Investigative journalism is crucial to a democracy. It uncovers lies, corruption, malfeasance, misfeasance, nonfeasance, and the breaking of rules of law and decency. It breaks news that would not be available to the public without the intervention of a journalist.
Public records are crucial to investigative journalism. They reveal trends that are not readily apparent, like delays at Veterans Administration hospitals, or systemic abuse at homes for the elderly.
So I was (unpleasantly) surprised, while investigating politics in my small town, to see the following message on my California county government web site:
Notice the bold emphasis (theirs, not mine) on the phrase: “California law prohibits the display of recorded documents on the internet.”
Really? No, not really. What California law really says is:
6254.21. (a) No state or local agency shall post the home address or telephone number of any elected or appointed official on the Internet without first obtaining the written permission of that individual.
Here’s the catch: County bureaucrats say that because almost anyone can be appointed or elected for some office or another, and because it’s too much work to go through millions of documents to identify current office holders and their home addresses, the only prudent response is to keep all recorded documents off the internet.
Stop whining and sniveling, I hear you say. Woodward and Bernstein cracked Watergate without the internet. Just get in your car and drive 45 miles to the county clerk’s office during government business hours to view documents that are probably already digitized and stored on a computer network. It’s okay to view public records containing the home addresses and phone numbers of elected or appointed officials as long as it’s inconvenient.