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3.17.06
Politics and Economy:
Sunshine Week
More on This Story:
NOW Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa gives her perspective on what the Freedom of Information Act means for journalists.

Maria Hinojosa

Reporter's Notebook

When NOW's management team decided to put together an hour long special on government secrecy and asked me to be the correspondent, I was elated. That's what I love about my work here at NOW. Every new assignment is filled with intellectual stimulation and the knowledge that not only am I going to learn something new but I get to inform the American public about things they don't know about but should.

The mandate was clear. Get stories from people on the frontlines of the battle over government secrecy. My producer Peter Meryash and his team had already been researching the issue for several weeks but I dove in and started making calls. Within a few hours I was on the phone with a woman from New Jersey.

In a wonderfully thick New Jersey-Brooklynite accent she told me her story. "Hey, I am a former disco queen who never even read the editorial page of my paper but now I am a one woman powerhouse in my town fighting for open government!" Another call to the ACLU. Anthony Romero who heads the organization told me, "We have dozens of cases of people and institutions who are battling with the government to get access to information...which lawsuit would you like to hear about..." And Victoria Toensing, a former Reagan staffer in the Republican White House, would later tell me emphatically, "I hope the government is doing things I don't know about! Frankly, the American people don't have the right to know what the war plan is!"

I immediately felt enthused and inspired. Across party lines people were engaged and thinking about issues of open government. And it always makes me feel better when I know people are acting on their issues in a true expression of democracy. I never got the former disco queen on the air with her story (and she is a fierce independent in terms of her political affiliations) but just knowing that she is out there making open government HER issue makes me feel good about the state of our democracy.

The highlights of working on this hour long special? There are many of them. My first interview in Washington was with Tom Blanton, the head of the National Security Archive. Every working journalist in America knows about the National Security Archive. They are on the forefront of getting information out of the government that the public has a right to know. Walking around the offices, seeing hundreds of boxes of formerly classified information that was now at my fingertips, including actual records of CIA testing of hallucinogenic drugs on innocent people and paperwork revolving around the Vietnam war, was an investigative journalist's heaven.

A few weeks later, I was in the offices of Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson who represents a district in New Mexico and is the chairwoman for an intelligence subcommittee. Sitting in her office, adorned with photographs of her kids who are just about the same ages as mine, I was taken by the gravitas a Republican representative must have to take on her own party and her own President. After she found out about the warrantless eavesdropping program by reading it in the newspaper, Wilson wrote a note to the President and his staff asking to be briefed. She told me she waited quietly for a response for 7 weeks and only then did she speak out publicly, demanding they answer her. "The White House was stonewalling me," she told me. "And I have a job to do in congress. It's called oversight. And for that I need the facts."

But perhaps what was most meaningful for me was to meet Karen Meredith and Peggy Buryj. Both are moms who have lost sons in the Iraq war. Both have had to fight the military in order to find out exactly how their sons lost their lives. But that is where the similarity ends. Karen Meredith doesn't support the war or President Bush. Peggy Buryj supports the war and this president. In the end, Meredith is the one who now, after more than a year of taking on the army, believes she has gotten the truth from them about her son Ken Ballard. But Buryj, who believes President Bush is a good man, and now wishes she had never had a military funeral for her son says, "Rank is just something that smells bad to me." She worries she may never get the secrets about her son Jesse's death from the military and what's worse, worries she may never believe them.

Across America, across political lines, Americans are asking to let the sunshine in. I am glad to have been a tiny part in just telling their stories.

"The Sunshine Gang" was made possible in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


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