Officials from President Barack Obama’s administration collude with Wall Street executives to push for the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The FBI monitors “professional protesters” in Baltimore and Ferguson. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s aides discuss whether to release a video showing the extrajudicial killing of a young black man by the city’s police.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder withheld the results of lead testing in Flint. Immigration and Customs Enforcement privately lobbied against California legislation to reduce deportations of law-abiding immigrants. State Department officials likely colluded with TransCanada executives as early as 2011 on the Keystone XL pipeline project.
All of these stories share something in common. The public learned about what government officials were doing because emails were subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Journalists obtained those emails, and the public was able to use the information to mobilize opposition to government action.
Vox’s Matt Yglesias recently outed himself as a Journalist Against Transparency or a jatter. He argued, very incorrectly, that emails and other electronic records produced by “conversational” communication tools should not be subject to FOIA.
Over at Muck Rock, a site dedicated to helping the public pursue FOIA requests, Michael Morisy appropriately corrected Yglesias. He failed to mention anything about privacy exemptions or the so-called “deliberative process privilege,” which exists to protect officials from the exact thing he railed against in his piece: to enable frank conversations among government officials.
Morisy made two key points about the ideology behind Yglesias’ post. “These types of requests have proved [to be] an essential tool for journalists in an era when the press is significantly diminished and agencies have become increasingly sophisticated in spin.”
And, “Leaving emails and other routine documents subject to FOIA encourages a general culture of transparency within agencies while creating another reminder that government employees work for the people.”
The problem is jatters like Yglesias do not support the journalism being done around Hillary Clinton’s emails. He favors increasing restrictions on what government records can be released to journalists and the public because he identifies with a candidate, who has been dogged by the fact that she tried to keep her emails out of the purview of FOIA when she was the Secretary of State.
Beyond his inability to grasp how FOIA works (and correct his misunderstanding in his post), Yglesias wrote:
The issue is that administration officials and other executive branch aides don’t want to leave a record of the conversation that might come to light one day. Not necessarily because they have anything scandalous to say. After all, we live in a world where something as banal as Doug Band, a top Clinton Foundation aide, asking Huma Abedin, a top State Department aide, for a special diplomatic passport for a hostage rescue trip to North Korea and being told he can’t have one can be spun as a scandal by a determined team of reporters and editors.
If Band had made a phone call instead of sending an email, Hillary Clinton would have been spared the bad—and totally unjustifiably so—news cycle she suffered last week. Which is why prudent staffers want to do basically everything, no matter how innocent, over the phone.
Essentially, Yglesias’ opposition to journalism with right wing ideological motives leads him to advocate for curtailing government transparency. Or, in other words, he would like to reduce the flow of information so there would be less reporting and less speech about Clinton that was negative.
Yglesias is tired of dealing with the manufactured scandals of conservative media mavens, and aren’t most people sick of it? But that scarcely justifies closing off access to types of records that could contain bombshells, which may impact Clinton when she is president.
It also never occurs to Yglesias that government officials could simply not do the thing they are unwilling to defend in public.
Another jatter, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, outed himself too, as he condemned the “weaponization” of FOIA:
…What we’ve seen with Hillary Clinton is not that she’s done anything especially wrong, but that a story can last forever if there’s a constant stream of new revelations. That’s what’s happened over the past four years. Between Benghazi committees and Judicial Watch’s anti-Hillary jihad, Clinton’s emails have been steadily dripped out practically monthly, even though there’s never been any compelling reason for it. It’s been done solely to keep her alleged corruption in the public eye.
Leaving aside the issue of whether Clinton has “done anything especially wrong,” which is highly, highly debatable, the idea that FOIA should be restricted because conservative organizations are “weaponizing” it is brain-dead and ill-conceived.
Who decides what information should not be used for political purposes? Clinton allies and progressive pundits have had it with the damn Clinton emails and all things Benghazi-related, but what if a Republican was the target? Would Drum and Yglesias want anyone telling them not to constantly cite emails to criticize and educate the public on questionable and corrupt practices?
Drum does not have any more clue about FOIA than Yglesias. He ham-handedly advocated, “Less transparency, but faster, more effective transparency. Even journalists might buy this trade. I believe that cabinet officers need to have a certain amount of space to have policy discussions without fear of every word they say becoming public.”
Good news, Mr. Drum. In the United States, cabinet officers do have a “certain amount of space to have policy discussions” and do not have to fear “every word they say becoming public.” Records of cabinet meetings with President Obama are not pasted all over the internet, jeopardizing honesty and forthrightness in government.
In addition to this unfounded fear, Drum also makes no reference to the privacy exemptions and so-called “deliberative process privilege,” which allows officials to shield certain records from FOIA.
Yglesias has merely generated the latest round of debate that allows members of the public to separate journalists, who favor strong investigative journalism, from journalists against transparency, who are quick to advocate for limits on what we know about the government.
Three years ago, National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden helped us identify several jatters. The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman declared, “I believe Snowden is someone who needed a whistleblower. He needed someone to challenge him with the argument that we don’t live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real, not imagined, threats without using big data — where we still have an edge — under constant judicial review.”
“It’s not ideal. But if one more 9/11-scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be so much greater.”
Stuart Taylor Jr., a contributing editor at Newsweek and columnist for the National Journal, suggested the media was “too loose in publishing anything they can get their hands on.” Although noting some exceptions, Taylor argued the trend was, “if we can get our hands on it, some secret program, we publish it. And I think there has not been enough attention to which of these leaks do real damage to national security and which do not.”
The rise of WikiLeaks has inspired several journalists, including entire editorial boards, to proclaim that publishing government documents is not journalism.
A 2013 Indiana University survey by David Weaver and Lars Willnat showed, “The percentage of U.S. journalists endorsing the occasional use of ‘confidential business or government documents without authorization’ dropped significantly from 81.8 percent in 1992 to 57.7 percent in 2013.” That represents a stark development, like journalists are increasingly unwilling to make decisions about documents being in the public interest without permission from government officials.
This culture against transparency, whether because journalists ideologically identify with security agencies or certain politicians, remains entrenched among U.S. media and periodically bubbles to the surface. And, to use a phrase from Aldous Huxley, their “excruciating orgasms of self-assertion” betray a great tradition of muckraking and contribute to the decline of journalism.