It’s Sunshine Week, the annual celebration designed to shine a light on the importance of a free press, transparency and open government.
These principles, ordinarily fragile, appear to be under a darker cloud more than ever given the national political climate, where the freedom of speech is under assault from a hostile presidential administration.
The White House’s war on the press is dangerous for a few obvious reasons, namely because it is an attack on the very fabric of this country, and the inalienable concept of keeping government accountable to all people — not just a select few.
But even more alarming is the inversion of truth and falsehood:
The president has successfully taken a phrase initially applied to junk websites run by teenagers out of Macedonian garages — “fake news” — and flipped it.
Now it’s become commonplace to blurt out the phrase when faced with any unfavorable coverage.
We cringe every time we hear “fake news” being tossed around by all credible people. It’s immature, a poor representation of someone from whom we should expect more, and acts as a jarring illustration as to how quickly our country has raced to the bottom when it comes to political discourse.
It is inevitable that this playbook — ridiculing your opponents and deflecting criticism — will trickle down to the local level as it becomes a more effective way to parry attacks and split the atom of political support into opposing corners.
It’s a contagious trend, and one just as appealing, and good for the country, as a case of malaria.
In the latest round of seemingly neverending controversy, crusading U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was sacked last weekend by President Trump after he refused to resign, part of a regular changing of the guard between administrations.
Some call Bharara’s refusal to resign grandstanding, others call it noble.
The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. But whichever side you fall on, Bharara was a well-respected public servant who embodied the best elements of the American legal system — hard, steely-eyed and impartial justice.
In a state plagued by ethical scandals, it’s tough to overstate the impact Bharara had in rooting out systemic rot.
The attorney took down two of New York’s top three leaders, and launched probes of numerous more — including members of the governor’s inner circle and an ongoing investigation into New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fundraising operation.
In an era where corruption reigns supreme — and Wall Street is exerting influence over a presidential cabinet like never before — someone like Bharara’s presence has never been more needed.
Bharara gave the keynote at the New York Press Association’s annual conference last year.
Speaking to a roomful of local reporters in Saratoga Springs, Bharara said they were on the frontlines of rooting out malfeasance.
The rock star attorney, himself a student reporter, said he lamented the downsizing of local media, and noted the feds often rely on local press when identifying potential wrongdoing.
“Every time the press has to downsize, opportunities to ferret out fraud, and to find the bad guys are lost, and I don’t like that at all,” he said.
He’s right. While the New York Times and Washington Post have expanded their news teams in this post truth-era — and while cable news, whose role has played center stage in fostering a sense of divisiveness in this country, has blossomed — local media continues to hang on for dear life.
We’ve found that what tends to be sacrificed on the altar of the overheated national rhetoric are the small things — the issues discussed by local government that actually have arguably a bigger impact on your local life.
These are issues like assessments and why your property values have skyrocketed with seemingly no reason.
They’re the reports that dig into and explore potential government failings, like how society’s most vulnerable residents are allowed to get nearly devoured by rats despite county oversight.
It’s how the water supply of a village was contaminated with carcinogens by a plastics company.
It’s why the home health care aides of the poor are being taken away, how a mausoleum was left to be abandoned by a local nonprofit, leaving residents in grief — or which extracurricular programs are on the chopping block at your kid’s school this year.
Like Bharara said: “No case is too small if it has an impact on ordinary people who are suffering and faced with the consequences of bad behavior.”
We see ourselves as guardians of that.
In this sense, Sunshine Week isn’t a just way for reporters to tout how useful they are, but also serves as reminder that there is a real, tangible resource and value in serving the community — especially the most vulnerable and overlooked.
We’ve always encouraged people to stay informed; to challenge their local leaders, or otherwise serve their communities.
Key in that is supporting your local newspapers. Because once that candle is snuffed out, it’s going to be extremely hard to reignite— and those lights are needed now more than ever.
The Sun Community News Editorial Board is comprised of Dan Alexander, John Gereau and Pete DeMola. We want to hear from you. Drop us a line on our Facebook page, or follow us on Twitter, to share your thoughts.