Frosty Landon’s legacy: open government for all
Published 4:31 pm Tuesday, August 10, 2021
By the time I came to know Frosty Landon in 1989 or thereabouts, he was already a legend in Virginia journalism.
He had worked his way up the ladder at the Roanoke Times as an editorial writer and editor, had been booted down the steps again for editorially criticizing Virginia’s Massive Resistance to integration, and had then worked his way back up to become executive editor of that stalwart daily paper.
Under his leadership, the Times became a Pulitzer finalist three times and won numerous national and state awards.
But the greatest legacy of Forrest M. Landon, who died in July at age 87, reached far beyond his beloved Roanoke Valley and was largely written after his retirement in 1995.
As a working journalist, Frosty had seen firsthand the continuing struggle of both journalists and members of the public to obtain information about the day-to-day workings of government. And as a longtime member of the Virginia Press Association’s Board of Directors, including its president, he had worked alongside others lobbying members of the General Assembly to strengthen — or all too often not weaken — the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which is the statutory basis for Virginians’ access to local and state government.
In those days, legislators habitually told journalists who were lobbying a FOIA issue that they were the only people who cared about FOIA, that it had been enacted just for press access. Frosty and others, notably VPA Executive Director Ginger Stanley, knew otherwise. The general public has always relied on FOIA even more heavily than have working journalists, but legislators weren’t getting that message, or preferred to ignore it.
Changing that misperception became Frosty Landon’s personal mission in late life. He tore into the project with a zeal that would be the envy of many an evangelist. He worked closely with the Press Association, the Virginia Association of Broadcasters and the heads of Virginia’s largest newspaper and broadcast groups to create what would become an umbrella organization that would champion FOIA causes, not for journalists, but for all Virginians. He even obtained the blessing and guidance of two former governors, one a Republican and one a Democrat.
In 1996, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government was created. Its initial 65 members included newspapers, broadcasters, the Virginia Library Association, schools of journalism across the commonwealth and most of the state’s public broadcast organizations. That broad base was a direct result of Frosty Landon’s personal appeal on behalf of the project.
VCOG’s board of directors hired Frosty as the organization’s founding director and he took to the highway. With a license tag that read OPENGOV, he traveled to the far corners of Virginia, continuing to preach the benefits of VCOG to individuals, civic groups and anyone else who would listen.
Nor did he stop at the state line. He met with access activists from similar organizations in numerous states, gleaning ideas for strengthening Virginia’s organization and the state’s version of FOIA.
When the General Assembly ordered a full review of the FOIA statute in 1999, Frosty was there to lobby for yet another idea he had developed during his travels — creation of a state legislative advisory group to promote FOIA. He found an ally in Del. Chip Woodrum of Roanoke, who was chairing the study, and in 2000, the General Assembly created the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.
Frosty retired as VCOG’s director in 2006, and today the coalition is capably led by Megan Rhyne, who was hired by Landon for several projects and vigorously endorsed by him for the job that she assumed in 2008.
Today, Megan and the coalition continue to represent Virginians in their quest for governmental transparency. There are continuing challenges to access, and there always will be, for many government officials will always prefer to control rather than freely disseminate the public information they hold in trust.
But legislators today are far less likely to claim that FOIA is just a “press law,” thanks to the efforts of Frosty Landon and others who worked with him to create VCOG. Because of those efforts, Megan Rhyne can stand, as she repeatedly does, and stake a claim for governmental access on behalf of all Virginians. That appeal isn’t always heeded, but it’s always heard.
Thank you, Frosty.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.