On DPS Security Records, the Media Stand Alone
(NOTE: The San Antonio Express-News published an edited version on Saturday, May 26, 2012)
As a long-time Austin attorney who is currently serving as chief of staff for the Texas governor's office, I have long been a great admirer of both Travis County District Judge Scott Jenkins and Texas Governor Rick Perry, because both are men of integrity who have dedicated themselves to doing what they believe is right, within the roles to which the people of Texas have elected them. Yet in their public roles, that could be the only thing they have in common, as they are members of opposing political parties and hold contrasting personal views on many important policy issues. That's why it was somewhat surprising to see the editorial board of the San Antonio Express-News essentially accuse the two of working together on an issue of importance to the people of Texas. But even more than surprising, the editorial (see "Court ruling is a blow to transparency," Express-News 5/20/12) was revealing, as it provided a perfect example of the desperate and self-serving mindset of most of today's major media outlets.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, which provides security for the governor and other statewide elected officials and their families, has determined that the public release of their officers' travel records would disclose their security methods and strategies, and thereby create a significant risk to the safety of themselves and the people they protect. The Texas Legislature and the Texas Supreme Court, which have both been firm supporters of "the public's right to know," have agreed that the officers' travel records should be withheld if their release would subject a person to a "substantial threat of physical harm." After carefully reviewing the records, Judge Jenkins agreed that their release would create such a threat, so he ordered that DPS withhold the documents and keep them confidential. Governor Perry, who the SAEN editorial board acknowledged is "otherwise . . . a champion of fiscal accountability," agrees with Judge Jenkins' ruling. In short, all three branches of our state government (including members from both political parties), which are otherwise widely recognized as protectors of the public's right to public information, have agreed that these security records should be protected from public disclosure.
The media simply can't stand it. Having filed suit five years ago to obtain the records, the Express-News, the Austin American-Statesman, and the Houston Chronicle complained through their attorney last week that Judge Jenkins' ruling marked a "sad day," and would prevent the papers from "fulfill[ing] their role as government watchdogs." (see "Judge says governor's travel security records should remain secret," Statesman, May 10, 2012). In the view of the Express-News editorial board, Judge Jenkins' reasoning "seems far-fetched," and his ruling "suggest(s) that this case and Perry's challenge have far less to do with security than it does with evading public accountability." Do these editors really think that Judge Jenkins (a democratic Travis County judge) and Governor Perry (a republican member of the executive branch) have joined forces and are now working together to "evade public accountability?" As one who knows and respects both of these men, I know better.
Mind you, it's not that the media believe that the public should always have access to all information from every possible source. To the contrary, the media (including the Express-News, the Statesman, and the Chronicle) have been the most strident supporters of laws that protect the identities of their own sources - so called informers' "shield laws." In their view, Texas law should allow the media to keep their sources secret, because doing so makes their sources more likely to give them information they might not otherwise get. In other words, it's okay to keep information secret if the media think it should be secret (because it helps the media). But unless the media agree, every other effort to keep information confidential is simply an effort to "evade public accountability."
Judge Jenkins certainly doesn't need me to defend him, but I rather doubt that his decision was based on his desire to help Governor Perry evade accountability. And neither were the decisions that the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Legislature have made on this issue. As FDR once said, "It is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead, and find no one there." Our media outlets wish to be our leaders when it comes to deciding which information should and should not be kept private. When it comes to information that relates to the safety of our state's officials and their families, they'd do well to take a look over their collective shoulder. They'll find that they are now standing pretty much alone.
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