Where Are the FOIA Requests?

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David Corn’s recentprofile of the National Security Archive (the George Washington University-affiliated project that more so than any other entity, has used the Freedom of Information Act to bring hidden documents to light) reminded me of a small piece in Editor & Publisher last month. The article ran down the list of the media organizations who targeted themost FOIA requests at the Pentagon over the last 5 years:

The AP filed 73 such requests, followed by the Los Angeles Times with 42 and Washington Post with 34. Trailing far behind among major newspapers was the New York Times with 21, USA Today with nine and the Wall Street Journal with six. …

On the TV side, CBS News led with 32 queries; Fox News followed with 22; and NBC with 21. CNN made just 11 inquiries.

Even if totaled up, that’s very skimpy compared to the National Security Archive’s record of 895 requests during the same period. Why is this? Of course, the mission of the Archive is devoted almost exclusively to filing FOIA requests. But in an era when so government actions (prisoner renditions, terrorist task forces—hell, even regulations requiring you to present ID at the airport) are conducted in secrecy, you’d think journalists would be making better use of this tool.

Off the top of my head, I think of a couple of big FOIA media moments over the last few years that only came to be because of the actions of non-media organizations—like the ACLU’s ongoing torture FOIA battles or Russ Kick’s photos from the Dover mortuary. Eric Umansky went a long way towards explaining the gaps in this Slate piece. As not so surprisingly turns out to be the case, media organizations are reluctant to use FOIA because, well, it’s really, really hard. Requests can take years to fill, or spawn long, drawn out lawsuits. And of course, that takes money and time—two related things that are getting rarer and rarer in journalism. It seems we have another thread here in the story of the decline of investigative reporting.

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