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Freedom of Information Day: Five Questions with David Barstow, Investigative Reporter for The New York Times

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Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Barstow, of The New York Times, will present Freedom of Information: The Act, the Press and the Future at the Science, Industry and Business Library this morning in honor of the 13th annual Freedom of Information Day.

Established by a Congressional Joint Resolution in 1989, Freedom of Information Day is held on or near March 16, the birthday of James Madison, fourth President of the United States and primary architect of the Bill of Rights.

Commemorating the pivotal role of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Barstow will discuss freedom of information and freedom of the press — particularly how accessing government information using the Freedom of Information Act affects the work of journalists.

David BarstowDavid BarstowNYPL asked Barstow a few questions about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and its effect on the general public:

The New York Public Library: Why is the FOIA important?
David Barstow: FOIA is a potent yet badly underestimated guarantor of our democracy. Its singular blessing is that it gives each of us the legal standing to demand information about the workings of our government, no matter how embarrassing or damning or inconvenient. It gives all of us a tool to follow the money or examine the consequences of laws and policies. Its existence means that politicians and bureaucrats aren’t the sole arbiters of what we know about their work. It helps level the playing field.

NYPL: What major impact has FOIA had on Americans?
DB: More than anything, FOIA helps set the terms of the relationship between the governed and those who govern. It puts flesh on the idea that government ought to be accountable to all of us. It says we have a right to know. We have a right to question. It constantly reaffirms a basic standard of transparency, and this standard has served the American people well. It has helped reporters, researchers, historians, bloggers, activists, and ordinary citizens shine a light on countless examples of incompetence, waste, and corruption. It says that we are governed, not ruled — a distinction at the core of the American experiment.

NYPL: How has FOIA affected the media and its reporting to the public?
DB: Look at any ambitious example of investigative reporting in this country and you will almost certainly find the fruits of a reporter’s skillful and dogged use of FOIA requests. But perhaps an even more important impact is the way FOIA helps neutralize the sins of “access reporting.’’ Without access to public records, reporters are too often at the mercy of public officials for even basic information. And that means trying to stay in the good graces of those in power, which leads to the dreaded “access journalism” — essentially trading uncritical coverage for the privilege of a prompt call back. This is where we get the highly selective leaks of cherry-picked information to favored journalists, especially in the crucial realm of national security. For all its imperfections, FOIA gives us leverage to break this dependency. It offers us a way to circumvent stonewalling and media manipulation, which is why those in power are so often tempted to invent new ways to limit FOIA’s reach.

NYPL: How has FOIA had an impact on your work? Would you share an anecdote about a positive outcome due to FOIA?
DB:
Like most reporters, I have a love-hate relationship with FOIA. Too often canny bureaucrats try to hide behind FOIA. Instead of simply handing over documents that are obviously public, they will make you file a FOIA request, knowing this will buy them all kinds of time. They understand perfectly well that by the time they actually have to cough up records, the reporter will likely be long gone onto the next story. And yet the payoff can be enormous when reporters have the patience and fortitude to battle it out. A couple of years ago I wrote about a secretive Pentagon program to influence news coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program targeted retired officers who worked as “military analysts’’ for major TV and radio networks. Those articles simply would not have been possible without the Freedom of Information Act. When the Pentagon refused to produce documents describing its dealings with these military analysts, the Times sued the Defense Department for violating FOIA. As a result, after a lengthy court battle, we gained access to more than 10,000 pages of documents that helped us describe the inner workings of this program. Once we did, the Pentagon quickly shut it down.

NYPL: Tell us a bit about your event at the Library and why it’s important for New Yorkers to celebrate FOI Day.
DB: FOIA is like a muscle — if you don’t use it, it gets weak. I’m speaking at The New York Public Library today to both celebrate the Freedom of Information Act and encourage its broader use so that the muscle doesn’t get weak. I can’t tell you the difference it makes when you deal with government agencies that routinely get FOIA requests versus those that don’t. As a general matter, the more government officials are conditioned to FOIA, the faster you get a response. And each time a requester wins a FOIA battle, it paves the way for everyone who follows. 

Freedom of Information Day will be observed at the Science, Industry and Business Library of The New York Public Library, located at 188 Madison Avenue, on Wednesday, March 16, with a presentation and discussion from 10:30 a.m. to 12 noon in Conference Room 14/15 on the lower level of the Library.

This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post. View more >>

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