We Are The Transparency Police

By Philip Eil

eilBy now, it’s clear the Obama Administration can’t be trusted to accurately describe its own transparency. The rhetoric simply doesn’t match the reality.

The president has claimed he’s running the “most transparent administration in history” and yet a host of news organizations — from the Atlantic, to Bloomberg Business, to The New York Times, to Slate, to the Columbia Journalism Review, to the Wall Street Journal — disagrees. And for good reason. This is an administration that spies on The Associated Press, prosecutes leakers with unprecedented zeal, breaks campaign promises about keeping high-stakes legislative processes public, and sets records for poor compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

I, unfortunately, am entangled in a perfectly emblematic case. I’m currently fighting — via an ongoing FOIA lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration — for access to evidence shown during a high-profile prescription drug-dealing trial that ended in May of 2011. That’s right, I’ve been denied access to materials that were presented in an open courtroom more than four years ago, and sent a man to prison for four consecutive life terms.

I write this post not to report any major breakthrough in the case; litigation moves slowly and it doesn’t look like I’ll get this evidence any time soon, if I get it at all. I write, instead, to discuss a disturbing trend I’ve noticed when pitching my story to news outlets: Journalists and editors, generally, seem hesitant to report about specific transparency failures.

Perhaps there’s more interest in broader FOI trends. Or maybe it’s some combination of the responses I heard when pitching my story: “Unfortunately, I think the FOIA stuff is a little inside media baseball for our site.” “It’s an interesting case, but we wouldn’t normally cover FOIA litigation.” “Unfortunately I don’t have the bandwidth to cover this story right now.” In one case, I swapped emails and phone calls for 10 months with a national reporter who said he found my case “so disturbing,” yet he never found the time to tell anyone about it.

In fairness, my case has received coverage from MuckRock, The Providence Journal, and others. But, for whatever reason, the public remains largely uninformed about how pervasive these battles are on the federal and state level. This isn’t good. Taxpayers should know what government agencies do on a daily basis to thwart newsgathering.

Don’t get me wrong; I understand the hesitance of reporters and editors. I’ve been an editor and staff writer at a publication. I know what it means to be overworked, underpaid, and inundated with emails. I know what it means to have a specific beat and audience expectations and a managing editor who yells at you when you don’t file your stories on time. But now I also know what it means to be waving my arms and screaming for help getting documents that according to the Sixth Amendment, landmark court cases, and the Freedom of Information Act, should be public, and to hear colleagues say, “No, thanks.” Or worse, to hear them say nothing at all.

So here’s a reminder from a stonewalled journalist: We, reporters and editors, are the transparency police. It’s not the Department of Justice, which according to the House Oversight Committee chair lives in “la la land” when it comes to its own transparency. It’s not local law enforcement agencies like the “Golden Padlock” award-winning Massachusetts State Police. It is people like you and me. Whether we realize it or not, we were sworn to protect government transparency the minute we received press credentials and a platform for publishing.

But don’t take it from me. In February, New York Times reporter James Risen (a fellow poster boy for President Obama’s ill-treatment of the press) took to Twitter to declare that the current administration is “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation” and that he plans “to spend the rest of my life fighting to undo damage done to press freedom in the United States by Barack Obama and Eric Holder.” After his rant went semi-viral, the Times’s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote an article discussing it.

The whole piece is worth a read, but I want to highlight two particular sections. First, Sullivan’s interview with the Times’s Standards Editor Philip B. Corbett:

“In general, our reporters understand that they don’t and shouldn’t editorialize on issues we cover,” Mr. Corbett said. But because The Times is far from neutral on the question of press rights, “I would put this in a different category.”

This is the standards editor of our country’s preeminent newspaper giving reporters permission — encouragement, even — to take a strong stance on this issue.

Sullivan reinforces the point at the end of the piece:

“Because of his personal experiences, someone like James Risen has an obligation to speak out strongly on press rights. And I think more journalists ought to join him in that passion. . . . Maybe the tenor of Mr. Risen’s tweets wasn’t very Timesian. But the insistence on truth-telling and challenging the powerful is exactly what The Times ought to stand for. Always.”

The next time a fellow reporter contacts you about a transparency failure — or the next time you’re experiencing one yourself — think about Sullivan’s column. Think about the gulf between the Obama Administration’s rhetoric and reality. Think about the Massachusetts State Police’s “Golden Padlock” award. Think about a readership unaware of the challenges imposed on its watchdogs. Think about the stories — like the book I’m trying to write about the “largest physician dispenser of Oxycodone in the U.S. from 2003 to 2005” — that aren’t being told due to stonewalling, bullying, and intimidation.  

We are the transparency police. And if we don’t fight for this stuff, nobody will.

Philip is a freelance journalist and former news editor at the now-closed Providence Phoenix. His work has appeared in publications including the Atlantic, VICE, Salon, Rhode Island Monthly, and the Jewish Daily Forward. Email him at philip.edward.eil@gmail.com and find him on Twitter at @phileil.


NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.

Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Robertson Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Boston Globe and Boston University.

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