Archive for March, 2017


Truth is Freedom

There’s little more patriotic than seeking truth and reporting it.

The future of FOIA—hell, the future of press access of any kind—may seem murky. But hasn’t that always been the case? Lest we forget, Obama’s administration was rough on access in its own way. Acts like FOIA don’t just pass at the fancy of politicians. They are born of strife, raised by dissent, matured by demands.

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 journey towards 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.

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One FOIA Request a Day

This post from guest writer Christopher Collins is part of Sunshine Week.
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.

Strangely, the FAA offered to set me up with its database contractor, who said it could supply me with the requested documents for the low, low price of $4,275. I declined.

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.

Additionally, an emailed request seeking emails sent from the White House to the General Services Administration was similarly refused, citing the FOIAonline filing system.

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 collinsreports@gmail.com 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.

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PIO Censorship in the Era of Trump

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.

Fifty-three journalism and open government groups wrote to President Obama asking him to lift the mandate that PIOs be notified of contacts and the related restrictions in federal agencies. We met with people in the White House in 2015 to leave that message for the President. A year ago we pleaded in an editorial that Obama not leave these constraints in place, given the authoritarian rhetoric on the campaign trail and the fact no one can know how these controls will be used in one year or 20 years.

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 kfoxhall@verizon.net.

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