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New Year's political ticker: Good government and bad newspaper edition

Our right to know in Illinois gets better as of tomorrow, and a New York newspaper goes after our right to bear arms by outing gun owners.

• HOW MUCH IS THAT GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEE IN THE WINDOW: It will be much easier for us to find out how much public-sector employees are earning.

House Bill 222, which takes effect with the new year, requires Illinois counties, municipalities and townships to submit employee salaries to the searchable Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal that lists state employees and state spending.

You can access the portal at http://accountability.illinois.gov.

The portal and its recent improvement are the creations of McHenry County legislators. It was Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, whose bill created the portal in 2009, and state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, drafted the bill adding the local salaries.

Franks' bill overcame opposition from lobbying groups representing county and township governments and the American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees.

School district salaries are already on a searchable database at the Illinois State Board of Education website (the direct link is here), and state law requires districts to also post salary data on their own websites.

• REGISTRATION AND INTIMIDATION: Yet again, I have to write about a newspaper's ill-conceived idea to publicly "out" gun owners just because they can.

In the wake of the tragic mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., the (White Plains, N.Y.) Journal News is printing the names and addresses – complete with a locator map – of every citizen in their readership area with a gun permit.

The title of the newspaper's piece, "The gun owner next door: What you don't know about the weapons in your neighborhood" says it all – unfair and unbalanced. The guy across the street ... dah dah DAAAAAAH! ... owns a gun! He's evil, we tell you!

The newspaper's intent, naked and brazen, is to plant the seed that every law-abiding gun owner is the next mass shooter waiting to happen.

Frequent visitors to this blog know that my disgust with such ideas comes not of my love of the Second Amendment, but of my love of transparency and open government.

Such irresponsible decisions by media organizations more often than not spell disaster for the cause. Such stunts make people scared senseless of open records, and politicians are more than happy to exploit it by swooping in and passing bills restricting our access to information. As I blogged here, it's happened after several newspapers decided to publish lists of concealed-carry license holders.

The Journal News. sorry to say, fundamentally failed the community that I'm sure it boasts each day that it serves. It especially failed the battered ex-wife in hiding or the retired prosecutor who would have very good reasons to keep anonymous and keep a gun in the house.

If a media agency uses gun ownership records to uncover that convicted felons are slipping through the cracks and getting permits, that's journalism. If a media agency uncovers that there are few or no checks and balances to prevent people with mental disabilties or substance abuse problems from legally obtaining firearms, that's journalism.

Listing wholesale the list of everyone who has a firearm is not journalism. What it is is unsuitable for print, but let's just say it can be found in abundance in my daughter's diaper pail.

I'm not alone in the Fourth Estate when it comes to my opposition. Media ethicist Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, called the decision "journalistic arrogance to abuse public record privilege", and expressed my shared concern that government could crack down on open records laws as a result.

I hate leaving 2012 on a bad karma note, but if any U.S. newsroom in 2013 has to get a visit from the Layoff Fairy, I have the perfect one in mind.

And on that note:

• CONCERNS JUSTIFIED: I'm sure I raised a few eyebrows in the open records crowd a year ago when I celebrated the fact that our Illinois General Assembly exempted Illinois Firearm Owners Identification cards from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

If you recall, the Illinois Associated Press had asked for the list from the Illinois State Police, and the Attorney General ruled – correctly at the time – that nothing in FOIA made the list exempt from disclosure. State lawmakers rushed to exempt the list before the AP could get their hands on it, and a judge also ruled the list must remain private.

I argued that the AP's motives had nothing to do with investigative journalism, and argued that their intent was to pull the same stunt that the Journal News just did and print the list wholesale.

So I guess I owe the Journal News a degree of thanks for justifying my concerns.

And hopefully Illinois' impending law to allow for concealed carry will carry an identical exemption from disclosure.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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