Itâ€™s Sunshine Weekâ€”the annual celebration of freedom of information brought to you by the American Society of News Editorsâ€”but unfortunately the forecast is for stormy weather ahead. Everywhere, it seems, public access to information is under fire. Journalism is besieged by charges of â€œfake news.â€ Newspapers are closing at record rates. Government secrecy is on the upswing. Freedom of information requestsâ€”a critical tool in the fight for transparency and accountability in public lifeâ€”are increasingly delayed, denied and disparaged.
The Great Recession and the creative destruction brought by technological change has resulted in theÂ closure of almost 1,800 newspapersÂ in the last fifteen years. But digital media will fill the information gap from all those vanishing publications, right?
Wrong. Not even close. In the decade ending in 2017,Â notesÂ former Sacramento Bee executive editor Joyce Terhaar, citing a study by the Pew Research Center, Â â€œroughly 32,000 newspaper journalist jobs evaporated and only 6,000 were created by digital news startups.â€ The Pew report is grim tidings for the newspaper industry. Read itÂ here.
Federal and state freedom of information laws are at the heart of the fight for transparency in government. But here, too, the news is bad. â€œThe United States government is bigger than ever and the most secretive in recent memory,â€ Judicial Watch President Tom FittonÂ told CongressÂ in 2017.
We should know. Judicial Watch is the nationâ€™sÂ top filer of Freedom of Information requestsÂ in the Nonprofit/Advocacy Group category, according to the FOIA Project of Syracuse University. By the way, we alsoÂ outstrip every news organizationÂ in filing lawsuits to obtain government records.
Weâ€™ve learned from long experience thatÂ lawsuits are the key to sunshine success. Freedom of information requests are dragged out for months and years, or simply ignored. Thatâ€™s much more difficult to do when a judge gets involved.
The investigative website ProPublica published aÂ litany of FOIA horror storiesÂ that gets to the heart of how governments game the transparency crisis to their advantage.
â€œLocal, state and federal agencies alike routinely blow through deadlines laid out in law or bend them to ludicrous degrees, stretching out even the simplest requests for years,â€ ProPublica reported. â€œAnd they bank on the mediaâ€™s depleted resources and ability to legally challenge most denials. Many government agencies have gutted or understaffed the offices that respond to public records requests. Even when agencies arenâ€™t trying to stymie requests, waits for records now routinely last longer than most journalists can wait â€” or so long that the information requested is no longer useful. This, in turn, allows public agencies to control scrutiny of their operations.â€
Federal FOIA requests continue to grow, with more than 800,000 received in 2017. Officials anticipate 2018 willÂ break new records.
States and cities also grapple with rising requests and absurdly low staffing at offices tasked to respond. In many large New York City agencies,Â reportsÂ the investigative website City Limits, â€œonly a handful of people are dedicated to the task of complying with Freedom of Information Law requests.â€ New York has a population of 8.6 million and an annual budget of $89 billion. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has signaled hisÂ open contemptÂ for the stateâ€™s Freedom of Information Law.
For more on Sunshine Week, take the City Limits survey of FOIL in New YorkÂ here. Read more from the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the PressÂ here, and from our friends at MuckRock, who have a sunnier view of the current situation,Â here.
As for Judicial Watch, we prefer a revolutionary approach to transparency and accountability. Tom FittonÂ notedÂ in his 2017 testimony on Capitol Hill that â€œCongress should apply the freedom of information concept to itself and the courts, the two branches of the federal government exempt from the transparency laws that presidents and executive agencies must follow.â€
Now thatâ€™s really how youÂ let the sunshine in.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips:Â firstname.lastname@example.org
Investigative Bulletin is published by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries:Â email@example.com