The amount of money the state of Alaska and news organizations are spending on the Sarah Palin e-mails — copying costs, shipping costs (or flight costs), man-hour costs, and opportunity costs — should inspire some skull-clutching. It’s all the more extravagant considering how much of the content has been redacted, how old the e-mails are and how long the government of Palin loyalist Sean Parnell had to cut out the juicy bits. But the whole fiasco could have been streamlined if Parnell’s people embraced the spirit of the state’s public records law and provided electronic copies of the e-mails rather than printing them out.
The Alaskan public records code recommends doing the opposite of what the governor’s office decided to do, though it doesn’t command it (emphasis mine):
A public agency may provide electronic services and products involving public records to members of the public. A public agency is encouraged to make information available in usable electronic formats to the greatest extent feasible.
So why, one might ask, did the Alaskan government turn thousands of e-mails into paper records, which news organizations have been busy scanning back into electronic form? The official line from the governor’s office is that “The state of Alaska doesn’t have the software to produce these electronically.” But it’s hard to imagine they don’t have a processing program as basic as, say, Microsoft Word, the skills to cut-and-paste and the ability to burn electronic documents onto easily reproducible CDs. (When TIME asked the governor’s press secretary Sharon Leighow about this possibility, she gave no explanation and said we should talk to the people who actually carried out the request. That office has not yet returned a call.)
Looking to the letter of the law, it’s hard to imagine anyone bold enough to argue that it was more “feasible” for the government workers to print and copy all these e-mails than to leave them in electronic form. It was, however, much, much more costly for everyone involved. And this logical conundrum pushes us toward a more cynical answer: that they turned them into paper copies simply because they could.
Public records guru Charles Davis, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, imagines the mentality thus: “We’re going to produce paper records, and the paper’s going to cost you more money, it’s going to take up more physical space, and it’s going to be less useful to you. But that’s what the law says we can do, so we’ll do it.”
Though the process wasn’t Sarah Palin’s call, it does fall in line with her make-the-media-earn-it mentality. Palin declined to provide the press with a schedule of stops during her recent bus tour and told Greta Van Susteren that the media should “have to do a little bit of work.” It seems Parnell has taken that page out of the Palin playbook.