License Revoked: When Congress Cut off Access to Motor Vehicle Records, It Underscored the Media's Lack of Lobbying Clout When It Comes to Journalism Issues

By Callahan, Christopher | American Journalism Review, November 1995 | Go to article overview

License Revoked: When Congress Cut off Access to Motor Vehicle Records, It Underscored the Media's Lack of Lobbying Clout When It Comes to Journalism Issues


Callahan, Christopher, American Journalism Review


Kathleen Ryan was kneeling in the street, crying uncontrollably as she held the broken, bloodied body of her youngest child. Seven-year-old Lynn Ryan, a second-grader preparing to receive her first Communion, had just become the third Rhode Island child to be run over and killed by a school bus in less than a year.

Following the October 1985 tragedy, the Providence Journal-Bulletin launched an investigation into school bus safety. The results were alarming. The story documented that some school bus drivers had among the worst driving records in the state. The article helped trigger a series of reforms, and Rhode Island has boasted a spotless school bus safety record ever since.

Journal-Bulletin reporter Elliot Jaspin relied heavily on what at the time was a rather unusual reporting tool: a computerized list of driving records from the state's Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Individual motorist records traditionally have been used by reporters for everything from tracking down hard-to-find sources to identifying participants in Ku Klux Klan rallies. Since Jaspin's ground-breaking work, however, scores of journalists have tapped into computerized motor vehicle databases for major investigative projects.

Computer analyses of motor vehicle records uncovered Florida drivers who were still on the road despite multiple drunken driving convictions, Kansas City police officers who hardly ever get tickets while off-duty, Minnesota airline pilots who lost their driving privileges because of alcohol abuse, and dozens of other harrowing stories.

But these relatively new public service investigations will soon be a thing of the past. Last year, Congress slipped into the much debated and highly publicized 355-page crime bill a little-noticed provision that will cut off public access to states' motor vehicle records on September 13, 1997.

The action underscores how journalists, influential players in the legislative process, find themselves handcuffed by a complex web of financial and ethical constraints when it comes to protecting their own interests.

And the dangers may reach far beyond motor vehicle records. Press advocates fear the logic behind the new law - that the open records constitute an invasion of privacy and an invitation to stalkers - could lead to similar government shutdowns of voter registration and other public records that have long been staples of investigative reporting.

The first press activists heard of any threat to Department of Motor Vehicle records was in late October 1993, when Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her Driver's Privacy Protection Act at a Washington news conference.

Boxer had crafted a politically savvy bill. For liberals, she explained how the records could be used by antiabortion zealots to track down abortion doctors and patients. For conservatives, the senator said keeping the records open would leave American motorists vulnerable to crazed stalkers.

Unfortunately for journalists, the California Democrat had been working aggressively behind the scenes for six months before the official announcement. By the time of the formal unveiling, 21 organizations - representing doctors, police, women, crime victims, insurance companies, abortion rights groups, privacy activists and consumers - and 10 senators had already signed on.

The battle had just begun, and the press was already far behind.

Unlike many other groups, journalists don't have a sensitive radar system in place on Capitol Hill to pick up on legislation that might cause problems for them. And even when they sense potential danger, they can't always afford to do what it takes to head it off.

The Newspaper Association of America has a substantial lobbying presence, spending $2.78 million to influence Congress in the past four years, according to lobbyist disclosure reports. But NAA's focus is almost exclusively on the business side of newspapers. Big outlets such as Gannett and Times Mirror also lobby, but they too focus on legislation that touches profit margins, not news stories (see "The Newspaper Lobby," page 45). …

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