June 5th, 2010
Day 40: When agencies balk, ‘Release the McCraken!’
By David Cuillier
So far: 28 states, 12,114 miles, 50 sessions, 884 people (see schedule)
Laramie, Wyo. — Today I spoke with a group of journalists who work in Wyoming newspapers owned by the McCraken family, including the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne.
Wyoming Tribune Eagle Managing Editor Brian K. Martin, who coordinated the event, said his company has gone to court on several fronts for records recently, including a fight for public employee salaries. When officials balk, the publisher, Mike McCraken, is ready to defend the public’s right to know (fyi, I guess his name is pronounced Mc-CRAKE-en, not Mc-CRACK-en, but I still like that line from the latest Clash of the Titans movie, especially with Irishman Liam Neeson saying it – “Release the McCraken!”). Media owners must sue on behalf of the public. It is their professional, ethical and moral obligation as members of the press. If we expect special rights by the First Amendment, then we must fulfill certain obligations expected of those rights (e.g., protect democracy). Our industry is about more than just profits. As far as I’m concerned, any publisher that considers newspapers and television news equivalent to producing widgets, and nothing more, should be run out of town, or at least run out of business. Kudos to publishers like Mike McCraken who take their responsibility seriously.
More news agencies need to go to court for records, but they often say they can’t afford it. I’ve heard that a few times this tour. A survey last year by the National Freedom of Information Coalition showed that more than 80 percent of state access coalitions say litigation is dropping (see study summary). This is a big problem. No “FOI police” exist to cite agencies for breaking public records laws. We have to sue (or use other means, both legal and ethical).
Tip No. 51: If your organization can’t afford to sue, check out the new litigation fund coordinated by the National Freedom of Information Coalition, provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight FOI Fund will pay for up-front costs, such as court fees, depositions and initial consultation fees, if attorneys are willing to take cases that otherwise would go unfiled.
Sunday: I’ll drive to Colorado Springs in preparation for a session Monday morning with the newspaper. It’s been great coming back out West. I went yesterday from St. Louis, elevation 465 feet, to Laramie, Wyo., elevation 7,300 feet, today. I see mountains and wide-open spaces – starting to feel like home again. The tour finishes Thursday. While I’ll be really happy to get home to the family, I’m going to miss seeing the country and and meeting all these good journalists!