First off, POTUS would be wise to get grammatically sharper in his prose. After all, if the New York Times “disgraced the media world,” that means it did something that put the rest of the media world to shame. You know, if X disgraces Y (insert football teams you know and I don’t), then X ain’t disgraced—Y is. That’s what his words mean, anyway.
Second, did the Times get him wrong for two years that were “solid” for him, or was the wrongness what was solid? When you’re slippery with words, it’s hard to tell what’s hard ground. Maybe “gotten me solidly wrong” for two years might’ve been a better way to say that.
But that’s just nitpicky (and childish) and everyone understood what Trump meant when he asked (as he does), “Change libel laws?”
Who should change them, howthey should change, whythey should change is all conveniently absent in this tweet. But details aren’t the point here. Details are just details, anyway. This isn’t a real question or a real concern or even a real thought. It’s an attack on the freedom of the press—freedom from a tyrannical tweeter set on turning the people against the press. But let’s not take any of this too seriously. It’s just a question, after all.
I have colleagues who’re much more well versed in press freedom than I am, so I asked them their thoughts on this tweet.
A difference of opinion on news or the quality of news does not suffice for a libel lawsuit. This is why we have the First Amendment.
Right, Trump isn’t going to be flipping over hardened American Constitutional law anytime soon, but he can definitely dig into the trench of the misunderstood POTUS, the one the media just won’t stop lying about. But again: not the point. To pro-Trump Twitter users, this might signify another call to arms against the “enemy of the American People”.
For a taste of what they think, I turn to a fun new subreddit I found recently: r/asktrumpsupporters, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Here are top comments from the post asking, regarding Trump’s tweet: “Are you worried about the first amendment?”
But we—and FOIA—are still here. The battle to defend access and the press is fought on many fronts. Some of them send back good news. Some bad. But this week, squeezed in among much smarter messages and write-ups and op-eds from men and women much wiser than me, I want to focus on a front I believe is underestimated: People give a shit about us and about journalism again.
And sure, (the President and) people are pissed at us. But it’s much easier to confront anger than it is indifference (ask anyone in any relationship, romantic, professional, or otherwise). I’d choose an accusatory, foaming mouth, fake-news-propaganda-illuminati finger from a reader over the apathy of a non reader anyday.
The onus is on us, of course, to gently point that finger down toward the copy, and repeat the truth (as best we know it). And repeat it. And repeat it. And repeat. Again. Again. Again. Truth tends to prove a monumental value to citizens of any country, even if alt facts momentarily distract some of them.
Americans know that journalism—solid, investigative, costly, subscription/ad/donation-based, unapologetic journalism—is the only way this democracy survives. Truth is freedom because lies enable enslavement. A dark government will master its people while an illuminated government usually fails at the endeavor.
Press freedoms and unhindered channels of access may come and go, but people will always want to know how the government is handling its part of the deal, the tried and tested taxation-for-representation deal. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’ll stay.
I’m not arguing FOIA fighters should sheathe their swords, or that any journos should stop pushing or caring or spitting or scuffling. On the contrary, it’s that fight I’m counting on in my optimism. The fight itself will enable its own survival. The struggle will save the long sinking institution. Its pulse will beat stronger, its blood will flow freer, its beams will burn brighter.
So to family and friends and colleagues who have accosted me recently with the question/statement what should the media do now? I answer: The same damn thing we do every day: Commit acts of journalism.
We’re not here to seek a world in which people blindly trust the media. We don’t want that world. We want readers who question everything, especially information. That’s why we attribute and prove, explain why a source is anonymous, link to documents, submit FOIA requests. We should earn trust with every story, with every line.
Journalism isn’t about arriving at absolutes—it’s about the everlasting journeytowards them. Again. And again. And again. Like captains exploiting the North Star, journalists should always reach toward truth longingly, knowing full well it’ll never actually rest within their grasp.
This Sunshine Week and in all the weeks and months and years ahead, keep shining, journos. (Most of) you are doing great, and (most of) the country is grateful for it, even if (some of) it’s being an asshole right now.
In the United States, a person ought to be able to obtain information from the federal government cheaply and quickly. It’s only fair — using our tax money, the government generates mountains of paper and electronic documents, so we should be able to get those records when we want them.
But it’s not always easy. The Freedom of Information Act, a law passed in 1966 that codifies our right to obtain government documents, isn’t perfect. And agency officials who are charged with ensuring compliance of the act aren’t perfect either. Reporters, researchers and other members of the public have shared horror stories aplenty regarding outrageous fees, years-long delays and outright refusals in response to requests for documents.
It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out.
After leaving the daily newspaper business to pursue independent reporting this year, I decided to put FOIA to the test by filing one request each weekday and charting the government’s responses. I also wanted to make all information obtained through the project available to the public for free, even if it costs me a scoop.
The project, titled One Freedom of Information Request a Day, was launched Jan. 9. So far, requests have been sent to agencies including the USDA, the EPA, the CDC, the Departments of Justice, Education and Homeland Security, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Pentagon and various branches of the military. A little more than two months in, I’ve seen signs of promise. But moreover, I’ve seen signs of trouble, such as:
Poor data management leading to exorbitant fees
Refusal of emailed requests; redirecting requests to a separate online FOIA portal
Coercive tactics to dissuade pursuit of FOIA
In the project’s most frustrating interaction yet, the Federal Aviation Administration estimated that complying with a request for airspace hazard notifications would cost $461,300 and would take five years to complete. The notifications, which are sent by the FAA to project developers when a proposed structure is judged to impede air traffic, are an important part of the work the FAA does. When I asked why access to the dataset is so expensive, an agency FOIA officer said that the requested documents are commingled with other, confidential documents, which means the records I want would have to be individually downloaded and saved.
Some agencies — most notably the FBI — have inexplicably stopped accepting emailed requests, insisting instead that requests be submitted via physical mail or fax. The agency did not announce this abrupt change in its FOIA policy until it was made public by a requester.
I had a similar experience when requesting documents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection regarding its detainment of people from Muslim-majority countries this year. The request was emailed to the agency’s general FOIA inbox, but an automated message sent later said the account was no longer accepting requests. Instead, I would need to submit the request through FOIAonline, it said. I asked a Department of Homeland Security official about this, and he said the change had occurred “a while ago.” A subsequent probe by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press found the change was never publicly announced.
I’m trying not to prejudge FOIAonline, which acts as the records clearinghouse for select federal agencies. Perhaps a centralized system for receiving requests and sending responses will make it easier to get records. But by its very nature, the system takes away some level of control requesters once had over their own requests and gives it back to the government.
During the course of this project, other agencies have sought to have FOIA requests droppedor delayed. After the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service was caught in a scandal by ordering its scientists to stop speaking to the public this year, I filed a request for an administrator’s emails. In short order, an agency FOIA officer called and said the USDA would give me a few responsive documents but would like to place the request on hold until I discussed the matter with a spokesman. I declined, finding later that the agency was only releasing documents that had already been leaked or otherwise released to the public.
In another encounter, the EPA implied that because some records responsive to a request I filed for pesticide exposure assessments were already publicly available, it might be in my best interest to drop the request or sharply narrow it. Agency officials on a conference call were incredulous when I insisted that they produce a cost estimate for providing the records, which is provided for under FOIA.
But the project hasn’t been all roadblocks and redirection — so far, I’ve obtained documents from the USDA, U.S. Navy and the U.S. Postal Service. And though I’m confident I’ll have more curveballs thrown my way, hopefully this will be a worthwhile exercise in democracy. Let me know if you have any ideas for future requests or ideas on how to make this project better. I want your input! Send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Twitter @collins_reports.
Christopher Collins is an independent, investigative journalist based in Abilene, Texas. His work has appeared in USA TODAY and Military Times and has been carried by The Associated Press, various daily newspapers and online news publications.
President Trump has already labeled major press outlets the “fake news media” and the “enemy of the people.” His administration has blocked major news outlets from a briefing because it didn’t like what they published.
With that in mind, the public should understand “censorship by PIO” at the federal level: For years, in many federal agencies, staff members have been prohibited from communicating with any journalist without notifying the authorities, usually the public information officers. And they often are unable to talk without PIO guards actively monitoring them.
Now, conversations will be approved or blocked by people appointed by the Trump Administration, some of them political operatives.
The information about the “administrative state” that impacts our lives constantly is under these controls. They also cover much of the data through which we understand our world and our lives.
In January, according to the Washington Post: “Trump called the government’s job numbers ‘phony.’ What happens now that he is in charge of them?”
Some of us may feel less comfortable with Trump people controlling this information flow. But actually a surge in these controls has been building in the federal government and through the U.S. culture for two decades or more.
In many entities, public and private, federal, state, and local those in power decree that no one will talk to journalists without notifying the PIO. Congressional offices even have the restrictions.
They are convenient for bosses. Under that oversight staff people are unlikely to talk about all the stuff that’s always there, outside of the official story.
Beyond that, PIOs often monitor the conversations and tell staff people what they may or may not discuss. Frequently agencies and offices delay contacts or block them altogether. An article on the Association of Health Care Journalists website, advising journalists about dealing with the Department of Health and Human Services, says, “Reporters rarely get to interview administration officials…”
Remember, those HHS people journalists can’t talk to are at the hub of information flow on what works and doesn’t with Obamacare, Medicare, and Medicaid. Or they know whether there are other perspectives on the numbers the agency publishes. Not to speak of the understanding about food and drugs, infectious disease, and medical and health policy research. Many of them could quickly stun us with the education they could give, if they were not gagged.
Another fact that gives pause is these restraints are just for journalists. There are no special rules or offices to stop staff people from having fluid communication with lobbyists, special interest groups, contractors, people with a lot of money, etc.
We wonder how former Obama officials feel now about their medications, given that FDA officials can’t talk without Trump controls.
But is it ever even rational to just believe staff people who are under such coercion?
Some journalists –- given our proclivity for believing we always get the story — profess to not be concerned about the PIO controls, saying people on the inside will leak. But do we have any sense of how often that happens? Do we have a 75-percent perspective on an entire agency, or a 2-percent? Nobody leaked when EPA staff people knew that kids in Flint were drinking lead in water or when CDC had sloppy practices in handling bad bugs.
Meantime, we have much more to worry about than just the gagged feds. In surveys sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, over half of political and general assignment reporters around the country said their interviews must be approved at least most of the time. Seventy-eight percent said the public is not getting the information it needs because of barriers imposed on reporting and 73 percent said the controls are getting tighter.
Education and science reporters cited similar controls.
Perhaps most chillingly, 56 percent of police reporters said they can never or rarely interview police officers without involving a PIO.
Almost 80 percent of police PIOs said they felt it was necessary to supervise or otherwise monitor interviews with police officers. Asked why, some PIOs said things like: “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.”
However, people in power characterize it, censorship is a moral monstrosity. It leaves people on the inside to control information with their own ideas and motivations. It debilitates all of us with a lack of understanding or, just as bad, skewed information. It takes away trust in our systems. It puts democracy itself in question.
Understandably in shock at President Trump’s attacks on the press, some feel these PIO controls are not a primary priority. Actually, this era makes it clearer than ever why we don’t need to leave these networks of controls to people in power.
Kathryn Foxhall, currently a freelance reporter, has written on health and health policy in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. Email her at email@example.com.
“In lieu of its popular email service, the FBI suggests sending a fax or snail mail, a procedural change that has more to do with obstructing the law than a dearth of resources.”
Exactly the thought that crossed more than a few journalists’ minds, I’m sure.
So, what was/is wrong with the FBI’s eFOIPA process?
For one thing, as SPJ FOI Committee member Jonathan Peters pointed out in a tweet, it has normal business hours: 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. As Jonathan asked: Why?
For another, the portal’s landing page contains a “terms of service” agreement. Until Tuesday, it noted that only certain types of requests would be handled through the online request system. All other requests would be handled by fax or paper.
Portal requests would not be accepted for agency emails and other documents. Requesters could submit only one request per day and one request per submission. The portal also limited requests to 3,000 characters.
All of those restrictions would seem to violate the intent and spirit of the FOIA. They also lend supporting evidence to those who believe the FBI is less interested in following the law and more invested in obstructing those who would use it.
The Daily Dot’s Andrew Couts and Dell Cameron reported Tuesday afternoon that the FBI was removing its restrictions and would accept all requests via the eFOIPA portal. The agency also said the portal would operate 24 hours a day.
But that still leaves the “terms of service” agreement, which you have to check in order to proceed with a request. Why? Why not just provide notes/warnings/what have you and let it go at that?
Once past the “terms of service,” the requester is greeted with a number of personal questions – address, phone number and a few others that seem unnecessary. In fact, the FBI said in a statement Tuesday that the phone number was only required during testing of the system.
Indeed, the agency told The Daily Dot that it’s had the portal under development for two years. It says on the landing page that the latest iteration is the second beta test, prior to the March 1 public release.
I suggest the FBI hold off and get a developer who understands what users want and need in a government-agency interface.
Oregonian journo Bethany Barnes argues a 2015 indie-favorite album is about public records requests and not about love.
Maybe she’s right or maybe she’s alternatively factualizing to make her case in a post-truth sense.
I think it’s best to let you decide..
Death Cab For Cutie’s Latest Album is About Love—of FOIA
By Bethany Barnes
Death Cab For Cutie is an indie rock band known for songs that chronicle love stories fueled by cynicism and passion. So it was only a matter of time before they released an album about records requests.
I recently got around to listening to Death Cab’s latest album and I think there’s a case to be made that it’s a soulful tribute to transparency.
For starters, it’s called Kintsugi. Kintsugi, as I learned from a quick Google search, is a Japanese pottery technique used to make new art by fusing together broken pieces. Conceptually, Kintsugi is about embracing something broken to find beauty. Anyone who has filed a records request can consider themselves a practitioner of the same art form.
We know the Freedom of Information Act is both beautiful and broken. Don’t take my word for it, just read this take from the government on the matter: “FOIA Is Broken: A Report”
Not that I need to convince this audience, but for proof of what’s heart-stopping about public records, consider how the Fort Worth Star-Telegram won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The paper’s investigation exposed how a helicopter design flaw killed 250 US servicemen.
A gem from the story behind that story, as told by Roy J. Harris Jr. in his excellent book “Pulitzer’s Gold”:
“Can you tell me about these accidents?” Thompson asked.
“No I can’t,” White responded.
“Well, what if I sent a FOIA?” the reporter followed up.
“I’ve been waiting years for somebody to ask that.”
That reporting saved lives. The deadly flaw wasn’t unknown; it was just that nobody fixed it until the press got involved. Military records showed that.
Emotional stuff, public records. That’s why it makes perfect sense that Death Cab, once described as “one guitar and a whole lot of complaining,” would inevitably make an entire album’s subject freedom of information.
Let’s look at the lyrical evidence:
“I don’t know why/I don’t know why/I return to the scenes of these crimes” — Song: “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”
You can’t stop thinking about that police brief you read the other day. You’ve got a hunch, so you file a request for the police reports.
“You’re always out of reach when I’m in pursuit/Long winded then suddenly mute” — Song: “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”
Clearly an ode to a records officer.
“And I’ve got nowhere to go except further below/So I keep digging/And it gets darker everyday/But I see no other way than just committing.” — Song: “Everything’s A Ceiling”
The point in the investigation when you start muttering to yourself, “Follow the money!”
“Zeros and ones, patterns appear/They’ll prove to all that we were here/For if there is no document/We cannot build our monument” — Song: “Binary Sea”
Obviously a conversation about why you need to talk to the IT person and not the spokesperson about exporting the database in a machine-readable format.
“And so I wait but I never seem to learn/How to capture your diminishing returns” — Song: “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life”
When the redactions get heavier with each subsequent request.
“You’ll never have to hear the word “no”/If you keep all your friends on the payroll/The non-disclosure pages signed/Your secret’s safe between those lines” — Song: “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)”
When the agency has denied your records request and you must explain why the public interest demands disclosure.
“I don’t know why, I don’t know why/I don’t know what I expect to find/Where all the news is second hand/And everything just goes on as planned” — Song: “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive”
When the agency’s spokesperson doesn’t understand why you won’t just say which exact record you want and you sigh and say, “But I haven’t seen the records because you won’t let me see them. I can’t ask for something if I don’t know it exists. They are your records and I don’t know how you keep them. That’s why I’m asking.”
“Darling, don’t you understand/That there are no winners/Or medals hung from silken strands/To greet you at the finish/As we’re dissolving into the sea/I can only take what I can carry/As the counsel’s combing through our debris/For the treasures we never buried” — Song: “Hold No Guns”
When the spokesperson is breaking the bad news to officials that the agency’s general counsel is reviewing your records request and will soon produce damning documents.
“And there’s a dumpster in the driveway/Of all the plans that came undone” — Song: “Black Sun”
Corrupt officials have heard about your request and they’re not taking it well.
“There’s a long, slow fade/To a darkened stage/And I hear you say/’Only a fool gives it away’ — Song: “Good Help (Is So Hard To Find)”
The agency has asserted that it is allowed to charge “reasonable fees.” The fees are not reasonable.
“Seems you finally found, finally found El Dorado/So why does it feel underwhelming, barely real?” — Song: “El Dorado”
El Dorado is a pet name for The Documents. Clearly.
“And it’s such a hard thing to do/So take all you can” — Song: “Ingene”
When you’ve negotiated to inspect the records in person so must take as many photos of them with your phone as you can because this might be your only chance.
“No room in frame/For two” — Song: “No Room in Frame”
You have the records, you’ve found proof of wrongdoing, you’ve written the story—your editor urges you to focus. It is time to cut out some hard-won details. Can’t bog down the narrative.
“So lean in close or lend an ear/There’s something brilliant bound to happen here” — Song: “Binary Sea”
The investigation is done. It’s on today’s front page. You’re at your desk and the phone rings. On the line is someone who just read your story. She’s calling to tell you you can get even more records.
Sure, maybe the album is about a romance. But I like to think Ben Gibbard, Death Cab’s frontman, is telling us about the power and poetry found in the pursuit of public records. After all, the band’s most famous single is “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”
Isn’t that what every journalist must do to shed light?
Bethany Barnes is a journalist at The Oregonian. Before taking her records requests to Portland, she spent three years in Las Vegas (Also the subject of a Death Cab song. See “Little Bribes”) and in 2016 was named Nevada’s Outstanding Journalist.
Over the last 20 years there’s been a surge in government offices and other employers prohibiting staff from ever speaking with journalists unless they first ask the public information officer or some person in management.
In addition to the surveillance factor that silences employees about most anything the bosses would not like, the policies often cause massive delays and officials frequently deny interview requests outright. Or they sit in on interviews or do other obstruction or manipulation.
SPJ has a good picture of this now. Carolyn Carlson of Kennesaw State University has now done seven surveys on behalf of the organization and they show a national culture interlaced with censorship. Most reporters who cover federal agencies say they must get PIO approval to interview agency employees and most say the public is not getting all the information it needs because of such restrictions. Forty percent of public agency PIOs say they block specific reporters because of “problems with their stories in the past.”
State and local, science and education reporters confirm the same kinds of problems.
Particularly chilling, most police reporters say they can rarely or never talk to a police officer without involving a PIO. And police PIOs say they must monitor interviews for reasons like, “To ensure that the interviews stay within the parameters that we want.”
What should journalists do?
Most importantly, go after the “Censorship by PIO” like the deep corruption it is. Any entity that prohibits people from communicating except when they notify the authorities is keeping information from the public. And that’s a misallocation of resources as serious as any other we investigate. It also creates an opacity that’s fertile ground for malfeasance and an unconscionable conflict of interest allowing officials to strangle investigation of their actions.
Investigate how long has it been happening in your area. Why do officials feel they have a right to do this? How often are delays and blockages happening? What about the fact that many times staff have tipped reporters off to serious issues? Are officials trying to stop that process?
Home in on one incident or series of nonresponses. Who in the food chain said a staff person could not speak? What was withheld? What were the power plays and the political motivations?
Ask why the public should trust official reasoning like, “We have to coordinate the story. We just want to know what is going on. We need to tell reporters the right person to talk to.”
Explain it to the public. It’s not “inside baseball.” It’s the public’s business. If you don’t feel you can write an unbiased news story, make it an editorial.
Explain it when it happens. Don’t just say, “XYZ agency declined to make an expert available.” Say, “XYZ agency prohibits all employees from speaking to the press about anything unless they notify the press office. It often denies such interviews. The PIO did not explain why experts could not speak to this reporter.”
Collaborate with journalists, news organizations and journalism groups on resistance. When agencies hold press conferences or briefings have reporters take turns asking why journalists can’t speak to people in the agency without the PIO guards. And report the response.
Don’t kid yourself that your great reporting skills get you all you need to know. We have no right to take that risk. Millions of employees have been told to shut up. So chances are good some silenced staff people—including those you talked to after going through the PIO—could blow your award-winning story out of the water. Or educate you about the mind-blowing stories you don’t have a clue about.
Remember that journalists’ acquiescence to “Censorship by PIO” is just as dangerous as the worst thing it will keep covered up. For instance, the press did hundreds of stories that CDC and FDA handed out over the last couple of years. But with PIO guards on us, we didn’t get—and probably could never have gotten—the fact that there were not strong, consensus guidelines for Ebola containment in place and there was a storeroom for pathogens that hadn’t been inventoried in decades (the one that contained smallpox).
Remember that likely the biggest reason we can’t do anything about these restraints is that journalists keep saying we can’t do anything about them.
In the meantime, as we fight the policies, we are obliged to use all techniques possible to undermine the blockages. For that:
Rely on PIOs as little as possible. Get away from PIO and agency oversight whenever you can, including during routine reporting. Many people will say something different away from the guards. Find out for yourself who you should talk to. Analyze staff listings, hearings and meeting agendas. Ask outside source people who in the agency works on the issue. Use search engines and literature searches to pinpoint who in an agency spoke or wrote on an issue. Then study the hierarchy to understand their position in it and other people close to them you might talk to.
Contact people directly and tell them you want to talk to them, even if you have to contact the PIO also. Sometimes the internal expert will advocate for the interview.
Interview outside sources and then contact the inside source persons in hopes they will want to respond to what you know.
When you talk to a source person, even if the PIO is listening in, ask who outside the agency is working on the issue. The source person may mention an interest group or person that the agency is actually talking to.
Consider holding the source person, particularly if they are an official, responsible: “Mr. Doe did not respond to attempts to contact him.” They should be responsive even if agency cultural norm is to hide behind the PIO.
Keep a running descriptive list of responses and nonresponses and hold agency leadership and elected officials accountable. Consider keeping the list on the web.
At least occasionally, do a series of incessant follow-ups. I contacted CDC about newborn circumcision 20 times as PIOs repeatedly refused to let me talk to their experts. Then I wrote a press release about it. Let your audience know what subjects the agencies are blocking information on.
Go to obscure meetings or sessions. Speakers sometimes forget reporters could be there. If possible, sign in as a member of the public, not as press.
Regularly give agency staff every possible way to contact you.
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the IRE Journal.
Kathryn Foxhall, currently a freelance reporter, has written on health and health policy in Washington, D.C., for over 40 years, including 14 years as editor of the newspaper of the American Public Health Association. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to Zaid’s site, he’s an expert in defending “former, current, and prospective civilian federal employees, defense contractors, members of our active duty and reserve military, and journalists, particularly when they are threatened by the overshadowing spectre of national security.”
Of course, consider the risk. At this point, if you sue Trump, he may sue you back (and/or stick his tongue out at you)—or throw you in jail.
A North Georgia newspaper publisher was indicted on a felony charge and jailed overnight last week – for filing an open-records request.
Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason, along with his attorney Russell Stookey, were arrested on Friday and charged with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud. Thomason was also accused of making a false statement in his records request.
Here’s AJC’s nut graph:
Thomason was charged June 24 with making a false statement in an open-records request in which he asked for copies of checks “cashed illegally.” Thomason and Stookey were also charged with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud because they did not get Weaver’s approval before sending subpoenas to banks where Weaver and another judge maintained accounts for office expenses. Weaver suggested that Thomason may have been trying to steal banking information on the checks.
Thomason Speaks at SPJ Region 3’s MediAtlanta
Thomason told his story at Region 3’s annual conference, dubbed MediAtlanta, on Oct. 29—you can watch the whole thing above. He’s in the center, to his left SPJ Georgia president-elect Dan Whisenhunt, to his right Kennesaw State University Professor and FOI Committee member Carolyn Carlson. Video by Nydia Tisdale.
You can read SPJ Georgia board member Julius Suber’s review of the event here.
Georgia Citizen Journalist Facing Criminal Charges for Recording Public Meeting
By Dori Zinn
Nydia Tisdale showed up to record a Georgia Republican Party campaign rally at Burt’s Pumpkin Farm in Dawsonville on Aug. 23, 2014.
A little bit into her recording, she was forcibly removed by a police officer, even after admitting she had received permission to be at the public gathering by one of the property owners. In the video, you can hear her crying, “Help! Help! Help!” and shouting at the officer, “Identify yourself!” and “Let go of me!” She demanded his name and badge number. He refused to give it to her. He forced her out of the public meeting area into an empty barn, bending her over a countertop and pressing his groin against her backside, leaving her with bruises and emotional distress long after her arrest.
It wouldn’t be until later, when two other officers arrive, that the officer gives Tisdale his name: Dawson County Sheriff’s Office Captain Tony Wooten.
Tisdale was arrested and her video camera was confiscated. Later that day, she was charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass and obstruction of an officer, a felony. Shortly after midnight, she was released on bond and five days after that, she got her camera back.
How did she get here?
This isn’t Tisdale’s first recording. In fact, Tisdale has set up her camera for years, recording hundreds of public meetings across northern Georgia. To date, she’s been recording public meetings across the state, totaling almost 900 videos in six years.
Tisdale doesn’t even call herself a reporter. “A reporter is employed,” she says. “Once they don’t have a job, they become a journalist.”
She may have a different view of what a “reporter” is, but her work is many, many acts of journalism.
“I call myself a video journalist or citizen journalist. Really, just a single woman with a camera,” she says. “No one is dictating to me what to cover and what not to cover.”
In 2009, she was working as a property manager when there was a proposed landfill near the zoning of the property she was managing at the time.
“I was very involved in researching everything I could about the project, and I discovered over time that it wasn’t compliant with state law,” she says.
Eventually, the applicant withdrew his application, but that didn’t stop Forsyth County, where the proposal was set, from misleading the public into believing a landfill would be put there.
Tisdale went to the county meetings, speaking out against the proposal. Even after the landfill fight was over, she met with the county officials to point out all the mistakes they made, including taking advantage of the applicant, who was out tens of thousands of dollars in engineer fees, attorney fees, and paying the county.
“I’m a layperson, I don’t have a degree in this, I’m not a planner,” Tisdale says. “How come I can find these mistakes and all these people that are paid to do it can’t find these mistakes?”
Eventually, the city planner was fired. It was then that Tisdale realized sharing information from public meetings and open forums was important to her.
“With news media shrinking staff, local government isn’t being covered,” she says. “Citizen journalism fills in that gap.”
Tisdale used to easily put 80 to 100 miles on her car a day covering a meeting. She can get around the state if she chooses, but typically stays in north Georgia. Early on, she would record three meetings a day if they were in the same location, but now she goes to about two to three meetings a week.
It’s not limited to one type of meeting, either. She’ll go to city council meetings, county commission meetings, republican and democrat meetings, citizen forums, debates, and literally anything that is open to the public that informs citizens and voters.
When she arrives at whatever meeting she’s going to, she’ll get some shots of the building or the area around where the meeting is being held. Then she’ll record the meeting in its entirety. “Gavel to gavel,” she says.
From there, she edits very little of her actual recording. She indexes her videos, so if you want to skip ahead to a certain part, it’s easy. Sometimes, if one part is more meaningful than the rest, she’ll make an excerpt of it.
“I give the full context and speech,” she says. “It’s unfiltered and without commentary.”
While Tisdale has been hired to film some public meetings, she doesn’t normally get paid. But she does have a PayPal donation option on her website, AboutForsyth.com. Journalism isn’t her primary source of income, but it occupies as much time as a full-time journalism job.
When she started attending meetings and realized they weren’t compliant with Georgia Sunshine Laws, she’d complain to the city, county, or whatever body was in charge of that meeting. Now she carries around a copy of it to every meeting she attends, sometimes handing out copies to other people.
Despite her solid six years and 900 videos, this is her first time facing jail time for recording open meetings.
What’s happening now?
Tisdale’s original 2014 charges — a misdemeanor criminal trespass and a felony obstruction of an officer — got an additional obstruction of an officer charge, this time as a misdemeanor, bringing her total to three. She was indicted on Nov. 16, 2015 in Dawson County, but not before giving an ante litem notice — an intent to sue — on Aug. 20, 2015 to everyone involved in the 2014 arrest, including: Dawson County, the Sheriff’s office, the three officers that arrested Tisdale, and Johnny and Kathy Burt of Burt’s Farm, among others.
She was formally arraigned this year on March 15 and filed her federal lawsuit against the three officers that arrested her on May 9, including Officer Tony Wooten. On Aug. 22, she made a complaint to Dawson County about Wooten’s physical abuse during her arrest and an incident report was made the next day, alleging sexual assault. Wooten resigned from the Dawson County Sherriff’s Office the same day.
In early October, Tisdale had a pre-trial motions hearing in her criminal case, but no judgment has been made.
Jail time may be pending for Tisdale, but she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
“I really enjoy what I do. It’s a passion,” she says. “Any event that’s worth remembering, I usually have a camera and I record it.”
Dori Zinn is a full-time freelance journalist based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Her work has been featured in MoneyTalksNews.com, Realtor.com, Fort Lauderdale Magazine, South Florida Gay News, and others.