It’s a huge story.
Almost every journalist knows about it.
Yet, the state of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) compliance doesn’t get much regular coverage.
Not-so-slowly the government is systematically winnowing down access to documents about the work it does in the name of we, the people.
Year over year, it’s getting worse. And why, I wonder, is this story disregarded as not important enough to tell more often to our audiences?
- “[President] Bush was bad. [President] Obama is worse” about FOIA requests said Kathleen Carroll, senior vice president and executive editor of The Associated Press in 2014.
- “FOIA is broken,” is a 40-page report released in January by the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It outlines a systematic disregard for the FOIA. The investigation concludes the White House encourages secrecy and the Justice Department is blind to the situation.
- “The White House is removing a federal regulation that subjects its Office of Administration to the Freedom of Information Act, making official a policy under Presidents Bush and Obama to reject requests for records to that office,” wrote USA Today’s Gregory Korte. For 30 years, this office released documents such as White House emails and White House logs. But after a suit filed in 2007 trying to keep these emails open and fought by both the Bush and Obama administrations, it is now changed. See, it is a bipartisan effort.
The White House timing is particularly insensitive as this is Sunshine Week, a time to highlight government transparency in democracy.
Here in Chicago, journalists celebrated Sunshine Week Saturday with the #FOIAFest 2016, sponsored by the Chicago Headline Club and the Better Government Association (BGA).
Andy Shaw, who heads the BGA, kicked off the day, putting it this way: “The lifeblood of journalism are documents. … You can’t assess what you can’t see.” He added that providing those documents should be “a critical part of government.”
Agreed. Excellent way to put it.
But if providing the documents is such a critical part of government, then isn’t it just as important to tell the story of compliance?
Isn’t it just as vital to keep track of the denials and the delays? It seems a crucial story not just during Sunshine Week, but every day of the year.
How many news outlets cover FOIAs as a beat, reporting on the average days it takes to fill requests, rating agencies for compliance and helping us understand the gulf between what we think is private and how government defines the term?
This is not as complex as it sounds. This could easily be a weekly column produced by AP about federal delays and localized by the state bureaus. There is, unfortunately, more than enough information to go into this — even if it is just a series of briefs. Perhaps, the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan organization whose purpose is to make government transparent and accountable, could take the lead.
The Illinois Press Association has been a rock star in improving and upgraded Illinois FOIA. It would seem right for it to continue by coordinating the story of compliance.
And each news outlet could tell its own story. Every reporter knows how many FOIA requests he or she has filed and how long the documents are in the pipeline. It could be a simple graphic, call it, “FOIA Watch,” as simple as this:
In actuality, the majority of FOIAs don’t come from news outlets. They come from everyday people who don’t have the clout of a news organization or a legal team to help. Shouldn’t we be watching out for their requests as well as our own?
Sunshine Week is about making sure that government isn’t hiding its work. But maybe if we kept the light on a bit longer, we wouldn’t have to worry about government operating in the dark.
Susy Schultz is president of Public Narrative. This column is open source material. To reprint it for free, please call 312-369-6400 for permission.