Contrary to its name, Sunshine Week is not a promise of clear skies and warm weather. Instead, it is an acknowledgment of the disinfecting power of a free press to ensure a healthy government.
Newspapers such as The Columbian supply that disinfectant, serving as a watchdog over public officials. We provide coverage of local, state and federal representatives, keeping in mind that an informed citizenry is essential to a properly functioning democracy. As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said: “A fundamental premise of American democratic theory is that government exists to serve the people. … Public records are one portal through which the people observe their government, ensuring its accountability, integrity, and equity while minimizing sovereign mischief and malfeasance.”
So, we celebrate Sunshine Week, an initiative to highlight the importance of open government. And we honor the numerous avenues for prying open that government to ensure it remains of, by and for the people.
In Washington, one important linchpin to open government is TVW, a public-affairs outlet that is celebrating its 25th year. Through TV broadcasts and internet links, the service provides access to state government that often otherwise would not be available. Locally, CVTV provides similar access, as does C-SPAN at the federal level.
Just last week, TVW broadcast legislators’ debates regarding state funding to combat the coronavirus outbreak. When lawmakers doubled a previous pledge and committed $200 million from the state’s rainy day fund, the TVW cameras made it possible for taxpayers across Washington to hear the reasoning and develop a better understanding of the inner workings of state government.
For those who miss live broadcasts, TVW’s on-demand web archive of legislative meetings and press conferences serves as a valuable resource for residents, journalists and researchers.
Such access might be more important now than ever before. With a presidential administration prone to labeling unflattering reports as “fake news” and with a president who has declared the media to be “the enemy of the American people,” transparency is facing a withering attack. Far too many Americans are willing to accept the word of governments that obfuscate the truth rather than embrace it.
In reality, the media is the American people rather than an enemy of it. That is particularly true of local newspapers, where employees are members of the community, living and playing and paying taxes just like their neighbors. And when it comes time to go to work, part of our job is to hold government accountable.
In Washington, that job is bolstered by the Public Records Act, an initiative passed by voters in 1972. While the state has strong open-government laws, many officials over the years have attempted to undermine that transparency rather than hold themselves to the standards demanded by the public.
Such conflict provides the impetus for Sunshine Week. It is no coincidence that Sunshine Week falls every year around the March 16 birthday of Founding Father James Madison. And it is no coincidence that the occasion reflects a Madison quote: “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.”
Providing information and ensuring that government is responsive to the people is the essential role of a free press. And that requires sunshine throughout the year rather than a single week.