Analysis: Battling to Let the Sunshine In

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    NEWSLETTERS

    There is a never-ending battle between reporters and politicians. The reporters want information. Officials and politicians try to hold it back.

    And it’s happening again -- in Albany.

    Governor Andrew Cuomo, who promised an open, transparent government, has stopped conducting state business on state e- mail facilities. Instead he’s limiting his official communicating to telephone calls and the PIN message system from his BlackBerry cellphone.
             
    The object is to leave no record of communications. So, if some enterprising journalist wants to track down where a policy or an action originated, he will find it difficult if not impossible.
              
    Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told me: “It’s bad policy and the governor should know better.” Caramanica says the governor is deliberately going off the grid and that should “raise an eyebrow.”
              
    All across America there are government officials who want their deliberations and communications kept secret -- and reporters seeking to find out what’s going on behind closed doors
             
    It ‘s part of the eternal clash between the executive branch of government and the fourth estate, the press. Thomas Jefferson said: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

    For more than two centuries, that mission has been undertaken by the journalists of this nation. And, often, they have been blocked.

              
    When a candidate makes it part of his campaign to promise transparency in government. It becomes imperative to see how well that promise is kept. Albany correspondents are understandably suspicious.
                
    A dissenting view from political analyst Hank Sheinkopf. He told me: “We haven ‘t had transparent government in a long time. Cuomo is wise in wanting to keep official e-mails from scrutiny by the press. He doesn’t want them misinterpreted.”
                 
    Russ Haven of the state reform group, NYPIRG, says there have been laws for some time safeguarding memos and notes on paper that could be pertinent to an issue or investigation. But, with the growth of electronic communications, he told me: “It remains to be seen how the law will be interpreted in the future and how difficult it will be for journalists to acquire the information that they require when that information has been stored electronically.”
                  
    When he was attorney general, Cuomo found that e-mails recovered during investigations could lead to uncovering wrongdoing. That may have led to Cuomo instituting messaging for exchanges with his staff, to shield their private communications from prying eyes.
                    
    The bottom line is that, in instructing his staff that he doesn’t want to conduct any state business on a state email account or through his personal email, the governor is making it clear that he has little trust in the public or its surrogates in the press. But, in that respect, he’s no different than other recent governors like Pataki and Spitzer.
         
    Back in 1969, a song titled “Let the Sunshine In” was all the rage. The lyrics included: “Harmony and understanding; sympathy and trust abounding; no more falsehoods or derisions……let the sunshine in, the sunshine in….open up your heart and let it shine on in…”
           
    In a perfect world, there would be no withholding of information by top government officials. Presidents, governors and mayors would tell the truth. There would be no dark corners in which information is secreted. There would be no need for foil laws to force governments to release documents.
             
    Call it transparency. Call it sunshine. Call it utopia.
             
    It won’t happen soon but we have to keep trying.