THE HIGH PRICE OF PUBLIC INFORMATION - Grass Roots Reporting Fading Fast, WV Gets "F" In Study



COMMENT By Bob Weaver

How Americans get their news and information is rapidly changing, including ever-changing roadblocks to the Freedom of Information laws.

Most get their news from TV "talking heads" who seem to be reporting the news, but are really just discussing it.

Most talking heads are not reporters, but entertainers. They fight for ratings, with most major media outlets now owned by a half-dozen corporations.

When people say, "I watched the news," they are saying they watched what is called news, little of which is fair and balanced, a claim made by Fox News.

With changing technology, it is rather frightening that America's newspapers are falling by the wayside, with ad revenue drying up and subscribers turning to Internet sources.

Fewer newspapers and local TV media outlets actually hire real reporters who do real work.

The talking heads generally talk about published work that has been reported, spinning it into what fanciful dimension that suits their corporate owner's position or politics and further imbues their followers political stanches.

Local TV is generally a four sentence, attention grabbing explosion about what happened, with 10 seconds of video. Local radio is fading fast, with most stations using canned entertainment.

Most major US newspapers are concerned about the free information they give on the Internet, looking at a free-to-fee system, where Internet readers are required to pay.

That change is coming.

"The value of the content has to rise," said Tom Curley, an Associated Press' chief executive.

Most daily newspapers, trying to keep subscribers and advertisers, have added a blog after each story, allowing readers to express opinions or anonymously rant.

The rant, in many cases, exceeds the content of the story, essentially becoming the story in the reader's mind.

Further confusing is the 21st Century technology and popularity of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. to disseminate "information."

In Calhoun County, some people are now saying, "I use to get my news from the Hur Herald, but now I get it from Facebook."

Surfacing is lots of supercilious stuff, with more Internet blog sites issuing their free-flowing rants, guaranteed under the First Amendment.

The explosion of "information" should not be confused with news.

Most of it does little for an informed public, and certainly increases the likelihood of government agencies and corporations to hide their workings.

An old-time WV politician once said,"The more noise and confusion you make, the easier it is for us to have our way."

There is plenty of noise and confusion.

In WV, the state's Freedom of Information Act was originally one of the best acts in the nation, but it is now frequently ignored, with the failure to respond to the information law having no legal consequences.

When an agency denies a request, they often suggest a civil suit, which is quite costly.

A few years ago, the West Virginia Associated Press did a Freedom of Information Act study in all 55 counties.

The results were pretty dismal, the AP giving the West Virginia State Police and most county school systems an "F".

In a more recent study by the Center of Public Integrity, West Virginia got an F grade in categories for public access to information, civil service management, lobbying disclosures and redistricting, during a 50 state study.

A recent Supreme Court ruling in a case filed by the Charleston Gazette could open up what should be public record within the State Police.

In Calhoun, State Police officials ordered the local detachment to not provide public information to the Herald, likely related to the Herald reporting on problems created by former troopers.

Incidentally, all public information is entitled to all citizens, not just media inquiries.

It may be delusional, but all this leads to a yearning to return to a time in America when news, ideas, civil discourse and criticism remained connected to a community, at small cost.

Now, in West Virginia, following a WV Supreme Court ruling, some agencies have moved to implement higher fees for public information.

Last year, as an example, the Wirt County Magistrate Court charged the Hur Herald nearly $40 to fax criminal cases after some men were charged with multiple offenses.

Now, in Wirt County, the school board is proposing a $20 an hour fee for any search for public information that takes longer than 15 minutes to fulfill.

That's in addition to the costs of any copies, faxing and postage.

Quite legal using the many exclusions the WV legislature has made to the original Freedom of Information Act.

It should be noted, that most officials are still willing to release requested information.

Corporate America spends billions in shaping opinions, political parties use "talking points" to win, everything from health care to illogical wars to destroying our precious environment.

Washington lobbying is at an all-time high, and the Supreme Court has opened the gate for corporate funded attack ads during political campaigns, granting person hood to corporations to endlessly spend, in many cases anonymously.

For half a century, in Emporia, Kansas, newspaper editor William Allen White, a staunch Republican, had something to say on virtually every topic that had anything to do with Kansas or the nation.

Pulitzer-prize winning White did the local news and wrote countless editorials that earned him the title of the "Sage of Emporia."

It is the likes of White, that contributed to the nation's discourse.

In 1933, he wrote about the futility of war, which rings true to this day:

"The boys who died just went out and died. To their own souls' glory of course - but what else? ... Yet the next war will see the same hurrah and the same bow-wow of the big dogs to get the little dogs to go out and follow the blood scent and get their entrails tangled in the barbed wire."

It is highly unlikely that corporate news or corporate government would sign-off on such writing.

Writing, reporting, using sources, and background information, speaking with a spirit of honesty is fading, in addition to the dumbing down of the Freedom of Information codes.