Debra Gersh Hernandez
Sunshine Week Coordinator
Sunshine Week 2008 Hits the Campaign Trail:
Candidates from President to Mayor to be Quizzed on Access Issues
Actors, Scientists, Researchers Join Growing Call for Open Government
Washington, D.C. — The Sunshine Week alliance has begun a yearlong Sunshine Campaign project to bring the discussion of open government issues to election campaigns from president to local city council. While the initiative expands the scope of Sunshine Week to cover the entire election season, specific events and coverage are still planned for Sunshine Week, March 16-22, 2008.
Sunshine Week is a non-partisan open government initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, with online and broadcast media, public officials, celebrities, civic groups, non-profits, libraries, schools, religious leaders and others. It is primarily funded by a challenge grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The Sunshine Campaign is designed to spur campaign conversation — and commitment — to open government during the presidential race and continuing on through to city council contests. Journalists, and anyone else with the opportunity, are encouraged to ask every candidate for public office to explain his or her positions on open government and Freedom of Information issues.
The replies, sent in to Sunshine Week by participants and observers, will be used to develop a database of presidential statements, positions, votes and views across a variety of open government issues as a running reference. Independent research on previous statements, votes and other available relevant FOI data also will be in the database.
During one of its initial Sunshine Campaign activities, Sunshine Week teamed with The Creative Coalition to discuss open government issues at the recent Democratic presidential candidates' debate in Las Vegas.
Among those attending a dinner co-sponsored by The Creative Coalition and Sunshine Week were Coalition co-president and actor Joe Pantoliano and actors/members Tim Daly, Kerry Washington, James Denton, Matthew Modine and Richard Schiff. Other guests included Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist; Eric Alterman, author and columnist for The Nation; and writer, producer and pundit Lawrence O'Donnell Jr.
Sunshine Week and The Creative Coalition are exploring opportunities to partner for other activities promoting government transparency during the 2008 presidential campaign.
"Open government is the very essence of our democracy. We’re proud to partner with Sunshine Week to ensure that every citizen has access to information and the ability to express their First Amendment right to free speech," said Robin Bronk, executive director of The Creative Coalition.
Sunshine Week also has sent a questionnaire on a variety of open government issues has been sent to the campaign offices of the 16 leading Democratic and Republican candidates. They have been asked to respond by mid-December. Answers will be posted on the Sunshine Week Web site as they are received.
Promotional materials featuring Sunshine Campaign "spokesmammals" Ronnie and Donnie (representing a Republican elephant and Democratic donkey) will be available to participants. Sunshine Campaign items will include print and Web ads, T-shirts and other clothing, buttons, campaign yard signs and stickers.
Resources such as suggested questions and links to additional material to help get people involved in the project are on the Sunshine Week Web site, www.sunshineweek.org.
Significant support for the Sunshine Campaign's online database of candidates' positions on open government is being provided by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. In 2007, the Archive's Mexico Project oversaw the launch of México Abierto, a media initiative modeled on Sunshine Week. Now, the candidate database is being built with the help of the project’s transparency coordinator, Emilene Martínez-Morales, and it will serve as a model for a similar issues database in Mexico.
"The Sunshine Campaign Website is an important tool that will keep the public informed about where candidates stand on openness before they take office, allowing voters to make an informed choice," said Martínez-Morales. "It is an effort that can serve as a model to monitor all kinds of campaigns, from presidential to local city council, not only in the United States but in other countries as well."
Sunshine Week also is working with Project Vote Smart, which has included questions specific to open government on its Political Courage Test, a non-partisan survey sent to every candidate regarding his or her position on a variety of issues.
Only three of the leading presidential candidates — Chris Dodd, John Edwards and Mike Gravel — have responded to the survey, despite repeated efforts by news organizations, prominent members of the Project Vote Smart board and others to compel a reply.
"This test demonstrated the obvious relationship between exploding campaign financing, candidates' ability to control their messages and the public's loss of access to information," said Project Vote Smart President Richard Kimball. Project Vote Smart has seen participation in its survey of federal candidates drop from 72 percent in 1968 to 48 percent in 2006.
Project Vote Smart also is helping to ensure openness in government by providing detailed accounts of legislation passed by Congress and all 50 state legislatures, as well as an in-depth database of public statements made by candidates and elected officials from across the nation. The information can be found online at www.votesmart.org
"In a time where elected officials are determined to stonewall the public, hopefully it will provide comfort to the citizens of the country to know that there are people who are committed to ensuring that there is openness and honesty in government," Kimball said.
Other Sunshine Campaign efforts underway include:
-- Channel One Network will distribute 250,000 teacher guide-posters for its "1Voice" First Amendment project that includes an article about celebrating Sunshine Week 2008. The poster explains Sunshine Week and points to why open government matters to teachers and students. To further highlight the importance of open government to teens, Channel One News will produce and air a "1Voice" segment centered on this critical topic, scheduled to air in conjunction with Sunshine Week.
-- The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government is conducting research on journalists' difficulties in obtaining public information from the federal government. Topline results, and possibly the complete report, will be released during Sunshine Week 2008. CJOG Coordinator Pete Weitzel also serves as a member of Sunshine Week's executive committee
College Media Advisers recently invited Sunshine Week to speak about the Sunshine Campaign during a breakout session at its annual convention in Washington, and will continue to communicate Campaign updates to its members. CMA Executive Director Ron Spielberger is serving as college coordinator for Sunshine Week 2008.
-- The First Amendment Center will host its 10th annual National Freedom of Information Day at the Freedom Forum’s Newseum in Washington on the Friday leading up to Sunshine Week. Speakers will include J. William Leonard, former director of the Information Security Oversight Office.
-- The League of Women Voters will again co-sponsor an access discussion organized by OpenTheGovernment.org that will be webcast from The National Press Club during Sunshine Week, and it is encouraging local Leagues to join with libraries and others to watch the program and engage in local conversations on the issues. In addition, local Leagues are encouraged not only to hold other Sunshine Week events, but also to include open government-related questions in state and local debates and in their voter guides.
The Executive Committee of the National Conference of Editorial Writers passed a resolution urging its members to ask candidates about open government issues in meetings with candidates. NCEW which does not makeinstitutional endorsements, said that, "At the least, raising the issue during the limited time of an endorsement interview will demonstrate to candidates that we consider open government to be a priority." NCEW's Open Government Committee will act as a clearinghouse for information about the Sunshine Campaign between members and the Sunshine Week team.
-- The National Freedom of Information Coalition is working with its members to coordinate activities of state FOI coalitions across the country, including identifying state-specific open government issues to help with development of localized questions. In addition, an NFOIC-sponsored research assistant is helping with populating the Sunshine Campaign online database. NFOIC Executive Director Charles Davis is coordinating state FOI and First Amendment groups.
-- The National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association has committed to including Sunshine Campaign updates in its monthly electronic and quarterly print communications to members, as well as to exploring the possibility of including a special Sunshine Campaign interactive panel at the NLGJA National Convention in Washington next year.
-- OpenTheGovernment.org, a national coalition of organizations concerned with openness and secrecy, is working on a third nationally broadcast panel discussion on access issues.
-- OpenTheGoverment’s event is expected to be a free webcast during Sunshine Week and will be available for satellite download by prior arrangement.
-- The Radio-Television News Directors Association has alerted its members to the goal of the Sunshine Campaign and urged their participation. RTNDA also will act as a receiving site for broadcast materials to be included in the online database and likely will undertake additional activities, such as creation of television and radio public service ads.
-- The board of the Society of American Archivists has expressed its support for Sunshine Week and will explore ways in which its members can become more involved.
-- The Society of Professional Journalists will mobilize its Sunshine Chairs in every state to keep thousands of journalists informed and coordinate FOI activities across the country, including identifying state-specific open government issues to help with development of localized questions.
-- The Union of Concerned Scientists is working with Sunshine Week to highlight areas where secrecy has negatively impacted federal government scientific integrity such as global warming and food and drug safety. During the Sunshine Campaign UCS will continue to monitor new executive orders and agency policies that further restrict transparency in federal science and science-based decision-making, with a focus on identifying steps Congress and the next president should take to restore openness. In addition, Sunshine Week is a participant in the UCS-chaired Integrity in Science Working Group.
-- American University Washington College of Law Professor Daniel J. Metcalfe, who heads a new center there called the Collaboration on Government Secrecy, will hold a day-long program on March 17. It will include sessions on freedom of information, international transparency and pseudo-secrecy issues, as well as a luncheon speech by U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth, former Chief Judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
This is just a sampling of the groups, news organizations, libraries, schools, government officials and others that are planning to mark Sunshine Week. Several organizations have indicated support for the Sunshine Campaign and are working on as-yet undefined projects. They include the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; and a coalition of 10 media groups called the Sunshine in Government Initiative.
For more information, visit www.sunshineweek.org.
About Knight Foundation: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation promotes excellence in journalism worldwide and invests in the vitality of U.S. communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. For more information about Knight Foundation, go to http://www.knightfdn.org