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Newspaper editors join to battle threats to FOI

By The Associated Press


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ATLANTA — The two major newspaper editor associations are joining to express alarm over increased government secrecy, particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and to help the U.S. public better understand the values of an informed society.

"The FOI issue has grown significantly in importance since 9/11," said Douglas Clifton, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and head of the Freedom of Information Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "The challenge is especially great because public officials are shrouding all kinds of action from public scrutiny in the name of security, and the public's fear is giving them momentum.

"Yet in times such as these, an informed public is essential to the democratic process."

Leaders of ASNE and the Associated Press Managing Editors association met in Atlanta this month to consider ways to deal with the increasing tendency of governments to withhold information and to make previously available records secret.

It's not only the federal government moving to put information under wraps, they were told, but state and local governments as well, even down to school boards and town councils.

"The threats to what should be public information are growing more intense," said Caesar Andrews, president of the APME and editor of Gannett News Service in Washington.

"So it's great the two organizations are joining forces to fight erosion of FOI," Andrews said. "This is a tough battle, but that should not stop us from making the case for why public access remains crucial."

Clifton said the bureaucratic instinct is to withhold information from the public. "Equally unfortunate is that the public doesn't fully understand the value of open access to the workings of government, and that gives the bureaucrats cover for their behavior," he said.

The APME and ASNE officers discussed ways to speak forcefully with a common voice on freedom-of-information issues and to help newspaper editors educate their communities, and their newsrooms, on the necessity of government openness.

As a first step, the groups are asking editors across the country how new information limits are affecting their coverage. A survey sent to nearly 2,000 editors asks what stories they're being prevented from covering by information restrictions or new bureaucratic interpretations of FOI rules.

It also asks what stories newspapers have done utilizing public records that have produced beneficial change in the health, safety or welfare of the public.

"Our hope is to illustrate that FOI is an important issue not only to the media but to the public as well," said Bill Felber, executive editor of The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury and chairman of APME's FOI efforts. "The fact that ASNE and APME want to work together on this makes a statement to the profession concerning the importance both groups attach to this cause."


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