In the mid-1950′s, I began my career in the newspaper business on the daily paper in my hometown in Pennsylvania and, as the new kid in the newsroom, my assignments often required unearthing information that others wished to remain secret.
I was instructed by my city editor to be vigilant in dealing with government officials and law enforcement, for instance, two groups he warned who were more likely than most to be less than forthcoming with information which might prove embarrassing if brought to light in print.
We were a newspaper, he said, and we had an obligation to print all relevant information and, if it resulted in embarrassment, then so be it. He drilled into me his conviction that the public’s right to know was absolute and it was our responsibility to protect that right.
As a result, I was threatened, screamed at and warned of dire consequences if I persisted in my quest for information others felt should remain unknown.
Tensions between the news media and those with responsibility for determining what constitutes public information have existed since the invention of the printing press.
The most recent and controversial illustration was the decision by The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y. to print 33,614 names and addresses of Westchester and Rockland counties residents who held a gun permit.
The reaction was swift and savage. Death threats were sent to the paper’s publisher, editors and news staff, including the “we know where your children go to school” warning, a particularly disturbing threat given the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., a few weeks earlier. Home addresses of reporters were posted on the internet and some received e-mails warning they’d be shot on their way to work.
Armed guards were posted at the paper’s office and assigned to individuals.
Gun ownership information is public record, clearly spelled out in local regulations. Whether the paper had a right or obligation to print the names and addresses of the permit holders is problematic.
Those identified argued their homes would be targeted by burglars and their families put at risk, although a would-be thief might be deterred by the knowledge that his intended victim was armed, a point made by gun rights advocates in opposing firearms control legislation.
The controversy does, though, focus on the mountains of personal information available and where the invasion of privacy line should be drawn.
Massive data banks didn’t exist back when I spent hours ferreting out details, which others wanted to remain uncovered.
Today, a few moments at a keyboard can produce all manner of information once considered nobody’s business.
Armed with a name, inquiring minds can learn a person’s home address, the amount of a mortgage on a home and who holds it, property taxes paid, employment history, place and date of birth, circumstances of divorce or criminal history (if any).
If the subject is a current or retired public employee, the salary is available along with any pension received. As someone who had a career in government, I accepted the public’s right to know my compensation; the public, after all, paid it.
The uproar over the release of gun permit holders is another indication of the passions, which surround discussions of gun rights or efforts to limit them. It has always been a debate dominated by extreme elements, which, in turn, has crowded out efforts to reach common ground or develop sensible and reasonable steps to address gun violence and its causes.
The paper’s position smacks of a “we did it because we could” defense, ignoring the point that simply because some information IS public, should it be MADE public.
At the same time, the reaction of gun owners — thinly veiled threats against children, in particular — will only serve to reinforce arguments that they are typical of rabid “gun nuts” consumed by a belief that their rights trump all else.
The paper might have better served its readers by first publishing a story about the number of gun permits issued in the county, seeking input from law enforcement, academics, social scientists and others involved in the debate.
The decision to publish the names and address should have been explained in detail, along with those arguments management felt persuaded it to proceed and publish.
After all, informing readers their neighbor owned a gun wasn’t calculated to send him next door to borrow it like it was a new pair of electric hedge clippers.
While the young reporter I was in the 50′s was tasked with the often distasteful chore of tracking down embarrassing details about someone’s personal life, today’s media has become infinitely more intrusive and needs, perhaps, to step back and re-assess its role in serving the public interest and its right to know.
If that happens, something worthwhile may come from the uproar in Westchester County.