The Freedom of Information Act has never been celebrated by those in power. After Congress passed it in 1966, LBJ signed it quietly at his Texas ranch. Even under President Obama, the federal government was loath to facilitate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They spent millions defending their reluctance in court. But Donald Trump has taken contempt for the public’s right to know to a whole new level.
The Trump Administration’s mishandling of coronavirus information, under pressure from the President, has exacerbated the growing public health crisis and reminded us of the importance of access to fact-based information for Congress, the news media, and the public. Just this week, Time Magazine reports, our National Director of Intelligence is withholding from the Intelligence Committee the worldwide threat assessment on our preparedness for a pandemic. For nearly four years, Trump’s lies and misrepresentations have thwarted the right to know essential to a democratic society. What remains is a dangerous lack of trust in our national government and confusion over what should be done.
Fallout from the President’s behavior gets worse when good reporters don’t stand up for each other. When Trump banned CNN from the annual White House pre state-of-the-union lunch for network anchors, it was disappointing that their colleagues in other media outlets failed to protest or even boycott the event. The loss of coverage at such cozy insider, off-the-record journalism, while insulting, isn’t that damaging. But it does reflect a wider problem.
Consider Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s barring NPR reporter Michele Keleman from traveling with the press covering his trip to the UK and Ukraine. (She was supposed to be the pool reporter for radio.) In that case, at least, the State Department Correspondents’ Association issued a letter of protest. But that was it. Trump praised Pompeo for “the good job” he (Pompeo) had “done on her.”
NPR was banished from the trip in retaliation for All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly’s pressing Pompeo on his coverage of former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovich. Trump and Pompeo routinely bully and disparage reporters intent on doing their jobs, even those who are respectful and professional. Any journalist who isn’t a fawning Fox sycophant is a likely target for such abuse. Serious reporters need to be more supportive of each other and of the profession, and more people need to value the Fourth Estate’s role in protecting the public’s right to know.
Which brings me to Sunshine Week, which starts on March 15th. It’s the annual collaboration started in 2005 by AP, Associated Press Media Editors and the American Society of News Editors, to call attention to the centrality of the free flow of information in a democratic society. March 16th is the anniversary of the birthday of James Madison, father of the Constitution and of its First Amendment. Sunshine – that is, transparency – is often said to be the best disinfectant.
The Trump administration takes pride in thumbing its nose at the concept of government accountability through public records disclosure, and selectively not allowing Administration members to testify before Congress. Remember also, Trump reneged on his promise to release his tax records, and obedient puppy Treasurer Steve Mnuchin refused a subpoena to provide them to Congress.
This isn’t just a federal problem. Examples abound of how governments at all levels routinely block people with legitimate requests for documents. The stonewalling ranges from claiming requested documents aren’t available, to creating loosely worded exemptions to render FOIA meaningless, to charging prohibitive amounts to copy pages, to redacting allegedly sensitive information so the pages are virtually all blacked out.
Supposedly enlightened Massachusetts traditionally led the nation in resistance to transparency. Finally, in 2017, the Bay State overhauled its 1973 public records law (the state’s version of FOIA) providing penalties for agencies that failed to respond in a timely way to request for information. The Secretary of State’s office has made significant improvements in responding to request for information. But a promising provision requiring agencies unlawfully denying requests pay attorney’s fees hasn’t worked out. And, except for executive branch agencies, key officials are not covered. A commission mandated to look at bringing the legislature, judiciary and governor’s office under the law has produced nothing.
Any citizen may ask for records, but it is primarily journalists who depend on FOIA requests to ferret out information benefiting the public. With an out-of-control President aggregating more and more power in disregard of the rule of law and contemptuous of normative behavior, an informed and independent Fourth Estate is more important than ever. During Sunshine Week and beyond, we must hold fiercely to the principle of the public’s right to know. We can’t be a responsible citizenry without better access to public information.