One of my favorite features of Cowboy State Daily is the shot of a beautiful Wyoming sunrise that greets me every morning. Images like that are delightful, and especially meaningful during Sunshine Week when we celebrate transparency in government.
Fold into the mix the fact that Cowboy State Daily is housed in the Jim Angell Media Center (Charlie Irwin’s old barn where Steamboat once munched his oats) and the table is set for one more column on sunshine in government.
Jim Angell, and we’ll remove our Stetsons when that name is mentioned in the Big Empty, was a tireless and fearless champion of the free press, goading and gigging government to conduct the people’s business is the bright sunshine of Wyoming daylight.
Looking at today’s sunrise photo, I felt the gentle nudge of Angell’s celestial elbow in my ribs and his angelic voice in my ear, telling me to go after those gub’ment bastids and not to stop until they quit keeping secrets from us.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a column in praise of whistleblowers who come forward to shine an unwelcome light on the secret deeds of government.
Nothing has changed in the intervening years. Our elected representatives in Wyoming government still meet in secret to make side deals out of the public eye. They continue to try to pull the wool over our eyes and to hamstring the institution entrusted to keep the public informed – our free press.
If I have any quibble with Sunshine Week, it’s that there just ain’t enough of ‘em. There need to be 52 Sunshine Weeks in a row. Or, they could be replaced by a Sunshine in Government Festival, stretching from January 1 to December 31, repeated year after year.
Yep, it’s that important. Public knowledge of what government is doing in its name is really the only check and balance worthy of the term. When government denies that knowledge, it opens itself to what is most dangerous to government – a curious and pissed-off public.
When political leadership tells the public, “it’s for your own good that you don’t know,” it’s really saying, “it’s for our own good that we’re keeping this secret.” With either statement, government is creating a false distinction between itself and the governed.
Our Fourth Estate, the free press described in the first article of the Bill of Rights, has as its primary purpose the dissolution of the distinction between government and the people. It does that by rigorously informing the public about what elected officials are doing on their behalf.
If your favorite news outlet isn’t probing government with a hot iron, and is instead assisting government in keeping secrets from you, then I question your taste in news outlets.
If work is being done by the people’s representatives in the people’s house, then the people need to be present and looking over some shoulders. Executive sessions, little ad hoc meetings in cloakrooms and even party caucuses held in the capitol building are the public’s business and the public should be present and involved.
For Wyoming government to continue to engage in secrecy like that, while denying the press the necessary protection for confidential sources on those activities, is hypocrisy of the first order.
We should celebrate the Annual Sunshine in Government Festival by crowning a journalist who has spent the past year making government nervous as hell. The award should be called the Jim Angell Prize for Telling It Like It Is, and should include a little bail money and a new set of steak knives.