SPJ Reading Room
Freedom of Information needs naming overhaul
By David Chartrand
The term Freedom of Information is getting us nowhere from an information standpoint. I say we take a lesson from Americas breakfast cereal industry. When the product doesnt sell, change its name.
Americans do not need free information, or even inexpensive information. We need Freedom of Complete Information (FOCI).
As a battle cry, or breakfast cereal, FOCI sounds too ... well, too plural. Journalistic solidarity must be expressed in the singular. Let us demand FOCUS: Freedom Of Completely Unsanitized Secrets. Sounds yummy. As long as they dont ruin it with raisins and walnuts.
Information is always free. So is the coffee at my local school board and city council meetings, but it looks suspicious. And those who serve common refreshments disguised with whipped cream, syrup and steamed milk are not to be trusted. Such people conduct open meetings that leave me with the sensation of standing beside a burst fire hydrant. I end up soaking wet when all I wanted was a drink of water.
Personally, I have little trouble prying information from the grip of government. Facts, however, routinely require jackhammers and hand grenades. Freedom of Information, as a concept, makes me happy, happy, happy. FOI as a career path for government employees makes my back hurt and my wrists throb.
FOI OFFICER: Mr. Chartrand, we faxed the information you requested.
ME: Got it. Read it. Not what I requested. I asked for a list of employees to whom the city issues personal vehicles. You sent a list of vehicle makes and models, with no names.
FOI OFFICER: You wanted names? The actual names of the employees? Ill have to get back to you on that. Maybe you should fax over a new FOI request.
ME: Maybe you should read the original request. I typed it out and everything. Did I mention that my back hurts and my wrists are throbbing?
We have ourselves to blame journalists, I mean. We talk too much about information being free. We dont talk enough about rounding up public officials who play word games with FOI statutes and shipping them off to spend a summer cleaning cattle stalls in Colby, Kan.
This whole FOI thing is really a lost cause, a victim of WMD (words of mass deception). Topping the problem list is of as in Freedom of Information. Of fails to address the real obstacle to the free flow of public information: government FOI agencies.
We need freedom from the enemies of free information. I offer this new language with considerable anxiety, as prepositions are not my friends. They scare me even more than FOI officers.
FOI might be rechristened FFM Freedom From Misinformation. But I can do better. That one lacks lyrical rhythm, not to mention vowels. Here we open the glove compartment and consult the thesaurus for a more entertaining description of the problem.
Freedom From Insincerity, Claptrap, Kidding, Lies and Evasion FFICKLE. Yet, something is still missing.
Evasion, insincerity, joking around all journalists recognize these as the main ingredients of BS.
Two years ago, Princeton published a book I will refer to as, On BS. I cannot tell you how the book ends. I can only disclose that, according to its author, philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, BS need not be false. Its intent is simply to misrepresent.
Professional fibbers, he explained, are sincere ... but its sincere BS. Its this kind of research that renews my faith in the value of an Ivy League education.
Thanks to Frankfurt and Princeton, we now have scholarly justification for asking SPJ to ditch Freedom of Information. Experience and common sense demand a new name for an old problem.
Freedom From Informational BS FFIBS.
It is my present honor to serve on SPJs national FOI Committee. It will be an even greater honor to serve on its national FFIBS Committee. Maybe one day Ill be elected chairman. My first official act will be swift and resolute.
Our meetings will offer all the free coffee one can drink as long as its black.
Newspaper columnist David Chartrand serves on the national Freedom of Information Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. E-mail him at email@example.com.