The peril of benign neglect


My public radio hero Scott Simon grabbed my total attention Saturday when he thoughtfully observed:

In a country as free as ours, information is so free we can forget how precious and powerful it is. But authoritarian governments know that news, and even the nonsense and misinformation that goes with it, can be insurrectionary. That’s why they try to hold news back, contain it, strain it and dole it out to their citizens after it’s been sugar-coated, like treats to obedient children.

His words warmed, even lulled, my heart – until my head kicked in.  Suddenly thoughts of media mergers, erosion of investigative journalism, closed meetings, closed libraries, oversight lapses and unabashed censorship seeped through the warm thoughts.

What emerged was focus on the seminal thought: “in a country as free as ours, information is so free we can forget how precious and powerful it is.”  Therein lies the problem, that we forget.  We take it for granted.  The free flow of information and ideas is subliminal, implicit, routine, quixotic.  It is so invisible and so assumed that it is vulnerable at best, threatened today when public attention, not to mention funding, is in desperately short supply.

Sometimes I think we break it down to such minute detail that we lose the fundamental principle.

These thoughts have been rattling about in particular as I’ve tried to digest the recent manual on framing an issue in human rights terms by the Advocates for Human Rights about which I posted on the blog last week.  I’m trying to figure out how to frame access to information, particularly government information, as a human rights issue.  What would that look like?  Who would do the framing?  Who would care?  How would we turn a human right into laws and regulations?  How would we monitor implementation?

Of this I am certain:  It is at our peril that we assume all is well.  The convergence of telecommunications and information technology, simmering for a half century at least, has boiled over – and we’re all getting scalded, in part because the collective we have not been watching the pot.

What is on the back burner?  More mergers?  Less oversight?  Executive privilege?  Funding of public media?  Corporate sponsorship of essential research?  Diminished regulation? Fewer investigative journalists?  Depository library cutbacks?  The list of goes on…There are lots of back burners with many simmering pots.  What is certain is that all of the decisions will be cloaked in the sacred robes of cost savings and reduced government.

Confession: Just yesterday I read about the demise of the Minnesota News Council which has kept an eye on access for four decades – the fact caught my attention because that, the last I knew I was an active member of the MNC,  the first I knew that the plug had been pulled was when I read it on the back pages of the Star Tribune.  It seems I was not watching the heat being turned up under that pot.

Keeping an eye on access as a human right is not a solitary task.  Nor does it make the headlines, particularly in today’s media environment.  Still, it is increasingly obvious that authoritarian governments and corporate powers operate on the absolute premise that information, that quiet underpinning of freedom, is “precious and powerful.”   For some access to information is a threat to be quashed and manipulated.  For me access to information is a human right to be tended with care, celebrated with gusto.