Making the data public invaded the privacy of gun permit holders and made them feel unsafe.
- This was a crusade on behalf of gun control.
All of these seem misguided to me. Analysis can surely be valuable, but providing “granular” data without context is not necessarily irresponsible. This raw data from public records is surely something that most people would find interesting (and many apparently did – the newspaper said the data had been viewed nearly 1.2 million times before it was taken down). Extracting generic trends does not replace the value of neighborhood-by-neighborhood understanding of specific details. To think that only journalists can handle such information is not only elitist but sorely out of touch with the times.
What the enormous national response to the map revealed is that we don’t really have on the individual level much understanding at all about who does own guns. The Journal News map showed how ordinary it is. This new understanding could lead to a lot of different things. “Wow. I’m amazed how common this is among my neighbors, whom I know and respect. Should I reconsider my kneejerk reaction?” Or, “My neighbors have guns. Do I feel differently about my kids being in their house?” In either case, it removes blinders. This is the kind of thing that can change debates, putting information out there that helps people grapple with a situation instead of just grinding out the same old arguments.
As for the publication’s making people feel like criminals: In whose eyes? Somehow to publish that information, it was assumed, is to imply that gun owners are doing a bad thing or are dangerous. Why? I know that conservative websites charged that this was the newspaper’s intent, but why would a journalist have seen it that way? Indeed, why would gun permit holders themselves feel so outraged? Gun ownership is legal. Gun owners stress that it is desirable. People press for “open carry” laws. Why are some suddenly angry to have it known that they have a permit?
Finally, the notion that publishing this kind of information could only be a crusade for gun control confounds me. Why assume this? Who can predict how it will change the debate? It could lead to an utter “normalization” of gun ownership. It could lead to a fueling of gun-control efforts. Who is to say where more information – and a greater understanding of one’s surroundings – will lead? One study in the wake of the 2008 Memphis Commercial Appeal publication of zip codes of gun owners found that burglaries declined 18 percent in ZIP codes with the most concealed-carry permits.
Why would we (particularly journalists) assert that the paper has taken a stance by the mere act of publication? Why not say instead that it has trusted the public with public information? That it has made public information accessible to people who aren’t likely to make the effort to get it themselves? Why aren’t journalists pushing back against the notion that we must not trust people to know how to handle information given to them?
Some asserted that it was the timing of the publication at this charged moment that conveyed the implication of guilt, and they do have a point. So here’s my prescription: What this paper did is expose how little we all understand, on a human-to-human level, the reality of gun ownership. Bravo for that! Let every newspaper in the country publish records on gun permits to the extent available to them in their state. Don’t associate it with a madman’s act. Just put it out there because you know the public can benefit: These are the facts on the ground. Let’s see where they lead. (Unfortunately, I fear that few publishers have the courage to withstand the criticism. Which is why those who understand the power of public information must persevere in pointing out the reasons it is so essential, rather than joining the horde of critics.) PBS’s MediaShift has compiled an intriguing compendium of innovative coverage of the issue, relying on data and social media. Perhaps it could help inspire editors to find strength in numbers and join this national effort.
This project would change our dreary stuck-in-a-rut national conversation about guns. I don’t know how, but I guarantee it would change it. When we hide from facts, we make poor public policy – or avoid making any policy at all. The human aversion to difficult truths, the eagerness of newspaper editors and publishers to avoid infuriating people and the readiness of public officials to resort to secrecy make a fine recipe for ignorance.
How dispiriting then, that journalists – who by necessity must be on the forefront of defending open information, however uncomfortable a role that may be – have given up their taste for this fight. This speaks of a craft that is losing its bearings – another lamentable effect, perhaps, of the weakening of legacy media.
Privacy is an enormously worrisome issue. Context often makes data more useful. No individual newspaper’s project is beyond criticism. But we must not allow these truths to blind us to the importance of an accurate picture of our society. Many citizens cheer on the public officials who respond to controversy by taking information out of the public domain. But this is not “protecting” the public. It is blinding the public — helping the public keep its head in the sand.
Moynihan’s excellent book, “Secrecy: The American Experience,” concludes this way:
“A case can be made that secrecy is for losers, for people who don’t know how important information really is. The Soviet Union realized this too late. Openness is now a singular and singularly American advantage. We put it in peril by poking along in the mode of an age now past. It is time to dismantle government secrecy, this most pervasive of cold war era regulations. It is time to begin building the supports for the era of openness, which is already upon us.”
He wrote that in 1998. Fifteen years later, we are a long way from learning the lesson.