Friday, January 1, 2010

Transitions, transparency and journalism

Dear friends and followers:

This is likely my final post for the Cohen Bulletin. As I wrote in the previous post, I have transitioned to a new blog,, which will replace this one.

For the time being at least, I will leave the Cohen Bulletin up online. It's funny -- when I first started this blog, some of my colleagues cautioned me against it. Their concern was that once I expressed a point of view on the blog, it would remain in cyberspace in perpetuity and could come back to haunt me if I ever changed my position. Heaven forbid I would have to explain myself.

It is hard to believe, but three years ago when I started this blog it was so newsworthy that The Capital gave it front page coverage. Today, even on a slow news day, a politician's blog would barely rate a two-sentence mention in a news digest. Blogs are now old hat. Even more recent forms of social media that were unknown three years ago are no longer newsworthy because they are so widespread. (I read somewhere that the word whose usage increased the most last year was "unfriend," courtesy of Facebook.)

On balance, I believe that this global shift towards more user-generated communication is good. It is enhancing the transparency of our government by making it easier for citizens to actively participate, and by making it easier for policy makers to communicate their views.


Transparency is good because it makes it easier for the public to access information about the often confusing political process. As my friend Judd Legum writes, Delegate Heather Mizeur is offering a proposal to make the General Assembly more transparent by posting floor votes, committee votes and committee schedules online. This is the type of transparency that we need more of. Citizens have a right to know -- simply and easily -- how their representatives are representing them. Citizens have a right to know when committee meetings are being scheduled and how to offer input into the process.

The internet, with its living room sofa-access to the Halls of Congress, is an ideal vehicle for making our government more accessible to citizens. However, while transparency is good, we shouldn't confuse it for results. Transparency is about the process, not the product. The more we make raw data available, the more information people will have, but raw data alone can lead to more confusion rather than less. As President Obama's Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform Neil Eisen writes,
[an] unprecedented level of transparency can sometimes be confusing rather than providing clear information.
It is easy to take a piece of information out of context, whether intentionally or not. Unfortunately, this is especially true in the world of politics. As we become more transparent, politicos will have more raw data to use to paint misleading pictures of their opposition. Does that mean we should not strive for more transparency? No. But it does mean that we need to go deeper.


Americans love to view politics in terms of good guys and bad guys, but politics is not that simple. Politics is about balancing legitimate, competing values. It can be hard to figure out the right solutions, let alone figure out which politicians hold the "right" values.

Because the political process with its maze of pundits, advocates and special interests can be hard to follow, the supposed product of it -- the vote -- has a simplistic, litmus-test kind of appeal. Yea or Nea. You're either with me or against me. Regardless of what politicians say, they reveal their true colors when they cast their votes, right? Not always.

Yes, votes are important, but rarely are they the whole story. Making politics work requires compromise, and compromise can be nuanced and messy. The trade-offs and negotiations required to govern well are rarely as clear cut as the "yeas" and "neas" on a vote.

An old adage says to never do anything that you wouldn't want to read about on the front page of the newspaper. Knowing this, and knowing how easy it is to place information out of context, elected officials are hyper-attuned to how their votes could be perceived. All it takes is a couple of misconstrued votes to damage an opponent's campaign. As a result, politicians often weigh how a vote might be used against them rather than voting solely on their judgment of what's in the public interest.

All of this is to say that while more transparency is good, we should be mindful that the real goal here is not simply awareness but understanding. All the information in the world won't do much good if it doesn't lead to better understanding, and presumably to better results.


For this reason, I believe there will always be a need and a market for quality journalism. Despite the turmoil in the newspaper industry right now, it will survive because the story is what really matters.

Transparency shines the light on more pieces of information. It reveals more of the dots in a connect-the-dots picture. But the true picture only reveals itself when the dots are connected in the right way. This is the real value of journalism. Good journalists put information into context and provide a narrative to make it understandable.

So, with that said, I will nonetheless continue to be a strong advocate for more transparency in government. I will start now by providing you with self-promoting links to my blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Thank you again for your support and feedback during these past three years. Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2010!