The Information Squeeze: Openness in Government Is under Assault throughout the United States-At Every Level. Can the News Media, Reluctant Combatants Thus Far, Mount a Successful Counterattack?

By Layton, Charles | American Journalism Review, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Information Squeeze: Openness in Government Is under Assault throughout the United States-At Every Level. Can the News Media, Reluctant Combatants Thus Far, Mount a Successful Counterattack?


Layton, Charles, American Journalism Review


RONALD REAGAN MOVED INTO THE White House in 1981. The American hostages came home from Iran that year. And IBM introduced its first personal computer, with a $6,000 price tag and an operating system by a company most people had never heard of: Microsoft.

That was also the year Seth Rosenfeld mailed off a request to the FBI for records under the Freedom of Information Act. Rosenfeld was a journalism major at the University of California at Berkeley and a writer for the campus paper, the Daily Californian. He wanted to find out about the FBI's history of political skulduggery at Berkeley and hoped the records he requested would shed new light on it.

"So," Rosenfeld remembers, "I thought, I'll just submit this FOIA request and I'll get these records and I'll write a story. And I'll be done in a year or so."

It took a good deal longer--more than 17 years--during which time the FBI did everything possible to keep the records secret: stalling, evading, appealing court rulings. Only after orders from five different federal judges did the FBI begin to surrender information in earnest.

Once it did, Rosenfeld was amazed at how much stuff the agency had been hiding. From 1996 through 1998, dozens of boxes arrived at the offices of his pro bono attorney "We had to get a pickup truck," says the reporter.

The documents--more than 200,000 pages--occupied two rooms of his six-room flat. It took him several years to sort through them all, do the follow-up reporting and write his story, which explained how the FBI had conspired, sometimes unlawfully, with then-Gov. Reagan to discredit campus liberals and radicals.

The story ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, where Rosenfeld now works, on June 9 of this year.

AS ROSENFELD DISCOVERED, Government officials are loath to part with their secrets. But lately, the problem has grown worse. Openness in government is under broad attack throughout the United States--at every level. Using the threat of terrorism as a rationale, the Bush administration has been moving fast to erect new barriers. But state governments also play the terrorism card.

In New Jersey, Gov. James McGreevey tried to seal more than 500 categories of public records this summer by executive order. Under press and public pressure, McGreevey eventually reopened most of them. He had based his actions on national security, although many of the records had nothing to do with security.

A greater threat, in the long run, comes from well-intentioned advocates of personal privacy who fear that, in the computer age, more public access means less security for individuals. The privacy movement has been under way for more than a decade, gathering public support and scoring some notable legislative successes. Driver's license information--a fundamental public record if ever there was one--has been restricted in many states. And basic medical news--such as the condition of a hospitalized crime or accident victim--may soon become unattainable.

The personal privacy issue makes the case for open government much trickier now than ever before. In an age when the most intimate, embarrassing details of a couple's divorce may end up on the Internet, for all their neighbors to read, the standard arguments for openness grow less persuasive. Ken Paulson of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center writes that the public is "willing to handcuff the news media if that's the price to be paid for shoring up personal privacy."

Last February, fresh from a discouraging legal fight over autopsy records in Florida, the editor of the Orlando Sentinel, Tim Franklin, told an Investigative Reporters and Editors workshop: "We are confronted with a broad move toward secrecy and restricted public access that could reshape how Americans do business and monitor their government for decades."

Faced with such a challenge, most of the journalism community has not risen to the occasion.

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