Every day around the country, newspapers like this one go forth and ask for documents from various government agencies in order to do our jobs.
This is often a battle, particularly at two levels. Often at the local level citizens and news organizations face extreme difficulty getting public records.
From outright refusals, to ignorance of what the public is entitled to have to exorbitant copying fees designed to keep the public from actually asking for records, it's not unusual for local governments to go out of their way to hide things — worse, in Kansas news organizations are not exempt from those fees, so local governments tend to use those fees to try to keep us from asking for information as well.
At the federal level it's somewhat better, if a bit more byzantine. The people with whom you deal generally know what they're supposed to give out, but will insist on Freedom of Information Act filings before giving the simplest of records. The fees for FOIA requests can run to hundreds or thousands of dollars (the media is exempted from fees, which makes some sense, but the public shouldn't have to pay either — the information is the people's not the government's) and you can find yourself in Kafka-esque runaround trying to get what you need.
As an example, in 2010 I was doing a lot of freelance work for libertarian-leaning blog PJMedia.com.
Back in December 2009, my colleague and — I flatter myself — friend Richard Pollock, who was at the time PJM Washington bureau chief, submitted a FOIA request to the Air Force asking for some fairly routine information.
It was just after the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. He wanted to know who was on the Air Force flights to Copenhagen — including Air Force One. And he wanted to know how much taxpayer money was spent flying these people back and forth, how much baggage, etc.
There was a bit more to it than that, of course, but it was still pretty innocuous stuff. The volume of fuel used in the flights and how much the baggage weighed, as well as who was on all the flights, is information kept by the Air Force as a matter of course. This request should have taken about 20 minutes with a file cabinet to fill. Additionally, while this information would be classified (also as a matter of course), none of it was national security information. We all know the president went to Copenhagen and came back empty-handed.
Fast forward 15 months.
Richard finally got a response — four blank pages.
Well, not completely blank. They had departure and arrival times for four airplanes, but everything else was redacted and referred to the Secret Service.
So Richard called me, knowing I'd enjoy the chance to dig into something like this and I went looking for more information.
I made calls, ranging from the Air Force, to the Secret Service, to — no joke — the office of the Secretary of Defense (who wasn't best pleased I'd gotten his direct line somehow.)
After being given figures from 150 to 29 pages of documents, I finally contacted someone at the Secret Service whose response was, "well if the information was redacted you're obviously not allowed to have it, and you'll have to file a FOIA request to get it."
In other words file a FOIA for why the information you filed a FOIA for was redacted.
All this was routine information any airline could probably have provided in 15 minutes with their computer system. Be it noted as well, we weren't asking for personal information. We didn't want the names of agents or their Social Security numbers. We wanted the names of the public officials and their guests, media members and costs for the flights. That's it.
All this was in 2011, it's now 2019 and as best I can tell, PJM never _did_ get the requested information.
This folks, is what it's like to deal with the federal government. Transparency! Ahem. Although, frankly, it's not any better at the local level. Bureaucrats really don't like to give out information — someone might use it.
Transparency is critical, however, because corruption only flourishes in the dark. Where the media abrogates its responsibility to shine a light into those dark holes, the public must do so.
All IMHO, of course.
— Patrick Richardson is the managing editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @PittEditor.