New media, advocates, corporate interests replacing newspapers in fight for government info
[Editors: A longer version of this article is also available.]
By KEVIN JOHNSON and KEVIN G. HALL
USA Today/McClatchy Newspapers
Washington – Newspapers were once the dominant force in dislodging documents and other records from reluctant federal government agencies, but a new crop of media players, advocacy groups and corporate interests now drive the release of information.
The Freedom of Information Act of 1966 was first envisioned as a tool for traditional media to seek documents, data and information they deemed important to public interest. It also was meant to allow ordinary Americans to seek information from the federal government about themselves.
Nearly a half-century later, news organizations continue to paper federal agencies with written and electronic requests for records and other information under FOIA, a review of agency logs shows, though they are cash strapped and less likely to press their claims in court.
Meanwhile, over the past decade there’s been a surge of requests from bloggers, advocacy groups, corporate lawyers, researchers and even foreign nationals tapping the promise of open records.
It means that the information obtained under FOIA may reach the public in a raw, less contextual form, or through a particular political prism. Or it may not reach the public at all.
Another upshot: Government offices say they are overwhelmed with requests.
“We’re pushing three-quarters of a million” annually, said Fred J. Sadler, who retired recently after four decades in FOIA operations at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “You just don’t have enough resources.”
A recent review of thousands of federal court records conducted by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found that traditional media organizations were filing fewer lawsuits challenging federal government secrecy than in past years.
Separately, Syracuse researchers found last year that more federal FOIA lawsuits – 422 – were filed in fiscal year 2014 than in any year since 2001. The report found that The New York Times was the only so-called “legacy’’ news organization to have brought several federal lawsuits. Non-legacy suits came from ProPublica, Muckrock and Vice News.
One reason for the shift is that the modern-day digital newsroom thrives on immediacy.
“So much of news happens so quickly now, and unfortunately the process doesn’t,” said Adina Rosenbaum, an attorney with Public Citizen, a consumer-rights watchdog group.
Traditional media are also financially strapped, said Scott Hodes, a veteran FOIA attorney and publisher of the popular FOIA Blog.
“If it is a long-term project, the mainstream media doesn’t have the interest or necessarily the resources to play what I’d call the long game,” said Hodes.
That’s not a problem for conservative watchdog Judicial Watch. It filed about 45 federal FOIA-related lawsuits in 2014, said Michael Bekesha, an attorney for the group.
It dislodged from the Internal Revenue Service last year numerous documents tied to the inappropriate scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. It also won release of 42,000 pages of Department of Justice documents concerning the Fast and Furious scandal. That involved a botched federal gun-trafficking investigation that allowed hundreds of firearms to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartel enforcers.
“A lot of FOIA lawsuits stem from failure to respond for several months,” Bekesha said.
Part of the delay is the sheer volume of requests from non-media players, said Jason Leopold uses FOIA extensively to report on national security issues for the digital channel Vice News.
“I think the public is under the impression that journalists … make up the majority of FOIA requests, which isn’t the case,’’ said Leopold, who has more than a dozen lawsuits and about 1,000 FOIA request pending across government agencies. His earlier FOIA efforts into military detentions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, resulted in a detailed account of the 2012 death of Yemeni prisoner Adnan Latif.
The flood of information requests from non-media groups has, in some forums, slowed the release of documents sought by media organizations, said John Christie, editor and co-founder of the Pine Tree Watchdog, an online publication of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.
“When we’ve been slowed down in getting things, and it happened to me last summer, that was one of the reasons we were given,” Christie said.
The Pine Tree Watchdog generally taps pro bono attorneys when possible, and longingly recalls the days at Tribune Co. when he was told “just do it” when he needed to sue.
“We didn’t second-guess ourselves,” Christie recalled. “It’s not like we don’t sue. I’m sure we are doing less of it, because we don’t have the wherewithal we once had as an industry.”
Barbara Wall, vice president and senior associate general counsel at Gannett Co. Inc., the nation’s largest newspaper chain, denies that newsrooms are backing off litigation.
Gannett news organizations, she said, brought more than 20 lawsuits across the country, some involving record requests and others seeking access to public meetings and court proceedings.
“These suits lead to important local stories,’’ she said, pointing to the Nashville Tennessean, which sued to get a 2013 story about how the state failed to account for the deaths of 25 children in state custody. “Most of these suits are filed in the state courts under state sunshine laws, and few draw national attention.’’