6. RONALD REAGAN: AMERICA'S CHIEF CENSOR
Late in 1982, David Burnham, New York Times journalist, sounded a warning
to the press and America that deserved far much more than a two column
Burnham charged "In its first 21 months in office, the Reagan
administration has taken several actions that reduce the information
available to the public about the operation of the Government, the economy,
the environment, and public health.
"The actions have included increasing the authority of Government
officials to classify data, cutting back on the collection of statistics,
eliminating hundreds of Government publications and reducing the staff
of the National Archives."
Administration officials deny the charges, Larry Speakes, deputy White
House press secretary said there is no central directive to cut back
on the availability of information.
Jonathon Rose, an Assistant Attorney General involved in the Administration's
effort to reduce the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, also said
there was no united effort and added:
"I believe, however, that there is an effort to balance the value
of collecting and disseminating information against other values we
think are important. Freedom of information is not cost free, it is
not an absolute good."
Columbia Journalism Review editors noted recently in a commentary that
presidents traditionally have regarded the FOI act with discomfit since
it was enacted but that President Reagan "has tried everything
from amputation to lobotomy."
The editors said "For two years the Reagan administration has
tried to weaken the federal Freedom of Information Act. It has tried
frontal assault -- a rewrite sponsored by the Justice Department and
submitted, unsuccessfully, to Congress. It has tried flank attack --
an executive order designed to keep more records secret and thus out
of reach of the act. And it has tried covert action -- quietly making
it harder to obtain the waiver of fees that the act specifies for information
'considered as primarily benefitting the general public'."
The question about the value or "good" of freedom of information,
raised by Rose above, was answered in part in an article which appeared
in Organizing Notes last year.
It noted how journalists, scholars, consumer advocates, environmentalists,
labor unions, civil rights activists, and countless other citizens regularly
use the Freedom of Information act. It suggested that disclosures under
the FOIA have benefitted the lives of nearly all Americans and cited
just six of more than 500 case studies it has compiled on successful
use of FOIA to benefit the general public:
"A series of requests to the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) revealed the extent of the FBI's Counter-intelligence program
(COINTELPRO) to harass and disrupt civil rights and anti-war organizations;
"Information released by the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration documented the presence of defects in Firestone 500
tires and ultimately led to the recall of the unsafe tires;
"Documents obtained from the Food and Drug Administration revealed
that more than 600 prescriptions drugs have been proven ineffective.
As a result, Congress banned Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement for
purchase of the drugs;
"Records released by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) revealed
the Nixon administration's attempts to use IRS tax audits to harass
Files obtained from the Small Business Administration revealed that
more than $60 million in government insured surety bonds had been
granted to firms owned by a Chicago organized crime figure, resulting
in a grand jury investigation into the firms' activities;
"Records released by the Food and Drug Administration revealed
an increased cancer risk among pregnant women using the hormone DES.
As a result of the disclosure, the Surgeon General advised physicians
to monitor DES patients for signs of cancer."
Nonetheless, the Reagan administration seems determined to restrict
the flow of information to the public. As this synopsis was being prepared,
we note that the Justice Department has labeled three Canadian films
(which happen to deal with acid rain and nuclear war) as propaganda
and subject to government review; and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
announced it will have to issue subpoenas to obtain documents withheld
by the White House and Federal agencies and noted that its work has
been impeded by this action.
However, the most dangerous and overt challenge to the public's right
to know may have occurred on Friday, March 11, of this year, when President
Reagan issued an executive order to "stem the flow of leaks of
classified government information."
As Anthony Lewis, of the New York Times, noted, this is "the most
dangerous executive order in many years: dangerous to the American system
of democratic control over public policy. It is also, so far, dangerously
"When the White House issued the order -- on Friday afternoon,
to minimize public notice -- some of the press focused on a colorful
but relatively unimportant provision. It tells government employees
that they must agree to take lie detector tests when leaks are being
investigated, or face 'adverse consequences'.
"The main point of the Reagan order is far more sweeping, more
revolutionary. It extends to hundreds of thousands of men and women
throughout government a system of prior censorship used until now only
by the CIA and other super-secret intelligence services.
"Anyone who has seen sensitive information will be covered by
the censorship system even after he leaves government service -- for
the rest of his life. He will have to get official approval before writing
or saying anything about subjects he dealt with in government ... have
to submit everything, however innocuous, and let government censors
decide what can be said or published. And experience has shown that
the censors spend most of their time trying to suppress embarrassing
facts, not true secrets."
Ironically, this Executive Order was issued in 1983. This year also
happens to mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of The People's
Right to Know, the landmark work in the freedom of information movement,
by Harold L. Cross.
If the press does not start to provide strong, continuous, and understandable
coverage of Reagan's attacks on the public's right to know, we may not
be enjoying that right much longer.
Organizing Notes, May 1982, "Government Secrecy," by Maureen
Weaver; New York Times, 11/14/82, "Government Restricting Flow
of Information to the Public," by David Burnham; San Francisco
Chronicle, 3/10/83, "Curb on 'Acid Rain' Films Challenged;"
3/21/83, "U.S. Rights Panel Plans Subpoenas;" Columbia Journalism
Review, March/April 1983, "Keeping Government Honest;" Santa
Rosa Press Democrat, 3/18/83, "The White House Attack on Public
Information," by Anthony Lewis, New York Times Service.