Friday, April 03, 2009

Where are champions for open government in online era?

Echoing concerns I'd raised about limiting information available on elected judges, the Dallas News' Reese Dunklin says legislation making personal information about state employees closed records limits accountability and would have prevented the News' investigative journalism on the Texas Youth Commission in 2007.

There really needs to be more focused debate on transparency and open government in the online era, or in the current political environment we're going to lose the Texas Public Information Act as a practical matter over the next few sessions. It's already a shadow of its former self - particularly on law enforcement records - and is suffering a slow death by a thousand cuts. Every two years, it seems like a lot more bills are filed to close records than to make government more transparent.

For all of my adult life, the only powerful constituency for open records at the Texas capitol has been the mainstream media themselves - particularly the newspaper and broadcasters' associations. (And mostly, it should be said, they fought and lost.) But the decline in newspapers seems destined to upset whatever balance previously existed on the issue, and nobody is actively filling that gap.

So-called "grass roots" media like blogs don't tend to have the money to pay for significant open records requests, nor the training how to use them. And they certainly don't pay lobbyists to fight for open records at the capitol the way industry associations for the MSM do.

In the online world, the skillsets of a paper-trail dogging investigative reporter from years past seem a little scary. But that doesn't mean open records and investigative journalism aren't just as important to a functioning democracy as they were a decade ago, or in 1973 when the Texas Open Records Act was created. They just have fewer champions now in the political arena.

MORE: See more from Reese Dunklin on the topic.


JP said...

You asked, "where are the champions?" Well, we're here -- we're Texas Watchdog ( We're an online newspaper that also wants to help train bloggers and citizen-journalists get public records -- and we want to advocate for freedom of information.

While we may not make up for the collective impact of all the mainstream media cuts in Texas, we're at least trying to make up for some of it.

You're right that open government needs more champions, not less. And it's true that most bloggers will never have the deep pockets -- or the community influence -- that the big newspapers have historically had to push for FOI. But please don't think that there's no one out there in this new online age who wants to champion open government.

-- Jennifer Peebles
Deputy Editor, Texas Watchdog
Faithful reader of Grits for Breakfast

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Well, we're here"

Well what are you doing here, for heaven's sake? You're needed at the Legislature testifying against bad bills! Okay, maybe not on a Friday. :)

Seriously, I know there are open records advocates out there, though fewer users than advocates, so I appreciate what you're doing.

My meaning was that there's no lobby mechanism like the industry associations have to get someone to physically show up in committee and oppose bad legislation or support the good stuff.

Keith Elkins VP Communications/Public Relations said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith Elkins said...

The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas ( also here and we are actively involved. On Thursday, April 2 ,I (FOIFT Executive Director, Keith Elkins) joined Joe Ellis, KDFW-TV Dallas investigative producer; Paul Watler, Texas Association of Broadcasters board member and attorney with Jackson Walker, Dallas; Jennifer LaFleur and Ryan McNeill, both with the Dallas Morning News and investigative journalist Nanci Wilson, all testifying in opposition to SB 1912. The bill was left pending - but the Senate State Affairs Committee could vote on the bill as early as Monday, April 6. What can you do? Contact the following committee members ASAP and urge them to "Just vote No" on SB 1912 !

Sen. Robert Duncan, chairman, R-Lubbock
(512) 463-0128
Sen. Robert Deuell, vice chairman, R-Greenville
(512) 463-0102
Sen. John Carona,R-Dallas (512) 463-0116
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston,
(512) 463-0113
Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay
(512) 463-0124
Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington
(512) 463-0109
Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte
(512) 463-0111
Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville (512) 463-0127
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio
(512) 463-0126

TxBluesMan said...

Thanks for the list Keith!

I just called all of them, indicting my support for SB 1912, and have sent e-mails to all my associates recommending that they do the same.

What possible reason does the public need to know an officer's date of birth? Or for that matter, SSN, medical records, etc. said...

We have worked for open government since 2003.

Keith, thank you for posting the list.

Dianna Pharr
Austin, Texas

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"What possible reason does the public need to know an officer's date of birth?"

To tell Officer John Smith from John Smith the janitor when investigating corruption cases, for starters. The DOB and home address are the main ways you distinguish between individuals with the same name in public records.

Anonymous said...

"What possible reason does the public need to know an officer's date of birth? Or for that matter, SSN, medical records, etc."

Because they know the same for any individual they want to know about. I have called and emailed as well, and ALL of my associates as well have been asked to do that same.. Cops would be held to a higher degree of scrutiny, and I want all of their info open. That goes for anyone else on the list.

Blues, I don't know what you cops have to hide, but if it is anything like that pathetic chump that held up Moats at the hospital then your pictures should be posted in every news paper everyday with FULL detail.. Cops are just a bit higher than the creeps they give free rides to in most people's book..

JP said...


Social Security numbers are confidential already under existing state and federal law. Medical records are generally also confidential under the federal HIPAA statute.

Just to reiterate what Grits and Anonymous said: The date of birth is necessary so we can identify the Officer John Smith on the Smallville Police Department and determine whether he is (or is not) the John Smith who just got busted in Neighboring Town for bank robbery/child molestation/smuggling plutonium etc.

Supporting SB 1912 is like raising your hand and saying, "Why, yes, I like bad cops. In fact, I love them. And I want to make it easier for them to do bad things that get swept under the rug."

Unknown said...

Supporting SB 1912 is like raising your hand and saying, "Why, yes, I like bad cops. In fact, I love them. And I want to make it easier for them to do bad things that get swept under the rug."

Well, it's hard to expect anything else from him.

Sifar said...

yeah you are right and i would like to know what pattern will this turn out in future.


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