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It might deflate your confidence in the state of Texas to find that the people protecting your access to government information have their thumbs on the scale. That they’re playing favorites. That they put requests from their enemies on the slow track. Or that they advise the agencies who come to them for advice to act that way.
But that might be your takeaway from a remarkable 10-minute-21-second video of Marc Rylander, director of communications for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, talking to a crowd at an open government seminar put on by the AG’s office in San Marcos last month.
Rylander seems to be joking at the beginning of the video, but he’s persistent — what communications pros call “on message” — for the whole time. That message? He doesn’t trust the news media, and you shouldn’t, either.
He’s not alone in that sentiment, even in the communications business. But Rylander seemed to jump the tracks with his suggestion — delivered with a smile, but delivered without rebuttal — that the people in front of him could use their bureaucratic wiles to follow the state’s open information laws, which require responses to requests within 10 business days, as slowly as possible.
“Communications guys love it when reporters make a request and you all wait until the 23rd hour of the tenth day to send it back to them,” Rylander said. “So it all works out both ways, right?"
"I’m supposed to tell you not to do that,” Rylander said, laughing. “It depends on who the reporter is. Can we name names? I promised the attorney general I would not say anything bad about The Dallas Morning News, so I’m not gonna do it. I’m not gonna call any paper by name.”
It’s fair to say The Dallas Morning News has been particularly persistent, though certainly not alone, in reporting on criminal securities charges against Paxton, Rylander’s boss. And it’s fair to say that Rylander used his time on stage to punch back at the paper.
The Morning News got a copy of the video and wrapped a scathing editorial around it. Here’s a sweet little detail: The AG’s office shot the video in question, and Rylander’s office handled the open records request that put it in the paper’s hands.
On stage, Rylander spent several minutes ripping the news media, directing most of his wrath at newspapers in general and his local paper — he’s from the Dallas area — in particular. “You ask the question, what’s the one piece of advice you give on dealing with the media?” he said in response to a question. “Know who you’re dealing with. That’s it.”
He says he’s got a beef with the Dallas paper and that it doesn’t extend to everybody else he deals with in the press.
“As a public official, do you have an ethical responsibility to answer the media?” he said a little later, repeating a quiet question from somewhere in the room. “My answer to your question is yes, and absolutely, unless that reporter doesn’t have the ethical responsibility to report fairly and honestly. At that point, I’ll never talk to you again. Call the open records office.”
Rylander and the AG’s office are relatively responsive to requests for information, and Texas laws requiring government employees to give information to their masters — that would be the citizens of Texas — are better than the laws in most states. And the vast majority of information requests to the state government don’t come from the media. They come from citizens, companies, accountants, lawyers, you name it.
The problem with what Rylander said is really about who he was talking to when he said it. State agencies and local governments get their advice on how to treat requests for information from the state’s attorney general.
Railing at the news media is one thing. Telling a bunch of government officials how to stall out a request for information that belongs not to the government but to the public is another.
Listen to the last thing he said on the video: “The problem with our culture today is that journalists and reporters no longer have ethical responsibilities, but they demand everybody else does.”
We can settle that later, over a cup of coffee or a beer. But remember that first thing he said on the video, about running the clock and not delivering open records to requesters until the last minute.
“I’m supposed to tell you not to do that,” he said. “It depends on who the reporter is.”
Actually, it doesn’t — and in a conversation later, he made it clear that he knows that. But thanks to his presentation, a roomful of public officials have reason to think it does.