Charles N. Davis interview

12 June 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism,<br /> Charles N Davis

Associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, Charles N Davis

CHARLES N. DAVIS is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, (NFOIC), headquartered at the School.
In March this year, he was named the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Journalism Teacher of the Year. Davis’  research focuses on access to governmental information and media law. Lawrie Zion caught up with him ahead of his Australian visit. (Click here to here a podcast of his talk at La Trobe on 22 June.)

The Missouri School of Journalism is home to the Freedom of Information Centre. What kind of role does the Centre play?

The Centre is the home of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, which is an umbrella group for the state freedom of information movement and an academic centre that conducts research on freedom of information issues.

There are 52 different legal statutes covering access to records — a federal law, one in each state and one in D.C., so there are all sorts of issues popping up literally daily around access to information. We organize and sustain groups at the state level to advocate for open government, so, if you look across the states, there is the California First Amendment Coalition to the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas to the Maine Coalition on Open Government — 52 groups in all across the entire country. The Centre is headquarters, and I am kind of the national sales manager for FOI.

The National Freedom of Information Coalition has been running for 50 years now. What are some of the battles it’s fought during this time?

The Centre is 50 years old — the NFOIC was created about 15 years ago. The Centre was instrumental in the creation of the original federal FOI Act, in fact! And it has been involved in all of the great secrecy disputes of the United States through the years, from the Pentagon Papers (the Centre joined an amicus brief in support of the New York Times and Washington Post) to today’s battles (we weighed in on access to Guantanamo and Abu Graib pics just this month).

A 2008 NFIC survey found that nearly three quarters of Americans believe that their government is secretive. How worried should they be?

Very, very concerned, for the simple fact that every time your governments says “Let us take these records and make them safe, because you shouldn’t see them…” what in essence has taken place? A transfer of power from the people to the government, a loss of sovereignty. I like to quote David Brin, a great writer, who once asked “Who Will Watch the Watchers?”

It’s a question well worth asking, and that’s why I am pretty hardwired to oppose government secrecy — this is supposed to be government by the people, for the people, right?

Where do you believe reform is most urgently required?

There are reform needs literally all over these laws, but the first, best thing, in my opinion, that could be fixed is procedural — making it WAY easier for plaintiffs suing government agencies to recover attorney’s fees.

That would make government so much more open, almost immediately. Nowadays, in most states, you have to sue if the government stonewalls, and there is no incentive whatsoever for a citizen to do so, because the statutes make it so hard in many states to recover fees. So, unless you are independently wealthy, you’d be nuts to spend the money.

Then there are a host of content areas in the laws that could be improved, exemptions to the laws’ coverage that have no basis in reality, and so, so much more.

Is the new Obama administration likely to be more open to transparency?

Well, they certainly sound that way, but I have to say, I am believing nothing until I see some substantive improvement. On the torture pics reversal, Obama followed the worst of Bush Era thinking: if something is really bad, then we realy don’t need to see it. I think the opposite is true! And on federal FOIA issues, it will take a LOT of sweat equity to make real change, and thus far, I am not seeing much beyond press opportunities and lip service.

The recent MPs expenses scandal in the UK stemmed from a series of FOI requests. But how does Britain square up with the US in more general terms when it comes to FOI policy and practice?

Heather Browne, the reporter/FOI activist who made that request, is a friend, and I am so proud of her! Apples and oranges, really, as the UK is such a geographically concentrated government, and has no state governments like we do, so the laws are so different. What is great about the UK is how quickly and aggressively reporters have embraced the FOI — it’s only a couple of years old — and how high-profile it has become.

What’s your sense about where Australia sits within the spectrum when it comes to transparency?

Well, Australia has had a bit of regime change itself in the past year or so, eh? So I would imagine it’s wait and see, just like in the States, but this much I know: access is a bipartisan, indeed, a nonpartisan issue, in that all sides agree it is a good thing — and then all sides abrogate promises and embrace secrecy. So be alert!

You’ve just been named journalism teacher of the year in the US. With so many uncertainties stalking the profession, what do you tell your students about their career prospects?

I tell them to embrace the future, not fear it. If the industry is migrating toward some online revenue model that we haven’t figured out yet, fine. But this much I know: people need stories and they crave information and journalists provide a valuable, essential piece of the democratic pie, so I tell them to do what they love, and let it all sort out. Heck, even if they have to go sell insurance for a while after college, at least study something you love!

How should journalism schools address the paradigm shift in the media within their curricula?

Well, I know what schools should not do, and that is chase the technology.

We should teach students the principles and ethics and art of journalism, and let the kids race ahead on the technology — they know it way better than we do anyway! What they don’t know is how to fully report a story, or even how to use records in creative and aggressive ways. We can teach them so much, and we muct also be willing to let them teach us.

Why do you think that enrolments in journalism programs are increasing?

Because it is so much fun, and it’s timely and it’s interesting and it is increasingly one of the high-tech centers of the university.

Charles N. Davis will speak about “Digital Transparance: Private and Privacy Access in the Information Age” on Monday, 22 June at the Union Building board room. All welcome. To RSVP, please contact Christopher Scanlon at