David Shapiro
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By David Shapiro

Saturday, October 23, 1999

We’ve made
openness our beat

Star-Bulletin closing after 117 years It's tough enough to see our newspaper on the verge of closing without having an attorney like Jeffrey Portnoy kick us while we're down to gild his own nest.

Portnoy told the Honolulu Community-Media Council that members should stop making such a fuss about the Star-Bulletin's possible demise, which would leave Honolulu a one-newspaper town with only the Advertiser.

"The one media outlet that has done more for opening up government, for fighting closed government, for spending money to attack institutional bureaucracy and secrecy has been the Advertiser," Portnoy said.

If Portnoy was just a regular guy expressing his opinion, as he claimed, I'd let it go. But he's the Advertiser's attorney on First Amendment issues and he was expressing his economic self-interest.

The main difference between what the Advertiser has spent and what we've spent fighting for the First Amendment in recent years is that the Advertiser spent its money on Portnoy while we used other attorneys and other strategies that better served us.

This is not to denigrate the Advertiser, which has fought many good battles on behalf of the First Amendment. But for Portnoy to suggest the Star-Bulletin has done less is misleading, ungracious and self-serving.

We've stood side-by-side with the Advertiser and other media on some First Amendment issues. In other cases we've had different interests and gone it alone.

We've chosen our legal battles carefully -- not only because they're expensive, but because we often face hostile courts that leave citizens even worse off in their right to know about official business.

Our best weapon in fighting government secrecy is not the courts, but our power to expose unwarranted secrecy to the public and hold offending officials accountable.

In 1996, we ran a six-day series on the front page called "Locked Out" in which we bared the unprecedented level of official secrecy in Hawaii.

We showed how difficult it is for citizens here to find out what their government is doing, with the Sunshine Law and the Uniform Information Practices Act gutted by legislators every session.

The series won widespread recognition -- nationally with the Scripps Award for service to the First Amendment and locally with the Society of Professional Journalists top award for public service. We donated the $2,500 prize from the Scripps award to a coalition formed by community groups and news organizations to fight for open government.

We followed up the series by making open government a reporting beat.

When we recently received a reply from the Office of Information Practices nine years after we asked about the availability of police accident reports, we could have sued over the delay and waited nine more years for a result.

But instead I used this column to bring the matter to the public's attention.

It got Gov. Ben Cayetano's attention. He first sent me an annoyed reply and then we started a dialogue that may lead to a meaningful review of OIP's woeful backlog of cases. I believe the governor is acting in good faith and like the chances for a good outcome better than if we had gone to court.

If the Star-Bulletin goes down, Jeffrey Portnoy may well corner the market on legal fees for First Amendment cases. But despite his misrepresentation of our record, the community will lose -- and sorely miss -- one of its strongest voices for open and ethical government.

Shutdown announcement
Kay issues preliminary injunction
Text of injunction halting shutdown
Text of refusal to lift injunction
Emergency stay denied

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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