BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week attorney general John Ashcroft continued his multi-city tour, barnstorming for additional government control of information under the Patriot Act. On this program we've addressed the potential impact of the act on the national level, but does that impact extend to local cops and city officials too? Keith McKnight is a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio. Recently he wrote that a host of modifications, large and small in the past two years, have lessened the public's grip on what local government is doing. Keith, welcome to On the Media.
KEITH McKNIGHT: Well thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. So you've been in the business for four decades, and you of all people know that the relationship between reporters and law enforcement officials is usually not especially cozy. What's changed?
KEITH McKNIGHT: Well, since 9/11, as a matter of fact, we've had a number of small incidents around here in which we have now a spokesman for the police department in Akron, and the spokesman every day lists what she thinks are the important stories of the day for reporters to pick up on a recorded information line. I alluded to one in the story I wrote recently which is a driveby shooting, and I called to say, you know, what happened, and I got a hold, luckily, of the detective who was in charge of it, and he said "Well, if it's anything important, it'll be on the information line." Later on that evening there was nothing on the information line, so apparently, it wasn't important. But the point of it is: they decided; we didn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the local police decide what police actions are worthy of coverage. And that wasn't the case 30 years ago?
KEITH McKNIGHT:On, no. No, it wasn't the case five years ago. And again, it's a small change, but a significant one to anybody who is in this business. We are accustomed to deciding for ourselves what the news is and is not, and we don't like somebody else, particularly a government official of any sort, deciding it for us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do these changes relate in any way, then, to 9/11?
KEITH McKNIGHT:No, I don't think it has a thing to do with national security. I think the 9/11 terror has also opened up a sort of mania among public officials or an opportunity to say no when information would otherwise be available.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about access to local government or to hospital officials, for example?
KEITH McKNIGHT:Well HIPA recently went into effect. That's the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act -- (it was passed in 1996 by Congress but it didn't come into effect until this year) -- in which they essentially have bottled up in the name of privacy all the records of anybody who goes to the hospital and, and doesn't expressly sign a release for it to be released. Recently there was an example here. A Canton paper called up on a fire call, and they said where's the fire. Well, that's a very normal [LAUGHTER] thing for a newspaper to ask a fire department. But they said they couldn't release the information, and it was because if there was a fire, there might be an injury, and if there was an injury, you would have to release the information about that individual who was injured, and therefore they couldn't talk about such things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you have any evidence that local governments in other parts of the country are tightening their control over information?
KEITH McKNIGHT:Well, I talked to professor of Pace University, Brian Nickerson, and he said that he had received several calls from reporters around the country who were concerned about the same issue, and these are issues that if you bring them up on a local basis, it's the local media "whining" about something that doesn't really affect the national picture at all. But when you put them all together, the public is being kept farther away from information that they want and need.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Keith, thank you very much.
KEITH McKNIGHT: All right. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Reporter Keith McKnight spoke to us from the Akron Beacon Journal, and now we're joined by the aforementioned Pace University Professor Brian Nickerson. Welcome to the show.
BRIAN NICKERSON: Thank you very much for inviting me.