I am the editor of a University of Minnesota student news and public affairs magazine called The Minnesota Republic.
Recently, State Auditor Rebecca Otto attacked me in a press release for being on a “deep-sea fishing expedition” in asking for public data from her office, specifically in regard to how she has spent money and how she has managed her public office.
Let me be clear: We are not on a fishing expedition. We are making a good-faith effort to hold public officials accountable. That is one responsibility of the public and of the press, and we do not take that responsibility lightly.
The very reasons for transparency in government and for allowing news-gathering organizations access to the inner workings of public officials hardly need explaining or defending.
The backbone of our democracy is an informed voter who has confidence that he or she can depend on news-gathering organizations to sift through and aggregate information about what our elected officials are doing with the time citizens have given them in office, not to mention what public officials are doing with the money and resources the taxpayers have given them to do work for the good of the state and the country.
There is not a major news-gathering organization in the state of Minnesota that has not filed a data practices request. Most make a regular practice of doing so as part of their ongoing reporting. The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the First Amendment rights of journalists and the role of openness and transparency in government.
Our publication has requested information from other incumbent Minnesota constitutional officers, in addition to Otto, who are running for re-election. We are dismayed at their slow response times — we do not recall response times being nearly this slow under Republican officials.
We doubt the incumbent DFL officeholders would disrespect us like this if ours were a nonstudent publication. The response from Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s office is particularly disturbing to us, as well. His spokesman, John Aiken, recently told the Pioneer Press in an article about data requests from us and, separately, the Republican Party, “We’re just not going to allow the office to be inundated with partisan attacks,” which suggests that Ritchie’s office may be trying not to comply.
To call the investigative news-gathering operations of a student publication “partisan” seems like a cop-out for Ritchie’s office to avoid complying with the law and providing transparency over his office’s operations. It all makes us very suspicious.
As a news-gathering organization, the faster someone runs from our questions and the louder they protest, the more interested we become in finding out what is being hidden. Everyone now should wonder exactly what it is these incumbent officeholders have to hide.
We look forward to getting the information that we’ve requested and we look forward to informing the public about what we find. That, after all, is our purpose.
Meanwhile, as a result of this episode, we have decided that The Minnesota Republic will sponsor a forum at the University this fall to discuss the role of transparency in government. We will be contacting Auditor Otto and Secretary of State Ritchie — along with their opponents — to participate. Scholars from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication will also be invited.
It will be interesting to hear how the incumbent state auditor and secretary of state try to defend keeping information from journalists and the public.
Sean Niemic, Undergraduate student, Minnesota Republic Editor