We can't give up

By Jim Stasiowski

I listened in as a young reporter tried to track down information from a federal agency. The reporter – I’ll call him Sid – had gotten a tip that the agency was fielding a surprising number of complaints about a certain type of behavior by construction companies. So Sid called one local office of the agency, and the source there said the information he sought wasn’t public record. Sid would have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get it, the source insisted.

“I can’t write the story,” Sid told me.

I said, “Call another local office.”

He said, “They’re going to tell me to file a FOIA.”

I said, “Call anyway.”

He did, and he was right: The source there told him to file a FOIA.

I said, “Call another local office.”

Sid’s face tightened in exasperation.

“The first guy told me,” he said, “that agency employees have been told to respond to such questions by telling reporters to file a FOIA request.”

I said, “Do it.”

Sid tried a third office, and, at my insistence, a fourth. He got the same “File a FOIA” answer each time. He couldn’t write the story, as he had no confirmation that his tipster’s information was correct.

That experience prompts three thoughts about our work. First of all, we too quickly assume that sources will not give an answer contrary to their self-interest.

Sid was sure all agency sources would deflect all such queries by referring reporters to the FOIA option. Even after his fourth failure, I wanted him to call a fifth office. My reasoning is that we get many of our best stories when a source does either of two things: He or she forgets the order not to talk to reporters, or he or she, acting on individual initiative, decides the information is too important to hide.

Without sources willing to act contrary to their self-interest, newspapers would have missed out on millions of excellent stories.

Second, the dodge of hiding behind “File a Freedom of Information Act request” has become government’s version of the gangster who invokes the Fifth Amendment 147 times in a trial.

The information Sid was seeking may have made a good story, and I could see zero justification for its being withheld. The government could not possibly argue that anything of value – national security, people’s reputations, investigations in progress – would be compromised if the information got out.

In fact, the order that all agency employees respond with “File a FOIA request” is a blatant insult to those employees. It is the equivalent of saying to them: “Look, we do not trust your judgment, so shut up or else.”

In four calls, Sid couldn’t find anyone so devoted to the truth that he or she would defy that order.

I’m convinced he would have found that person on the fifth call. The sixth, for sure. Third, in theory, the FOIA makes government more open; in practice, it is government’s No. 1 weapon against revealing information.

Think of this: When you ask a simple question, and you get, “File a FOIA request,” the person responding assumes you won’t go to the trouble. Thus, the information never gets revealed. Grieve, then, for the loss of a congressman you probably never heard of.

U.S. Rep. John Moss, D-Calif., was born poor to a mom who died when he was 12 and a dad who shortly thereafter abandoned him and his brother. A self-made man, Moss was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952, spent 14 years pushing for a federal law requiring freedom of information, defied President Lyndon Johnson to get the FOIA passed in 1966, suffered politically because of his determination to wipe out most government secrecy, and died from pneumonia on Dec. 5, 1997.

I’m sure Moss never envisioned his consummate accomplishment would turn into government’s Berlin Wall against transparency.

When at first we don’t get the answer we need, we too often shrug and move along to something else. But when government sources withhold information, they wipe the sweat from their brows and think, “Phew! I’ve saved my job for another day.”

We can’t give up. We have to keep pushing for answers, and when we don’t get them, we have to file those FOIA requests. Government relies on our giving up.

When you’re tempted to do so, remember John Emerson Moss. He fought for 14 years for you to have the right to use the FOIA. File it today, if for no other reason than to honor his memory.

Jim Stasiowski is a writing coach for The Dolan Co.  You can contact him at (775) 354-2872 or 2499 Ivory Ann Drive, Sparks, Nev., 89436.

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