Monday, February 9, 2009

Letting the sun shine in

Guest-posted by Fraulein

In the early 1990s, fresh out of college, I began my career as a newspaper reporter. My career in the news business was pretty average--I toiled somewhat anonymously at a variety of weekly and daily papers, covering car accidents and fires, town council meetings and court hearings, parades and funerals and school board meetings. I worked for several years before my employer thought to invest in this crazy newfangled Internet thing. Once we got it, the whole concept was so alien to us that most of my colleagues avoided any attempt to do research on the Internet in favor of the reporting tools that had worked just fine for us up until that point--the telephone and the strength of our relationships with our sources.

But sources, no matter how solid, can only bring a reporter so far. When you're covering a complex issue of national import like, for example, proposed military base closings (which I wrote about extensively during this period) you inevitably run up against the limits of what your sources know--or what they're willing to tell you.

The Freedom of Information Act is a powerful tool that can be used by every reporter, whether at a lowly weekly or the New York Times, to shine light on issues of great importance to the public. FOIA requires federal agencies to release (with certain exceptions) requested non-classified information pertaining to the activities of the federal government. The request can come from any citizen, but reporters tend to rely on FOIA the most (even today, when the Internet has made it so much simpler for reporters to research most topics). The idea is to keep the government honest. So you can imagine what happened to FOIA under George W. Bush. As Leslie Harris wrote on Huffington Post:

For the last eight years, government agencies were encouraged to thwart FOIA requests twisting the broad language in the Act in favor of secrecy. Under Bush, FOIA restrictions were routine, often bizarre and sometimes outright laughable. For example, the names of drugs forced used on the prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay were withheld because releasing the information would be considered a violation of 'personal privacy.' Schedules of agency officials were deemed off-limits and information once widely available on the Internet, such as information about toxic chemical spills, essentially became invisible to scrutiny.

It's just another example of how Bush and his minions went out of their way to hide the extent of the damage they did to our country. Now, with Bush mercifully gone and Barack Obama running the show, FOIA has gotten a new lease on life. Obama has directed federal agencies to take FOIA requests seriously, in stark contrast to the obstructionism of the last eight years under the Republicans. The importance of this is hard to overstate. Imagine a government operating in the sunlight instead of skulking about in the shadows. It's a win not only for journalists, but for all of us.

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