This week is Sunshine Week, the annual nationwide celebration of the benefits of access to public information and those who fight for such access.
Sunshine Week is always in mid-March because it includes the March 16 birthday of James Madison, an author of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the fourth president of the United States. Those who wrote our Constitution in 1789 had only four years earlier defeated the most powerful nation on Earth. They were “radicals” in every sense of the word, and in the Declaration of Independence they had proclaimed the revolutionary idea that governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
As U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan would write almost 200 years later in New York Times v. Sullivan, “This form of government was ‘altogether different’ from the British form, under which the Crown was sovereign and the people were subjects.”
The “press” is the only private business mentioned in the Bill of Rights. The Founding Fathers did so to protect its role in providing needed information about government and public affairs to the people — the sovereign — so that the people could effectively govern themselves. Ideally, our form of government best operates when there is a transparent government, a vigorous press and an involved and informed citizenry. While that ideal is rarely met, we must strive for it, nevertheless.
We live in a world today where there is more information than ever before and more people consuming that information. Only 25 years ago, much of our information about government and public affairs was filtered through newspaper editors and TV producers, who decided what was important for us to know. Their job was to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sometimes those people made good decisions, like when they published investigations of government corruption and malfeasance, and other times they made poor decisions when they ignored issues involving minorities and disfavored groups of people.
Today, we must be our own editors. If you rely on your social media feed to get your news, then you must be the person who separates the wheat from the chaff. We cannot afford to be passive recipients of information coming from people who seek to entertain us by yelling at each other on cable TV news or of rumors coming from social media “friends” we have never met and know little about.
“Those who won our independence believed,” Justice Louis Brandeis wrote 92 years ago, “that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.”
So in honor of James Madison’s birthday — he would have been 268 years young this week — I have a suggestion. Read and watch the work of great reporters. You may disagree with their takes on some stories or what they decide to cover, but if you follow their work, you will be better informed and better able to fulfill your role as a self-governor.
Here is a list of some of the exceptional reporters in Southern Arizona. This list is not meant to be exhaustive and does not include opinion columnists. I have no doubt unjustly left some people off, but it is a start for anyone who strives to fulfill the more active role in self-governing that James Madison and the other Founders challenged us to do.
At the Arizona Daily Star, read Joe Ferguson for coverage about local and state politics. Joe attends more public meetings of governmental bodies than almost anyone anywhere. Read Patty Machelor’s reporting on the foster care system and at-risk children, Emily Bregel’s about the plight of the homeless and the need for low-cost housing, Perla Trevizo’s about border issues and immigration and Caitlin Schmidt’s about courts, criminal justice reform, malfeasance by those who run youth sports, and the ongoing problem of mistreatment and violence against women by college athletes and coaches. Read Tony Davis for his expertise on environmental issues in Southern Arizona, Mikayla Mace for her coverage of science and higher education issues and Carol Ann Alaimo who writes about consumer health safety and financial fraud issues.
Elsewhere, read Dylan Smith and Paul Ingram at the Tucson Sentinel and Jim Nintzel at Tucson Weekly, listen to Michel Marizco, Murphy Woodhouse and Kendal Blust, who provide intelligent, in-depth coverage of border issues and our Mexican neighbors as part of KJZZ’s Frontreas Desk, which is heard on local NPR stations, and watch Lorraine Rivera’s nightly public affairs show, “Arizona360,” and Gisela Telis for her coverage of the mental health care system on Arizona Public Media and Lupita Murillo for general assignment and crime reporting and Matthew Schwartz for investigative work on KVOA-TV.
“Facts are stubborn things,” said John Adams in 1770 when he was defending British soldiers who had been involved in the Boston massacre, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Adams, Madison and the other Founding Fathers devised a system of government that required us all to do the hard work necessary to be active citizens.
So dive into the work of local journalists, follow them on social media and use the facts that you obtain from their work to become a more active citizen. In doing so, we will continue to take up the challenge that Madison and others laid out for us in the Constitution’s first sentence 230 years ago, “to form a more perfect Union.”