Rise of the ‘FOIA terrorist’

Normally, I would just link to this type of piece in my weekly “must read” FOI story round up, but I wanted to draw extra attention to a recent article in Medium about Jason Leopold, the self-proclaimed “FOIA terrorist.”

The author, Jason Fagone, writes in his piece (one of the best long-form narrative stories I’ve read in a while) that he first learned of Jason Leopold through Twitter, as did I. Anyone following the #FOIA hashtag would be hard pressed to miss him. Many major stories broke as a direct result of his FOIA requests — The Abu Zubaydah Diaries.

… The military’s horrifyingly clinical description of how guards at Guantánamo are force-feeding prisoners on hunger strikes, and manuals describing how the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring Twitter for terrorist threats, and FBI records about the late investigative journalist Michael Hastings.

The story also recounts Leopold’s “dark past”: his struggles with substance abuse as well as his questionable ethics as a journalist at major news outlets. Having only been in the journalism world for three years, I was unaware of Leopold’s fall from journalism grace. But apparently after The New York Times’ David Carr wrote a story pointing out his mistakes in a major piece he published about Enron, Leopold thought his journalism career was over. Who wouldn’t?

One line that stuck out to me — when Leopold was explaining his questionable ethical decisions of bungling quotes, spelling mistakes, lying to sources about what was on and off the record:

“My whole thing was, I wanted to get at the truth by any means necessary,” he says.

I don’t know any journalists who couldn’t relate to that sentiment of wanting the truth that bad. Ethical decisions easily become clouded by those strong emotions. When you’re chasing down that big fish story, it’s hard not to get tunnel vision like Captain Ahab.

But he’s redeemed himself as far as I’m concerned.

Fagone writes, “Stories that praise Leopold’s FOIA scoops often refer to him not as a journalist but as an ‘activist.’”

I think that’s ridiculous. While the Freedom of Information Act is at the disposal of all people, no one utilizes it like a journalist (New hashtag? #FOIAlikeajournalist), or like Leopold does. And this is how he gets his stories now. No interviews. Just cold documents and hard facts.

Fagone writes:

The great thing about FOIA, for Leopold, was that it didn’t care about his past. It was just a law, an impersonal series of rules and procedures, inputs and outputs. There was hope in that.

Without giving away too many spoilers, one thing revealed is Leopold’s love for punk music, which makes sense. FOIA is the journalist’s version of a punk rock concert. The “in-your-face” attitude that comes with writing and submitting a FOIA request is akin to the thrill of being in a mosh pit, elbowing a drunk douchebag in the nose.

Above all, what I’m really happy to see is more FOIA advocacy. We could all benefit from having a Leopold in every newsroom.

On a final note, if Leopold reads this: Know that you’ve got at least one other FOIA soldier ready to do your bidding.

Mad props to Leopold, as well as Fagone and Medium, for publishing such an important story.

David Schick is the summer 2014 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern for SPJ,  reporting and researching public records and FOI issues. Contact him at dschick@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @davidcschick

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