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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

BLOGSHINE SUNDAY: Readers Win When Journalists and Bloggers Use the FOIA

Journalists don’t get a lot of respect in some quarters and occasionally it’s not hard to understand why, but the truth is hardly a day goes by anywhere in America without a reporter - or a blogger - using laws like the Freedom of Information Act to uncover vital information that saves people time, money, and sometimes even lives.

Just consider these recent examples of beneficial reporting made possible by:

  • The $26,545 washer in Edinburgh, Texas: Reporter Brittney Booth of The Edinburgh Monitor reported that city’s school board paid $26,545 for a clothes washer, $35,850 for weightlifting machines, $35,109 for “Formica and related items” and $39,378 for cross-country equipment. A lot of Edinburgh citizens probably would like to know what makes that washer $26,545 worth of special. Booth’s reporting was made possible by the Lone Star state’s FOIA law.
  • Miami’s 47 mph “hurricane:” Hurricane Frances made landfall more than 100 miles north of Miami-Dade County last year, but that didn’t stop thousands of residents in Florida’s most populous county from receiving nearly $28 million in federal disaster aid, according to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. Using that state’s FOIA, a team of Sun-Sentinel reporters found that residents used their relief checks to pay for things like 5,000 televisions allegedly destroyed by Frances, as well as 1,440 air conditioners, 1,360 twin beds, 1,311 washers and dryers and 831 dining room sets. All this despite the fact Frances’ top winds reached only 47 mph in the Miami-Dade area.

  • Illegal aliens convicted of horrible crimes: Lots of people know that federal law requires illegal aliens convicted of heinous crimes like rape, murder, child molestation here in America to be deported once they've served their jail terms. Unless you read The Atlanta Journal-Constitution or another of the Cox Newspapers like the Austin American-Statesman, you likely don’t know that thousands such aliens have simply been let go and may now be wandering a street near your home or your child’s school. Even worse, according to Cox reporters Eliot Jaspin and Julia Malone, the U.S. Justice Department won’t release a government database that could help journalists and private citizens find these aliens.
  • Rosalie Jones’ babies kept dying but nobody knew why: Then Deseret News reporter Lee Davidson spent a lot of shoe leather and sweat tracking down the truth and it was an FOIA request that finally opened the door to the truth. Jones was not alone in having horribly deformed babies that quickly died following birth, however, as she was one of a group of Utah women who had married former inmates of the Utah State Prison. Davidson’s work uncovered a series of government medical tests in which the men participated for $10. Part of those tests involved being injected with a strange radioactive substance that appears to be connected with the chronic infant deformities and deaths.

These are just some of the countless examples of how the FOIA helps citizens find answers about everything from how many restaurants in their city are flunking health department tests to whether bureaucratic slothfulness is allowing dangerous criminals to be let loose to again maim, rape and even kill innocent people.

It’s true that some journalists sometimes can be obnoxious, inconsiderate or worse, and nobody regrets that more than other journalists because they realize such behavior just makes their job harder to do. More important, they know their job is important because in the final analysis they work for people like you.

Yes for you, the people of America who often must depend upon journalists to hold the politicians’ feet to the fire. Laws like the FOIA are meant to protect special privileges or grant unique rights to journalists. These laws are designed to protect your right to know the truth about the work of your elected officials and government bureaucrats.

That’s why March 13-20 has been designated “Sunshine Week” by a coalition of national and state-level journalism professional organizations, and today is "Blogshine Sunday," which shares the same purpose: To help all Americans better understand how important the FOIA is to them and their right to hold our public servants accountable at all levels of government.

But if you are still unconvinced, here’s what James Madison, the Founder most often credited as the “Father of the Constitution,” had to say about the importance of people getting accurate and timely information: "A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy -- or perhaps both."