How best should one write about Oklahoma’s unabating Open Records Act violations?
The best way, I suppose, would be whatever way most supports state compliance with a key pillar in our democracy — guaranteed public access to government information.
But no matter how journalists, scholars, lawyers or political candidates seem to write or talk, at the end of the day, many government records are not reasonably “open” to inspection by the public.
As a result, I felt little surprise learning about minute legal maneuverings in a lawsuit brought against Gov. Mary Fallin and Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Thompson by the Tulsa World and their former reporter/editor, Ziva Branstetter.
While I’m sure I had heard of the suit — related to execution records — when it was filed nearly a year ago, it was “news” to me Monday.
And it was news Tuesday when the O’Colly wrote about Oklahoma State University declining to release the identities of students issued summonses by campus police:
University officials redact from campus police reports the names of individuals issued criminal summonses — notices to appear in court — until the Payne County District Attorney’s Office files charges. If no charges are filed, the name of the person remains secret.
Of the police reports the O’Colly has obtained, OSU police have issued at least 54 summonses since September 2014. Charges have been filed in 35 of those cases, meaning the public doesn’t know the names of at least 19 people accused of committing crimes on campus.
Keeping the names secret leaves the public wondering what OSU is hiding and whether all offenders of the law are receiving the same treatment, said Jonathan Anderson, chair of the Society of Professional Journalist Freedom of Information Committee.
“Are donors, faculty, students and celebrated athletes held to the same standard?” Anderson asked. “The university — a taxpayer-funded, public institution — says that’s none of the public’s business.”
Similarly, it had been news on Day 2 of NonDoc when veteran reporters Dale Denwalt and Joe Wertz went on Twitter and then on the record to decry open records delays from Fallin and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s offices.
But what’s most interesting to me today is exactly how we — as a public and as journalists — talk and hear about Open Records challenges.
Plaintiffs and robots
Let’s start with Monday. The Tulsa World’s Curtis Killman reported that a judge recused herself from his employer’s lawsuit against the state’s governor.
Those are some fun optics. Hire a screenwriter, throw in some sex and contrive an ending. It’ll be a hit.
Ziva Branstetter, now editor in chief of the Tulsa Frontier, also reported on the trial development Monday. The story even stood in front of the Frontier’s normal pay wall, free for the public to read.
On Facebook, I ribbed Ziva — the co-plaintiff in the trial — on writing in third person about herself.
She called it a little awkward but added, “What’s not amusing is waiting 17 months for the state to turn over records it should have turned over much faster.”
If the case goes to trial, I bet she’ll be great on cross.
But who else reported on this development? Sure, a judge recusing herself is not huge news, but the nature of the lawsuit is significant enough. Where are you, NewsOK?
There you are! Sweet.
Ah! Stymied by the randomly administered Oklahoman.com pay wall!
The irony seems so thick.
Who else had coverage for the community? I see you, News 9. Keep it up and maybe I’ll stop promoting your unofficial nickname: “News 9, Crime All The Time.”
Ah! Branstetter again!
This version was also posted by News on 6 through the Frontier’s partnership with Griffin Communications, and the story featured the first six paragraphs of Ziva’s Frontier piece.
Totally bananas. What else we got, Google News?
The Oklahoma City Sun Times? What the hell is that?
From the Columbia Journalism Review:
CHICAGO, IL — When Wrapports LLC, the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, announced in October that it was launching a project called the Sun Times Network, the initial reaction here was mostly skeptical. Few media observers in Chicago had seen it coming, and much of the discussion on Twitter and comment threads revolved around the question: What is this thing?
“Delays with open records concern journalists” by
William W. Savage III
I’ll tell you what this “thing” is: It’s a clunky conglomerate of web scraping robots that copied an image and Branstetter’s first two sentences from the News on 6 post shown above.
I didn’t want to give them any more clicks, but you can check out the Sun Times Network’s thumbnail-obsessed Oklahoma City home page for yourself. If you do, you’ll see that they also rip snippets word-for-word from other local sites. The Oklahoma Gazette has its lunch money stolen a plenty, it would seem.
So where was I going with all this?
Oh yeah. Open records are really important, and because we see violations quite regularly, we need a better public dialogue on the topic.
If we only have the two plaintiffs and Plagiarizing Robots discussing a lawsuit on the openness of state execution information, we might all be doomed.