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Why newspapers matter

By Gregory Flannery · March 23rd, 2008 · On Second Thought

The Sunday, March 16, edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer answers the question: Why should we read newspapers? It's because of articles such as "Story Behind the Lockdown in the 2004 Vote" on page A-1 and the "The Light to Know" in the Forum section.

These articles exemplify what newspapers do best and TV news does not at all: in-depth analysis of complex issues.

The two articles use completely different styles -- one emphasizing thoroughgoing research and analysis, the other employing a visual gimmick, blacking out information that wouldn't have been reported in the absence of open-records laws.

The "Lockdown" article by Jon Craig details the fiasco that transpired at the Warren County Board of Elections on Election Night 2004. County officials, allegedly responding to a warning about an al Qaeda terrorist threat, closed the county's administration building during the ballot count. That incident is a highlight of various theories contending George W. Bush stole Ohio's electoral votes -- and with them a second four-year term as president.

The article doesn't resolve the core questions: Did an FBI agent warn the county's chief of emergency services about a credible threat? If so, why? Was she or he acting officially or as a rogue in service of the Bush administration?

The FBI told Craig only that its agents did no wrong -- barely a denial and hardly a refutation of the allegation.

The county sheriff scoffs at the scenario of a "casual" warning delivered in a dark parking lot; but that, too, proves nothing.

By acquiring official correspondence and reports and conducting detailed interviews, Craig reported all that can reasonably be ascertained about that Election Night.

The same day's Forum section took Craig's story and, for visual effect, blacked out all portions that relied on information obtained through "sunshine" or open-records laws. The result is dramatic: All three bullet-point conclusions following the phrase "The Enquirer has learned" would have to be deleted.

The stunt was an effort to inform readers of the impact sunshine laws have on their ability to know what government is doing. In Ohio, sunshine laws generally require government bodies to treat most reports, letters and forms as public records, with copies available on demand, and require most government meetings to be open to anyone who cares to attend.

To understand the importance of sunshine laws, one need only consider the conduct of the election in 2004. Warren County wasn't entirely without reason for being (too) cautious about terrorism. It was the federal government, after all, that had hinted at postponing the election altogether because of a potential attack. If you ever doubt that government officials would hide important information from you, remember that they were even willing to cancel the election itself.

Unraveling political myths such as the Warren County lockdown and making clear the need for laws requiring open government require the kind of time and space that newspapers provide. These are stories that can't be told quickly or with the kind of dramatic sounds or images that broadcast news shows rely upon.

On that Sunday The Enquirer served its readers well.

CONTACT GREGORY FLANNERY: gflannery@citybeat.com



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