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Alright, Where'd You Hide That Freedom of Information, Anyway?
Ian interviews Joseph Haney, creator of

Recently it occurred to me that I should stop writing about politics. I've neither a journalism degree, nor a political science degree; for that matter, I don't have a baccalaureate in any particular field either. Then it occurred to me that someone I know who probably knows more about government than a lot of people who've made it their profession is a product of non-academic learning as well.

If you've ever gone to a government web site looking for a basic piece of information or common document and encountered the baffling series of directory links and query tools that government web designers call information architecture, you might appreciate CitizenSource. A well categorized set of links to government and media information, it's sparse on commentary, and easy on the eye. In speaking to the site's developer, Joseph Haney, I've often thought I'd vote for him if he decided to run for office. However, with his combination of intelligence, honesty, and insight, I'm afraid he's completely unelectable.

We thought it would be interesting to pick his brain a bit anyway. The e-mail interview below is the result. You be the judge...

What in the world ever inspired you to do something like this for no financial reward?

First of all, who said I did this for no financial reward? Just because I haven't seen any...That said, the short answer is outrage. I simply got tired of the half-truths, mistruths and untruths of politics, beginning with what was obviously the deliberate misuse of the nation's past. I thought, at least, I could make available the nation's founding and defining documents so that people could read them for themselves. Of course, I was far from the first to do that. I also found that, once you post the Constitution, pretty soon you're doing the Magna Carta and Roe v Wade. Then it seemed media might be useful, and economics, and the way the government works, and campaigns and voting, and issues, and volunteerism. So the point of CitizenSource is to be sort of a one-stop-shopping portal for the informed citizen. And the other goal was, of course, to separate the worthwhile from all the garbage that's out there…and there is a lot of garbage out there. Of course, CitizenSource has hardly scratched the surface; but with a couple million in funding and a staff of a hundred or so….

Right up front you say "A utility for democracy, because democracy isn't easy." What's so hard about democracy?

Because effective democracy requires responsible choice, and that requires either balanced or objective information and rational, disinterested thought. Those things aren't easy; but CitizenSource's goal is to furnish a bit of the first and encourage the second.

Many of us paranoid delusional blogger types assume the government doesn't want us to know how "they" operate. In your opinion, is there any basis for this?

Of course. It isn't paranoid or delusional to simply state how most governments work. There never has been completely transparent government, and there never will be. The paranoid and delusional part comes in when you believe that what they're not telling us is poisoning us, or robbing us of our freedoms, or…well…use your paranoia! Which is not to say that things like that don't happen, nor is it to deny that the best answer to that problem is a healthy transparency. It's just that the question, 'What is the government hiding from us?', is like the question, 'Have you stopped beating your wife'. Unfortunately, what with our feckless media, the only people asking those questions are paranoid delusional blogger types who couldn't handle - or most likely wouldn't believe - the truth if they found it. (Present company excepted, of course.)

You've done an amazing job of compiling media links, and seem to have kept the idea of painting them liberal or conservative at arm's length. In your own opinion, is there a liberal slant to "the media" as is often suggested?

My standard reply to that is that the traditional media tells a passable semblance of the truth, and the truth just sounds liberal.

On that note, do you think the "revolving door" in Washington has a negative impact on either journalism or politics?

Whenever those in power and those responsible for keeping an eye on them trade places on a regular basis, interests unavoidably become muddied and corrupted. However, I think one thing forgotten in your question is that, at the corporate level where the door most often revolves, media shows a greater fear of and pandering to the public than it does to politics. No politician affects the bottom line like the Nielsens. It's the relentless dumbing down of the media, and its consistently craven criticism of politics and politicians that bothers me; and that, in my opinion, has far less to do with offending those in power than it does with offending a viewing public that supports those in power. What has corrupted news is the corporation, and the need for news organizations to turn a profit by keeping an audience mesmerized and pacified. You can't turn relevant news into a commodity and expect it to remain both relevant and news.

Again on that general note: Do you think this or other recent administrations are more guilty of manipulating the media than in generations past - say, going back 100-150 years?

What do you mean? Like fake White House reporters? planted stories? video news releases? The funny thing is that 100 or 150 years ago media - newspapers - were very partisan; but it wasn't because politicians called the shots, it was because the papers' owners did. Manipulation at the time was more the media's manipulation of politics than the reverse. Since then, with direct access to the public, and a wider diversity of media to use to that end, politicians have become very sophisticated not only in finding already friendly media, but at crafting the message right down to the individual word. The upshot is that no administration really needs to manipulate the media; all they have to do is keep it effectively silent while they manipulate the public directly. So the answer to your question is yes…and no.

I know from informal discussions with you that you've taken a pretty good look at many of the documents that were the basis for the structure of the U.S. government. Sorry for the leading question, but do you think that people have changed so much in 200 years that these documents have needed to be modified to the extent that they have?

I don't think any of them have been modified. There is an on-going legitimate process of interpretation, especially of the Constitution. There has also been an unfortunate tendency toward selective history and outright misinterpretation. An easy example would be the religious right's identification of their beliefs with those of the Founders when the truth is that the beliefs of men like Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Hamilton bear little resemblance to modern fundamentalism. But then, with rare exception, everybody cites the history that suits them.

Back to democracy not being easy: do you feel we're living in an exemplary democracy in the U.S.?

Of course not. Besides, as Pat Buchanan consistently points out, ours is a republic, not a democracy.

That being said, would you say they Gore Vidal's recent remark that "...the old American republic is well and truly dead ......we're in uncharted territory" (see the interview) is in any way accurate, or simply the rantings of a wealthy old drunk writer?

Are you suggesting that the rantings of a wealthy old drunk writer are, ipso facto, inaccurate? (Is it the wealthy, old or drunk part that bothers you? Or some alchemical combination of the three?)
If you'd like a line by line commentary on the Vidal interview, I could give you one; but to answer your question, though we may be in 'uncharted territory' the old American Republic is far from dead. As a matter of fact, it was uncharted territory the Republic was made for.

Additionally, although the average American probably doesn't give it much thought, the U.S. has always had an aristocratic class that in one way or another has shaped policy either by governing themselves or influencing those who do. It's a simple fact that the current administration is comprised largely of a group of people who have very specific interests, i.e.: oil production and weapons manufacturing. Do you see signs, as many do, that this administration is actually trying to shift the balance of power in U.S. government to the Executive and Judicial branches? (phew! more statement than question there!)

Well, since you seem to be in on more 'simple facts' than I am, I'll leave the specific answers to you.
What I will say is this: I think there is one major disservice that both the left and the right have done to the nation; in fact, more than a disservice, but major damage. Both, in their own way, and for their own reasons - ideological reasons attributable to the narcissism of both movements - have made people believe that government does not, cannot, serve them. It often seems to me that the loudest - and let's face it, the most smug and cynical - voices are the ones that turn us away from the common project that could be this nation. When that happens no one pays attention, no one cares; and one more politician or one more law is just the same as any other. People tell themselves they're powerless, that they can't know anything, that nothing makes any difference. And the result is that all of those things, by virtue of those beliefs, become true. The right and left create their own self-fulfilling prophecies, 'solidifying the base' by doing so. Unfortunately, both turn 'the base' away from the one thing that unites all of us, and gives us our ultimate power. If either the left or right want to know why a self-interested 'elite' runs this country, they have only to look to their own rhetoric to find a good portion of the answer.

The CitizenSource page about voting ( begins with a rather moving (IMHO) several paragraphs about whether or not your vote matters. One would have to be ignorant to think that elections aren't tampered with to some degree (at least in our jaded opinion here at, but do you think:

1.) That elections are being manipulated in a more blatant or aggressive manner than in the past?

Thanks for the 'moving' comment…I think.
As for the question, it depends on what you mean by 'manipulated'. In one sense, elections are inherently manipulative in the sense that all product advertising is manipulative. That said, I think elections likely are more manipulated now, because the campaigns' handling of their candidates as commodities is so much more sophisticated than in the past. Unfortunately, the whole point of politics - policy - gets lost when the 'advertisement' is no more than calculated fear-mongering and anodyne banalities. That is what politics has become. And what is worse, that paradigm has bled over from campaigns into actual governance. On the other hand, if you mean actually tampering with the voting process and ballot boxes, maybe, maybe not. I don't know if it's worse than in the past, and frankly I worry less about that than the corruption of the message. Face it, you can prohibit and actually prosecute vote tampering; but what can you do about candidates who talk and say nothing, who are for things no one is against, who's promises never have a down side, and who have no decent respect for the truth?

2.) That there is any need for election reform, and if so, what?

Yes, there obviously is need; but it would take knowledgeable people asking hard questions in public and expecting real answers. It would also take a public that would not only listen and consider, but choose to act somewhere beyond individual self-interest. It's been said that people get the government they deserve. The truth is, we get the government we settle for. Election reform first has to take place between the ears of the American public.

What's your favorite color?

Color is contextual. How's that for politics?

If you could have one hour with anyone in the present administration and ask them anything you want, what would you ask of whom?

Nothing and no one. What would be the point? It would be very unlikely I'd get a straight answer from anyone in this, or any other administration. Even if I were to assume that everyone in the Bush administration were honest and well-meaning, there is too much risk-aversion in politics for those who practice it to be candid. With rare exceptions, it simply doesn't happen.

And if you could pick any figure from American history?

Again, no one. It may be my own limited imagination, but I suspect most of them have left us with the best they had to say. I'm content to leave it at that.

I can't help noticing (especially after you pointed it out off the record) that you sound a little cynical here. Do you even vote? Are we in some hopeless cultural downward spiral? Are we in some neo-Constantinian decline? From digging through all this government information, DID YOU LEARN SOMETHING CRUCIAL YOU'RE NOT SHARING WITH US? Is there a secret Cabal that picks our leaders no matter which chad we poke? Are we being beamed by satellites that make us crazy and ignorant?

The answer to to your first question is 'yes', to the rest - so far as I can determine - no. (Neo-Constantinian decline? What the Hell is that?)

Ian Gray
April 2005


CitizenSource - "A utility for democracy, because democracy isn't easy"

Can The Left Get It Right?
Getting away from complaint-based liberalism.

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