Tom Curley, president and CEO of the Associated Press, is one of the news media’s foremost advocates for open government and freedom of information.
In 2007 and 2008 he earned national awards for his work on First Amendment and open records issues, and this year he received a national citation for journalistic excellence from the William Allen White Foundation.
In question-and-answer form, he discusses the 2009 Sunshine Week initiative spearheaded by media organizations:
Q. Sunshine Week 2009 marks the fifth year of the national effort to initiate a public dialogue in the United States about the people’s right to know. What’s different, compared to previous years?
A. I’m sure the Sunshine Week brand and the goals and values behind it are becoming familiar to more people than ever. But for me the biggest payback for five years of intense annual open-government teamwork is to get us used to working together on these issues. A united front is the only way we hold down our end of the checks and balances that make the system work. Our progress has been significant because so many grasped the threat to democratic processes.
Q. Upon taking office, President Barack Obama rolled back some of the policies instituted by George W. Bush and promised greater openness and accountability. Do you expect the Obama administration to initiate significant changes in the rules of engagement between the military and the media?
A. There are promising signs that make it seem possible, but we can’t assume it will happen. Where the military is engaged in combat, everything it does is expected to serve the mission. We’ve seen the Pentagon devoting enormous resources to developing doctrines and tactics for turning news reporting in all media into an offensive weapon where possible, or at least neutralizing any effects of news reporting that are viewed as interfering with the mission. We have to remain ready to evade or challenge such efforts. That’s part of our mission. We’ve reached out to the military and are hopeful we might find important areas of common ground. After all, we both serve the American people.
Q. An Obama administration team has been tasked with the responsibility of writing an “open government” directive that will outline how agencies and departments in the federal government will be more transparent. What concrete idea would you recommend to put teeth into such a directive?
A. Appointing the “chief technology officer” who’s supposed to coordinate the writing of that directive would be a good start. But the only thing that will really make all these good intentions effective is a work environment in government in which compliance with open-records law carries incentives and rewards for government employees. Right now, even with the good messages coming from the new administration, disclosing information carries only burdens and risks to the agency executive who makes the call on a sensitive request. It still takes courage just to obey the law. That’s got to change.
Q. Any movement on calls to Congress to make its records as available to the public as records from the executive branch of government?
A. Not that I’m aware of.
Q. What is the outlook for a federal shield law?
A. The people I talk to say there’s a better-than-even chance a bill will go to the White House this summer. I hope that’s true. The legislation as it stands now certainly isn’t perfect. I know some in our business are unhappy with the definition of a journalist, and others are unhappy that government should be allowed to define a journalist at all. And there are more ifs, ands, and whereases than any of us would prefer in the provisions that say when the shield is effective. But on balance, I think it would be an acceptable deal for protection we need.
Q. Sunshine Week’s government transparency project this year is enlisting journalists, educators and students, openness advocates and others to develop a snapshot of public records that states make available on their Web sites. Is progress being made in opening up government records without legal recourse on the state level?
A. It varies from state to state. The examples to emulate are states like Connecticut that have commissions or ombudsmen to help citizens use open-records laws and in some cases mediate disputes before anybody has to go to court. Last year’s federal FOIA amendment established the first step for such assistance at the federal level. It won’t be up and running for a while, but it will fill an important gap in the ability of ordinary citizens to get information that should be public but which government resists disclosing.
Q. Does a weak economy hinder or help open-government initiatives?
A. It certainly adds to the overall angst, but it doesn’t have to hinder. The laws already on the books are powerful levers, and together we advocates of open government can speak loudly in persuading governments to abide by those laws. That costs will and energy, but it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.
Q. Any change expected in the media’s traditional role as a watchdog of government activity on behalf of the public?
A. None whatsoever. Media businesses may be changing, but their role stays the same.