This is one of those times.
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
“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.