High-level journalists around Washington have engaged in a game of one-upmanship in recent years over denunciations of the transparency track record of the Obama administration. USA Today’s Susan Page perhaps takes the blue ribbon with her declaration that the Obama administration has been not only “more restrictive” but also “more dangerous” to the media than any of its predecessors.
Specific examples, however, sometimes carry more punch. On that front, New York Times Vice President and Assistant General Counsel David McCraw provides some assistance. In prepared testimony for hearings today and tomorrow of the House committee on oversight and government reform on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), McCraw notes that last year he filed eight FOIA lawsuits for the New York Times. Remember: FOIA lawsuits arise after FOIA requests stall.
One of the lawsuits was particularly noteworthy. The New York Times had asked the Justice Department for a number — how much money had the agency shelled out to pay the legal fees of FOIA requesters? (The law allows for such fees awards in cases where the requester wins FOIA litigation). McCraw: “It was a straightforward request about a budgetary matter. No FOIA exemption could possibly apply. But weeks passed without a response. Over a four-month period, we repeatedly contacted the FOIA office handling the request. We called more than 10 times and left messages. Almost all of those calls went unreturned. Finally we filed a lawsuit out of frustration.”
The lawsuit moved things along, to the point that an assistant U.S. attorney got involved in the process. “[T]he Assistant U.S. attorney ended up doing what the FOIA officer should have done in the first place,” notes the prepared testimony.
Administration officials say they’re placing more information online and have processed 3.8 million FOIA requests in the past six years. And McCraw, in his testimony, states that according to statistics, response times have improved, though “we know from actual experience that responses from many agencies take months or years.” A FOIA reform bill received the blessing of the oversight committee in March.
The oversight committee is chaired by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a strong critic of the Obama administration who once declined to rule out impeaching the president over its response to the Benghazi attacks. Testifying on any matter before a partisan political actor poses challenges for any news organization, especially the New York Times, which promotes its news pages as utterly fair and objective. When asked about the paper’s thinking about appearing before Chaffetz’s committee, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet responded:
I think the reality is anyone who pushes for anything in Washington these days has some partisan interest. But as David and I discussed, we have to take a big role in FOIA. In my view FOIA itself is not a partisan issue. It is a vital issue for the press right now. And we have to take a big and visible position on it.
That is correct.