Sunshine Week, Stormy Weather
It’s Sunshine Week—the annual celebration of freedom of information brought to you by the American Society of News Editors—but unfortunately the forecast is for stormy weather ahead. Everywhere, it seems, public access to information is under fire. Journalism is besieged by charges of “fake news.” Newspapers are closing at record rates. Government secrecy is on the upswing. Freedom of information requests—a critical tool in the fight for transparency and accountability in public life—are increasingly delayed, denied and disparaged.
The Great Recession and the creative destruction brought by technological change has resulted in the closure of almost 1,800 newspapers in the last fifteen years. But digital media will fill the information gap from all those vanishing publications, right?
Wrong. Not even close. In the decade ending in 2017, notes former Sacramento Bee executive editor Joyce Terhaar, citing a study by the Pew Research Center, “roughly 32,000 newspaper journalist jobs evaporated and only 6,000 were created by digital news startups.” The Pew report is grim tidings for the newspaper industry. Read it here.
Federal and state freedom of information laws are at the heart of the fight for transparency in government. But here, too, the news is bad. “The United States government is bigger than ever and the most secretive in recent memory,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told Congress in 2017.
We should know. Judicial Watch is the nation’s top filer of Freedom of Information requests in the Nonprofit/Advocacy Group category, according to the FOIA Project of Syracuse University. By the way, we also outstrip every news organization in filing lawsuits to obtain government records.
We’ve learned from long experience that lawsuits are the key to sunshine success. Freedom of information requests are dragged out for months and years, or simply ignored. That’s much more difficult to do when a judge gets involved.
The investigative website ProPublica published a litany of FOIA horror stories that gets to the heart of how governments game the transparency crisis to their advantage.
“Local, state and federal agencies alike routinely blow through deadlines laid out in law or bend them to ludicrous degrees, stretching out even the simplest requests for years,” ProPublica reported. “And they bank on the media’s depleted resources and ability to legally challenge most denials. Many government agencies have gutted or understaffed the offices that respond to public records requests. Even when agencies aren’t trying to stymie requests, waits for records now routinely last longer than most journalists can wait — or so long that the information requested is no longer useful. This, in turn, allows public agencies to control scrutiny of their operations.”
Federal FOIA requests continue to grow, with more than 800,000 received in 2017. Officials anticipate 2018 will break new records.
States and cities also grapple with rising requests and absurdly low staffing at offices tasked to respond. In many large New York City agencies, reports the investigative website City Limits, “only a handful of people are dedicated to the task of complying with Freedom of Information Law requests.” New York has a population of 8.6 million and an annual budget of $89 billion. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has signaled his open contempt for the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
For more on Sunshine Week, take the City Limits survey of FOIL in New York here. Read more from the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press here, and from our friends at MuckRock, who have a sunnier view of the current situation, here.
As for Judicial Watch, we prefer a revolutionary approach to transparency and accountability. Tom Fitton noted in his 2017 testimony on Capitol Hill that “Congress should apply the freedom of information concept to itself and the courts, the two branches of the federal government exempt from the transparency laws that presidents and executive agencies must follow.”
Now that’s really how you let the sunshine in.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: [email protected]
Investigative Bulletin is published by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: [email protected]