Orlando Weekly by Dave Maass, Aaron Mackey, Camille Fischer and Haley Tsukayama
March 13, 2019
The cause of government transparency finally broke through to the popular zeitgeist this year. It wasn’t an investigative journalism exposé or a civil rights lawsuit that did it, but a light-hearted sitcom about a Taiwanese American family set in Orlando, Florida, in the late 1990s.
In a January episode of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, the Huang family’s two youngest children – overachievers Evan and Emery – decide if they sprint on all their homework, they’ll have time to plan their father’s birthday party.
“Like the time we knocked out two English papers, a science experiment, and built the White House out of sugar cubes,” Evan said. “It opened up our Sunday for filing Freedom of Information requests.”
“They may not have figured out who shot JFK,” Emery added. “But we will.”
The eldest child, teenage slacker Eddie, concluded with a sage nod, “You know, once in a while, it’s good to know nerds.”
Amen to that. Around the world, nerds of all ages are using laws like the United States’ Freedom of Information Act (and state-level equivalent laws) to pry free secrets and expose the inner workings of our democracy. Each year, open government advocates celebrate these heroes during Sunshine Week, an annual advocacy campaign on transparency.
But the journalists and researchers who rely on these important measures every day can’t help but smirk at the boys’ scripted innocence. Too often, government officials will devise novel and outrageous ways to reject requests for information or otherwise stymie the public’s right to know. Even today – 20 years after the events set in the episode – the White House continues to withhold key documents from the Kennedy assassination files.