Sometimes I feel 100 years old. I was never a full-time police reporter, but I’ve covered enough cop-shop shifts over the years to remember how it used to go. When I worked nights, that was my Friday-night assignment. I’d go to the little press office in the station itself, shared with the reporter from the other daily. A big stack of photocopied police reports was on a table, and I’d go through them in search of stories. Then I’d make the rounds inside the building, stopping in various squad rooms, shooting the breeze, asking around.
Police didn’t like reporters any more then than they do now, but it was usually cordial. I think only one room was locked, and they’d open up if you knocked. I picked up one front-page story by sitting quietly in a chair, listening to a juvenile-squad detective asking a judge for a warrant to take a home-birthed preemie out of a home; the baby’s sibling had died during delivery, and the parents had called the police to ask whether they were permitted to bury the body in their yard. (Yes, really.)
Things have changed. Now it’s common for public entities — working for us, accountable to us — to be as impenetrable as the Kremlin. I needed a police report earlier this summer, and I had to file a FOIA request for it. (That’s Freedom of Information Act, for you civilians; it’s supposed to be for documents that are public, but require some effort to dig up. It’s not for routine stuff, which should be online, if you ask me, and available to everyone.)
Agencies have their arguments in favor of walling themselves off, I know. Far more people these days consider themselves amateur public watchdogs, and some are legit pains in the ass. Others do important work that used to be done by journalists, so it balances out.
So I was struck by Neil Steinberg’s blog today, about trying to do a followup to a story he wrote 30 years ago, about a functioning high school in the Cook County Jail. The Chicago Public Schools flacks were, shall we say, uncooperative:
Nothing. Not even a reply. The CPS reaction to my simple, reasonable request for a mundane feature story is perhaps the most unprofessional performance I’ve encountered in 30 years of Chicago journalism, They lacked the consideration to even say “No” so I could stop asking. Just silence. Weeks and weeks. The September back-to-school moment has come and gone.
I give up, and am posting the story I liked so much from 29 years ago. It was an inoffensive thing, a nod to the hard work that teachers do, day in and day out, in the Cook County Jail. The teachers there now might want to ask their bosses why their efforts could not be showcased in the newspaper.
I shudder to think why it was possible for a young freelancer to write it in 1986, but that months of steady pressure could not replicate it in 2015. We are a nation with freedom of the press, in theory, but that freedom is curtailed and hobbled by fearful government bureaucrats who lack faith in themselves, in their organizations and in their employees, and so gag them, not realizing that the gag is a worse indictment than anything they might say. Those terrified of bad publicity use that fear to bat away good publicity, then wonder why all the news about them is bad.
Bottom line: our American freedom erodes, undermined, not by foreign enemies, but by domestic cogs.
Which sort of leads us into the bloggage. The drinking stories made this a big day, plus a new Tuesday volunteer obligation I’ve taken on, an after-school thing. So I ain’t got much, but I got Gin & Tacos, making a point about John Boehner. Can’t say he doesn’t have a point.
Oh, and guess who was testifying in the Ohio legislature yesterday? Look at the entry for September 29, and download his testimony if you’re so inclined.
Speaking of testimony, I gather the Planned Parenthood hearing was a real show trial, without the trial, and the lady at the table put on all of the show. Keep shooting yourself in the feet, guys. You really got a winner here.
Off to bed with me.