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Opinion: America’s leaders need a history lesson in transparency

Hillary Clinton violated records retention laws, and Donald Trump probably did, too. And Utah’s leaders want to cut access to records and keep reporters away.

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump sit together during the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York in 2016.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, center, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, during the 71st annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York on Oct. 20, 2016. Watchdog groups say both have violated records retention laws.

Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

It was just another big story about alleged partisan hypocrisy on Page A16 of The New York Times. 

The Times reported on Feb. 11: “Donald. J. Trump once thundered that the questions surrounding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server were ‘bigger than Watergate.’” The issue, the Times reminded its readers, resulted in the rallying cry and threatening demand “lock her up.” 

Times reporters then raised the question about why there’s no such similar Republican outrage about Trump’s mishandling of records, including taking government records to his private residence, Mar-A-Largo, in Florida. 

The Washington Post broke that story days earlier with this lead paragraph on Feb. 7: 

“The National Archives and Records Administration in January retrieved 15 boxes of documents and other items from former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence because the material should have been turned over to the agency when he left the White House, Archives officials said.” 

Along with the Times, The Washington Post also went for highlighting hypocrisy rather than emphasizing principles in its reporting. The paper poked fun at Republicans, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, comparing the apparent difference in statements about the Clinton email episode and muted outrage about revelations about Trump’s 15 boxes of misdirected information.

Of course, it is not surprising that, after such reporting, the debate on partisan TV news channels and social media platforms has focused on how major media outlets framed or “slanted” the news in favor of either Clinton or Trump.  

In the aftermath, liberal pundits criticized The New York Times for burying the story “inside” — referring to the front-page play of the Hillary Clinton emails story versus treatment of the Trump story on Page A16. 

Meanwhile, conservative critics dismissed the news, saying that most people are more concerned about jobs and the economy. Hugh Hewitt, conservative columnist and talk show host, said, “no one in America outside of the progressive hard-left cares.”

This is all wrongheaded. People should care. Transparency is a bipartisan ideal, like so many bedrock American political ideas, which has gotten derailed in a modern game of partisan gotcha. The broader implications are that elected leaders and government officials, no matter their political stripe, need to take transparency laws seriously and end efforts to weaken these laws. 

Clinton violated records retention laws and Trump probably did too, according to the watchdog group Unredacted.com.

And in Utah, recent reports are filled with news about a bevy of resolutions and bills that Utah lawmakers have proposed to weaken Utah’s Government Access and Management Act (GRAMA) and the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act. And there is also the Utah Senate’s self-serving and unneeded restrictionon reporters from the Utah Senate floor.

Our state and national leaders need a history lesson and a wakeup call. The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1966, has its roots in a concern about the so-called “Red Scare” and associated McCarthyism. Then-Rep. John Moss, a Democrat from Sacramento, California, wanted to know why the Eisenhower administration fired thousands of U.S. government workers who were accused of being communists. The administration refused to turn over records that might have answered that question.

In 1955, Moss became a chairman of a congressional subcommittee with oversight over government information. Hearings and investigations turned up widespread secrecy in federal agencies. According to Moss, “The present trend toward government secrecy could end in a dictatorship. The more information that is made available, the greater will be the nation’s security.”

It would be 11 more years before Moss could rally enough support to pass the FOIA. 

FOIA was signed reluctantly by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. As Johnson’s White House press secretary at the time, Bill Moyers, later said

 “LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony. He hated the very idea of the Freedom of Information Act; hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets; hated them challenging the official view of reality. He dug in his heels and even threatened to pocket veto the bill after it reached the White House.”

Ironically, the bill was signed on the Fourth of July without any ceremony at LBJ’s Texas ranch. 

The U.S. came late to the FOIA game. Sweden passed the first national transparency law in 1766, actually inviting journalists to independently watchdog Swedish officials and their records. Utah lawmakers could learn something from that. So could Congress. The U.S. Congress exempted itself from the federal FOIA and has never been willing to abandon that exemption. About 119 countries now have some form of Freedom of Information law, with many better than the U.S. version, according to freedomofinfo.org.

It’s time for American society, including journalists and public officials, to again embrace the foundational principles of transparency, good government, the idea of “government in the sunshine” and divorce it  from partisan gamesmanship and political power grabs.

Joel Campbell is an associate teaching professor in the Brigham Young University School of Communications. He researches and writes about freedom of information and First Amendment issues. His opinions are his own.