On Friday June 10, 2011 I called in and spoke about the role of FOIA, the main stream media , and access to alternative news sources on the Chris Plante show on WMAL 630. The program can be heard here, and the portion I was on is during the 14-20 minute marks. (If WMAL takes it down due to the passage of time email me for the podcast).
Chris Plante was seeking comments about the Washington Post’s/New York Times’ planned release of Sarah Palin’s emails. He expressed he felt this was an abdication of the medias’ responsibility, and that we would not see similar releases for Democrats.
I expressed that I thought it was unfortunate that this starts with Sarah Palin, a target of the main stream media, but ultimately it is beneficial to have widespread access to this kind of information. From a media perspective, I want the main stream media to abdicate their responsibility to sort through information, and post it all online. That way when there are actual news reports, the public can access the original source documents, and not simply rely on the information provided by the media.
But there is another reason mass publication of original source documents is important:
Money and the legal system
The federal government and nearly every state has passed freedom of information laws [FOIA laws]. Unfortunately there are two major problems with these laws from a citizen perspective:
1. You have to pay for copies of the documents produced, and often have to pay for “research” time. These costs are intended to help defray the expense of FOIA laws, and discourage frivolous requests. Unfortunately, it is often the case that a citizen seeking information may only want a small target of information, but without access to the remaining information can not actually identify the small target. The result, a large untargeted request, is cost prohibitive.
2. More importantly, whenever there is a probability of significant public scrutiny, or the request involves a controversial topic or person, or someone in the government is simply paranoid, the government entity will refuse to turn over documents often hiding behind numerous exceptions in the particular FOIA law. The way to break through the wall of silence is usually through a courtroom. Even if the particular FOIA law is designed for ease of use by a pro se (unrepresented) litigant, there are still legal pitfalls and the courtroom is scary and confusing for most people not regularly in the courtroom.
The end result is that actual access to substantial amounts of public records, only accessible through FOIA laws, can only be reasonably accessed by a sophisticated party with serious financial and legal resources, such as a main stream media news organization.
In short, if the Washington Post wants to do an original source document dump of FOIA’s records we should encourage them to do so, most of us can not afford to obtain the information directly, and at least this way we can see the original sources and actually come to our own conclusions about the news.
And by the way, did everyone hear the fascinating news coming out of the Sarah Palin document dump on Friday: There is not much to report . . .