On political optics, dangerous precedent …

On political optics, dangerous precedent, avoiding looking like a friend to child molesters, and how journalism works

I was heartened to read Rep. Brian Jones’ opinion piece about the dangerous precedent set by the passing of LD 576 [Resolve to Protect Concealed Handgun Permit Information on a Temporary Basis]. He wrote:

I won’t write about the backroom negotiations and arm twisting, but trust me when I say this was high political gamesmanship… My objection to this bill was not based on whether I agree concealed weapons permit holders’ names should remain public or become private. My objection was based on the fact that in response to a political emergency, not a real emergency, in less than three hours, with no public input, the Legislature limited citizens’ right of access to certain public records.

A political emergency indeed. I have implied that it was the response of a willfully ill-informed mob that ultimately led to this very political (as opposed to pragmatic) action, and have been asked in response, “Why did only 11 state reps vote against it if there is only a ‘small mob’ responsible for this uproar?”

When I was working on campaigns in Vermont in 2006, Rich Tarrant ran against Bernie Sanders in Sanders’ first run for the US Senate. Tarrant ran an add against Sanders which suggested that Sanders had voted against the Amber Alert program when he was serving in the US House, and was thusly a friend to child molesters.

Sanders, a supporter of full funding for the Amber Alert, did vote against the bill in question, and was one of only 14 Representatives to do so. He did so, however, because the sentencing provisions were unconstitutional. In fact, then SCOTUS Justice Rehnquist had warned that said provisions “would seriously impair the ability of courts to impose just and reasonable sentences.” The law would eventually be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Which is to remind that simply because an overwhelming majority votes for something does not mean that what it voted for is right, or that the process was handled carefully. In an atmosphere as divided as this one, it is fair to ask what it was, exactly, that got everybody on the same page? Did the State Legislature magically find themselves all in agreement, or were they working to avoid a present-day equivalent of a Rep. X or Sen. Y is a friend of child molesters ad funded by political adversaries or special interest monies to surface during next Election season?

Before I proceed, I must underscore that I was not privy to any of the decision-making processes that led to the request for information or the withdrawal of it, and I have been clear that I was disappointed with the Bangor Daily News for withdrawing their request.

I have been asked repeatedly—dozens of times, in fact—”If BDN wasn’t going to publish this data, then why was it requested?

Until lately, I have found this “If they requested the data, what are they going to do other than publish it?” refrain seemingly disingenuous. Since Gov. LePage is such an outspoken foe of the news business, it might even be fair to consider the possibility that he doesn’t know what, exactly, journalists do. If the question is to be taken at face value, then, the lack of knowledge of what journalism is and how how it functions that is signified by its asking is very much worth consideration.

In the request made by the BDN, the paper made clear that the requested data was not intended for wholesale publication. This is to suggest that the information would be used for reportage and feature construction, though not published raw. In order to better understand how this functions, look at protection orders, emergency dispatch records, traffic tickets, and other forms of data that are publicly available. While we have read, say,  reportage on trends, or seen infographics informed by this public data about, say, rates of traffic infractions, it is unlikely the agencies we saw these pieces published in made available said data in its raw form.

For instance, based on ticket records, we might know that people from town X have a higher rate of offense in town Y, and a feature might focus on why that is by synthesizing this information with other available data. Was it due to the kinds of car typical to that community? Did this happen due to overzealous police coverage? These questions are asked by the reporter, who looks at the data and reports accordingly with these particular queries in mind. In order to write that feature, dozens, hundreds or even thousands of data points have to be analyzed and examined. When a reporter requests access to this information, and especially when they make explicit the fact that they do not intend to publish it, it does not mean that a list of ticket data will inevitably be published wholesale. It most likely means that it will be folded into the narrative of a feature. That is how journalism works.

That’s what I found hard to swallow about all of this. I understand that some people might feel like they are under pressure with regard to what they perceive as a potential encroachment on their rights at the Federal level and that’s fine. History, however, doesn’t do justice to groups of people who, willfully uninformed about an issue, act with mob force and shut something down before allowing themselves to understand what is actually going on. History is particularly unkind to those who, doing exactly this, pass legislation that favors gist of their preferred right (not the right itself) over that of others (in this case the right to access).

In that case, this debacle has had little to do with the First Amendment being pitted against the Second, as no Second Amendment right had ever been at risk. This had to do with the fostering of transparency over an overzealous group doing everything they can to shut down a conversation about their interpretation of an Amendment, and to make clear to Maine lawmakers that they better do the same thing.

The especially ironic thing about all of this is that if people have problems with what they see as fascism creeping into government and usurping their rights, a news agency that is generally neutral is the most common tool available to the public when it comes to leveraging the mechanisms of openness against this threat. That everyone just decided, I don’t like this thing I think they’re doing because I don’t like the fact that I believe the US Government is chipping away my freedoms, and then decided that they were unwilling to understand the intentions of the newspaper [only to PASSIONATELY slam through anti-openness legislation] is appalling.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.