We get it. The relationship between reporters and the government officials they cover can be testy. And if officials sometimes find it irksome to have the free press poking endlessly around their business, we understand.
But if reporters aren’t on hand to witness the sausage-making that is our government at work, then how can the true bosses in a democracy—the ordinary voters like you, our readers, who don’t have the access or the means to watch up close—make smart decisions about the direction they want to lead the country?
These issues crystallized last week amid relatively minor confrontations between the Environmental Protection Agency and reporters on hand to cover a conference about how to safeguard America’s water supply from harmful chemicals. When reporters from the Associated Press, CNN and E&E News arrived to cover EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s speech and other happenings at the conference, they were denied entry. The CNN reporter later alleged she was forcibly removed from the venue.
Naturally, word of the ousted press spread quickly on social media, and the EPA responded that it had excluded the reporters only because the venue didn’t have room for more than 10 journalists. Officials said all journalists were welcome to attend the afternoon sessions of the conference.
But that didn’t quite square with the accounts from other reporters inside the room, who noted scores of empty seats, including several among the 10 seats set aside for journalists. And oddly, by the time reporters arrived for the second day of the conference, the EPA officials had changed their tune once more. Reporters were turned away by security guards, and a spokesperson for the agency later explained that the meeting wasn’t covered by a federal law that requires all meetings between the EPA and advisory councils to be open to the public.
Loopholes and legal niceties aside, the decision to hold the conference in private is outrageously wrong-footed. What could be more germane to the public’s right to know than a meeting about contaminants in the water supply?
Some readers may see these kinds of tussles between the government and the press that covers it as a big fight over small potatoes. But in reality, unfettered access by the press to events like the EPA conference is more than just a courtesy that the press feels entitled to. It’s a necessary condition for the functioning of our democracy.
That may sound like an awfully fancy way of talking about attendance at a policy conference, but if the EPA gathers hundreds of experts and stakeholders from around the nation to talk about public health, why shouldn’t the rest of America, through its free press, be there, too?
Or shall we instead accept the idea that the government should be left to its business and empowered to dole out what information it deems fit for the public?
Surely not. We’ve seen what that looks like in other nations, where democracy is yet but a dream.