The gap between the people and their government continues to grow. The sense that government exists to serve the people keeps eroding.
Many government leaders don’t want a well-informed country, and they are supported by a new artificial media.
Last week, Sen. Angus King asked two top national intelligence officials about their conversations with President Trump. They refused to answer, not because of legally protected presidential conversations, but because, as one said, he simply felt it would not be “appropriate.”
King answered, “What you feel isn’t relevant, admiral.” He scolded a public official deciding on his own what was appropriate to disclose to a senator and to the citizens for whom he supposedly works.
What the admiral said was normal in Washington. What King said was the shocker. A senator wanting an unclassified answer from a federal employee, but greeted by a self-centered refusal, is what made news.
The exchange shows much of the business of government belongs to insiders. The people who are running the government on behalf of the public appear not to care that the survival of a true democratic system depends on an informed population.
Nothing shows this better than the fate of “sunshine” laws adopted years ago. In Maine, requests from the public for information that were supposed to be answered quickly, pile up for months. They should get a higher priority than the work those in charge insist on using as an excuse to delay or block answers.
Like Maine’s Freedom of Access Law, the federal Freedom of Information Act is riddled with exceptions that government has given itself. The broad reach of those laws has been whittled down by the excessive delays and myriad exceptions.
When government keeps as much as it can under wraps, leaks inevitably occur.
Government officials don’t like leaks. They prefer to act free from public review, which might limit their actions. They see government as being independent of citizens, and sometimes even as an adversary.
Some leaks are inevitable. As policy is developed, those whose views are rejected seek a way to get them out to the public. The occasional whistle blower will take the risk of leaking word of illegal or outright lying by public officials.
Despite the certainty that there will be some leaks in a country denied much government in the sunshine, some politicians fail to adjust to reality and are ready to pursue leakers with great vigor if few results.
We have seen the curious situation of former FBI Director James Comey giving his own unclassified notes of a conversation with President Trump to a friend to reveal rather than releasing them himself. Though that’s a bit unorthodox, it not really a leak.
Trump has been angered by word filtering out about his in-house statements and activities. Without leaks, his political vulnerability would be less. So he attacks leaking, trying to draw attention away from the underlying issue of his policy-making by tweet.
In a way, Trump’s daily tweets may be seen to make him the most open president ever. But he also wants to completely control the discussion and disclose only what he wants public, but that policy only encourages leakers. Trump uses Twitter, he says, because it’s just like owning his own newspaper.
Ultimately, finding out about what government does not want citizens to know and helping citizens control their government depends on the media.
Much is made of the First Amendment. But it only protects the media from government control. Freedom of the press depends more broadly on the press itself and the public’s use and defense of it.
To promote their views, Trump and friends rely on electronic media, usually blogs, that produce false news, but can easily gain visibility. Comey’s congressional testimony was twisted by one blog supporting Trump and the incorrect version gained worldwide circulation.
His allies attack what they call the Main Stream Media, meaning newspapers and broadcasters paid to report independently. They see the MSM as being as biased, justifying the right-wing bloggers creating their own version of the news.
Such attacks can undermine or even discredit the media. That makes it all the more important for the MSM to do its job undeterred. The media must find audiences and advertisers who will pay for independence, understanding that sometimes they will like the product and sometimes they won’t.
The effort to keep citizens in the dark grows stronger. In the end, it’s people like Angus King or the MSM, on behalf of all citizens, that must press government to be open and responsible.