Vice President Mike Pence, in a recent joint conference with NATO’s secretary general, took a stab at assuaging some fears.

“Rest assured both the president and I strongly support both a free and independent press,” he said, adding, “but you can anticipate that the president and all of us will continue to call out the media when they play fast and loose with the facts.”

Typically, such reassurances would hardly be necessary. But then there’s nothing typical about the leader of the free world calling the press “the enemy of the American people,” as President Donald Trump has recently done.

All of which should bring greater awareness to National Sunshine Week, which starts today. The initiative was established to celebrate and preserve our right to open government — a critical component of our democracy, but one that is also, as recent history has vividly illustrated, fragile. Sunshine Week is an effort to remind the public that government functions best when it operates in the open.

For his part, Pence has throughout his years in public service proclaimed himself an advocate for government transparency. In 2011, as a member of Congress, he introduced the Free Flow of Information Act, legislation he co-sponsored in 2005, 2007 and 2009.

Just last year, he bolstered his First Amendment cred by vetoing a police records bill for private colleges in Indiana that supporters claimed improves transparency but would have in reality done the opposite (state lawmakers have since overturned that veto). He also vetoed a bill that would have allowed Indiana state agencies to charge a search fee for public records requests, tweeting, “The cost of public records should never be a barrier to the public’s right to know.”

That’s not to say that Pence’s record on such issues is unblemished. It was his administration, after all, that briefly proposed a state-run news agency. And his court fight to keep secret a political white paper emailed to him while he was Indiana governor is a troubling position for a self-described champion for the public’s right to know to take.

Still, Pence’s history suggests a certain appreciation for one of the basic elements of a free, informed citizenry — one that every American, not just journalists and First Amendment advocates, should be celebrating this week. We can only hope that he shares that appreciation with the president he serves. His boss has shown a disturbing tendency to label stories and news outlets he doesn’t agree with as “fake news” and slam the media as “the opposition party.” In doing so, he undermines the necessary role the free press performs in informing the public and holding government accountable. Perhaps Pence, recipient of the 2008 American Society of News Editors Sunshine Award, should tell Trump what he used to say while pushing a federal shield law as a congressman:

“As a conservative who believes in limited government, I know the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press.”

Well said, Mr. Vice President. And Happy Sunshine Week.

 

  • South Bend Tribune
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