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Mitchell: ‘Systems’ Work Best When People Choose to Know

Next time you hear someone say, “I’d rather not know,” ask the person to pause and think about it.

If it’s a private, personal matter of no concern and having no relevance to anything, fine. With apologies to those who tend to share what they had for breakfast on Facebook, most of us truly don’t care to know.

But if it’s a matter of public concern — something related to our health, welfare, security or how public policies are being developed and public money spent — then we do want to know. Or at least we need to know.

As governor, Phil Bryant has backed government “transparency.” So has Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. That’s a good thing. Also, when asked as a general proposition whether citizens should have access to the workings of their local, state and national agencies and assemblies, all 174 members of the Mississippi Legislation would likely come down on the side of openness.

Until it comes down to instances that might be embarrassing to the officials.

Or illegal.

That’s when wagons circle. A professed love of sunshine can fade. Fast.

One illustration that comes to mind involves a newspaper “country correspondent” named Mildred Rushing.

It was several years ago. Her town fathers, amid great fanfare, announced they had secured a $107,000 federal grant to build a build a community park. Mrs. Rushing, who had the appearance and demeanor of a retired schoolteacher, dutifully reported the story. She quoted each and every council member on how great this park would be, how it would give the youths a place to exercise, stay healthy and to avoid pitfalls in life such as drugs and gangs.

A year or so later, Mrs. Rushing asked for records on how the money was spent. The information keepers were reluctant to share. It took months, but she prevailed. As it turned out, the money — except for about $8,000 for a concrete slab and two basketball hoops — had gone to administration, fees, overhead and “other purposes.”

Of course, the diminutive reporter should have received a Pulitzer. She didn’t, and returned to covering teas and receptions.

Federal authorities said they would investigate, but nothing came of it. No one went to prison, no one was fined or punished. But at least some pomposity had been punctured. At least someone wanted to know and asked. As a result, Mrs. Rushing’s neighbors learned that their town officials weren’t as visionary or trustworthy as they held themselves out to be.

A consequence of the changing media landscape and viewer/reader habits is that there are fewer journalists in Mississippi and in Mississippi towns who shine lights, as Mrs. Rushing did, where officials prefer light not be shed. Her story, though, illustrates that it doesn’t take “60 Minutes” or a crack investigative team of highly trained reporters to expose misfeasance or malfeasance. It just takes a healthy curiosity.

Several media companies in Mississippi do dig. On the Gulf Coast, the Sun Herald newspaper is dogged in its reporting on “irregularities” in spending public money and pension funds. In the Delta, The Commonwealth in Greenwood is fighting an uphill battle to keep public education officials dodging accountability, and in Jackson, The Clarion-Ledger has been persistent on many fronts, including prisons and education. On TV, before he retired, Dan Modisett of WLBT-TV3 in the capital aired plainspoken editorials.

Other than the media, “citizen-journalists” have been challenging business as usual in Lauderdale County and before the Mississippi Public Service Commission. And succeeding.

Too, organizations such as the Mississippi Press Association, the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information (I am a member) and the Mississippi Center for Public Policy (seethespending.org) are working, largely in the background, for good government.

In an ideal world, we could elect or hire people to conduct public business, trust that it will all be done on the up and up. We could get on with our lives — not paying attention, not needing or wanting to know.

That’s not the system we have, though. Whereas the vast majority of elected officials and people in public jobs are open and accountable, the very system they serve is designed to function best when the public is informed.

The most important ingredient in the recipe, however, is an interest and willingness to be informed about the good and the bad in public policy and in public activity.

To borrow a phrase from the CIA, citizens are in the “need to know” loop. It’s not snooping to keep up with what’s going on in government. It’s a duty of citizenship.

Charlie Mitchell mugshot 2013

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist and assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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