Friday, March 18, 2011

Transparency is a means, not an end

It has been argued that government transparency is "its own reward." The idea is succinct, simple and completely wrong. In fact, it misses the point of government transparency almost entirely. We don't want governments to be transparent for the mere sake of transparency. We want transparency so that we can hold our government accountable for the actions of government agents.

My friend Samantha Swindler is the former editor of the Times-Tribune in Corbin. Her newsroom (particularly intrepid young reporter Adam Sulfridge) successfully used Kentucky's reporter-friendly open records laws to bring down a corrupt sheriff in Whitley County.

Sam sums up what happened in an article for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University:

Our investigation into the sheriff started with a joke—literally. I heard our sportswriter joke about people buying guns out of the back of the sheriff's barbershop. (It's a county of about 38,000, and the sheriff worked as a barber.) On a whim, I sent an open records request to view the sheriff's evidence logs. He refused to show them to me but after an appeal to the state attorney general, I got them. I found there were months when nothing—guns, drugs or money—was recorded. That was quite unusual, considering we had a drug-related arrest story in nearly every edition of our 6,000-circulation daily.

At best, this was shoddy record-keeping. At worst, perhaps he really was selling guns from the back of his barbershop.
The story gets far more interesting from there. Here's complete and current coverage from the Times-Tribune.

Adam and Sam took great personal risks to tell this incredible story of murder, guns, drugs and corrupt cops. It's a testament to the power of fearless journalism combined with good sunshine laws to reveal serious government corruption.

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