April 13, 2009

The importance of whistle-blowers

The Review-Journal's Thomas Mitchell has another great piece on the importance of transparency in governmental institutions.

Earlier this month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision that supported the Baltimore Police Department's firing of an officer who shared information with a newspaper regarding a deadly police shooting.

What sparked the conflict between the officer and his supervisors?

In the memo to his bosses, police Maj. Michael Andrew called for an investigation of the shooting, suggesting "officers had not exhausted all peaceful non-lethal options and that the department had unnecessarily placed officers in harm's way," according to the ruling.

Unable to get his concerns about the shooting heard, Andrew gave the memo to a reporter.

After Andrew turned over his memo to a reporter, the department launched an internal affairs probe, accusing him of giving confidential (Read: embarrassing) information to the media.

While the ruling has important implications regarding whistle-blowers' rights, a concurring opinion focused on something larger.

Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a former newspaper man, noted that newspapers are laying off staff, cutting budgets, and even going belly-up, all at a time when governments need scrutiny.

How will decreasing newspaper oversight and investigations effect government? Without a doubt "new media" activists will pick up some of the slack, but will they pick up all of it?

Many bloggers do what they do on a part-time basis and for little or no pay. In addition, the average blogger lacks the monetary resources and legal representation that many newspaper publications enjoy. For every Armen Yousoufian willing to spend $330,000 of his own money and 4,000 hours of his own time fighting for governmental transparency; there are untold thousands of activists who simply can't do the same.

While "new media" journalists are a vital part of our public discourse, as the judge in the case notes, bloggers and blogging often "remains derivative and dependent on the mainstream media reportage (and) the deep sourcing and accumulated insights of the seasoned beat reporter."

The sad fact is that newspapers couldn't get their act together to deal with momentous changes that have happened since the arrival of the internet. Hopefully they can figure it out, and figure it out soon.