The following is an update of what I’ve been up to recently, in several different areas…
Transcript Pledge and Letter:
Even if the leadership in both parties make a priority of publicizing committee proceedings, the committee chairs in their variable discretion (as we called it in the report) still need to make it a sufficient priority for it to happen. To encourage them to do so, we’ve drafted a letter, working closely with VoterWatch (and Perla Ni) to articulate what we are looking for–accurate, timely records of what happens in public hearings, posted online permanently in text, audio, and video.
The pledge has links to more detail (and to the letter to committee chairs), and is set to succeed only at 50 people by mid December. We’re up to 11 as of this email.
I recently finished Donald Ritchie’s Press Gallery, which covers the congressional press galleries through the 19th Century, with a focus on the development of institutional standards that reify things like conflicts of interest and endemic corruption. (Institutions like ethics committees, or press galleries reify, or recognize and make real, conflicts of interest–effectively or not, where before they were just seen as incidental profits.)
Interestingly, these distinctions (for example, understanding that a reporter shouldn’t also be a committee clerk, a lobbyist, and an stock speculator, all at the same time) largely develop through new technology being introduced, which creates tension and new incentives within the reporting community. This point is very clearly made in the preface to Reporting from Washington, Ritchie’s book that starts around 1932:
What most shook the press corps from complacency was the periodic intrusion of new technology. From the telegraph to radio, television, and digital electronics, technological innovations not only speeded delivery of the news but stimulated competition within the media. Each invention introduced a new group of reporters who felt less bound by their predecessors’ rules and traditions. Over time, the outsiders invariably forced the veteran insiders to adjust to new practices. But initially reporters for each new media met stiff resistance from the press corps’s establishment. Since 1880, the U.S. government has ceded the authority to determine who qualifies for a press pass to cover the Capitol, the White House, and the federal agencies to members of the press corps themselves. Reporters elect committees of correspondents who grant formal accreditation, thereby defining, and restricting, their own trade. The newspapermen who ran the original press gallery in the U.S. Congress set rules that denied press passes to magazine writers and radio broadcasters. The excluded correspondents petitioned Congress and received their own separate galleries, from which they in turn excluded newcomers who failed to meet their rules. As a result, the U.S. Congress, alone among national legislatures, divides its press galleries according to media technologies. Both the print and broadcast galleries became perplexed over how to classify Internet reporters, fearing that setting too loose a definition would allow anyone with a web site to apply for a press pass. In addition to denying access to new technologies, for decades the fraternal rules of the press galleries also excluded women and minorities, and limited access for foreign correspondents and American reporters who worked for government agencies. Hard-fought battles eventually opened the press galleries to greater diversity, by race, gender, and technology, and repeatedly redefined Washington reporting.
I’m sure there’s a detailed comparison to be made here, taking blogging and comparing it to the growth of such institutions as the initial party-affiliated papers, the penny press papers, the wire (telegraph based) services, larger syndicated papers, radio, and television. A case could be made that the Internet isn’t so uniquely revolutionary (at least in this sense), but operates in a long tradition of evolving distinctions, each taking a different concern, conflict of interest, party interest, or business interest, and removing them from the narrative of the reporter.
I’ve alluded a couple of times to the Constitution Annotated, but I’d like to elaborate slightly more on this document, and why it’s worthy of our attention.
The world of legal research is very complex, with different bodies of information being vital to the arrangement of court cases and legislative research, touching on case history, legislative intent, regulatory processes, and differing jurisdictions, precedents, and interpretations. Within this sphere, just as much as in the world of legislative information, when information isn’t readily available to the public, for-pay services grow to fill this need. While this has been both necessary and good, there is also a clear public good to securing access to a digital public repository of legal and legislative information. In other words, more people should take advantage of advanced legal research than can afford to.
The Constitution Annotated is a sort of bridge between the legal and legislative research worlds, since it provides the foundation for both of them. It is also a great example of a vital technical document. CRS employees take the Constitution and append explanations and context to every section, based on the most recent supreme court interpretations. There’s no better place to start looking in order to get a (mostly) current view, from a team of experts, of how the Constitution functions in contemporary life.
CONAN (as it’s referred to) has immense potential to become a digitally vital document, and adding searchability, links for cross-referencing, and versioning would all be possible by making the XML data at its core public. Third parties with an interest in adding value would likely be happy to create links, searches, and further context. (See Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, for example, which is already providing a basic set of these value-added features, as they’re able to based on the format the GPO is publishing in.)
I’ll likely be writing more about this soon.
Finally, I’d like to point again (as Steven Clift recently did), to the General Services Administration’s recent newsletter "How E-Government is Changing Society and Strengthening Democracy" (available near the top of this page).
I know of no better survey of current e-government and digital democracy survey, showing what enterprising citizens and government employees are doing with the Internet. (I wrote about the Open House Project in the newsletter too.)
Sorry this is so long, but there’s a great deal going on, and I’m trying to keep up with keeping what I’m doing as public as possible.