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Cleaning up after Hurricane “W”

From the Fall 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. I have a dear friend who…

From the Fall 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

I have a dear friend who has taken to teasing me repeatedly about the financial future of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Come on, admit it” he keeps taunting me. “You’re going to miss W. How are you going to raise money when he’s gone?”

I’ll admit that on some days it seems that the only “upside” of the George W. Bush years as far as the Reporters Committee is concerned, is the increase in interesting legal work we’ve been able to do, along with creating a perfect marketing and development pitch for my fund raising duties. He’s been the mother lode of development for many a Washington-based non-profit working in the anti-government-secrecy area.

But all joking aside, I fear it will take many years of work for the damage of the last seven and a half years to be reversed if it’s even possible.

In a nutshell, we’ve seen new interpretations of the federal Freedom of Information Act that systematically decreased the number of documents released to the public; a dramatic increase in the number of documents classified and a corresponding decrease in the rate of declassification of old documents; an escalation in the use of the state secrets privilege by the executive branch in an effort to get civil lawsuits thrown out of court; a disturbing increase in the number of secret prosecutions nationwide; more reporters have been subpoenaed to testify in federal courts; and on and on and on.

The issue of News Media & the Law attempts to document the most disturbing open government abuses.

As I write this the week before the election, it looks likely that Barak Obama will be our next president. Some think we’ll be experiencing some sort of open government nirvana if he’s elected. I’m not that naïe.

My dream would be to have the new president of the United States proclaim during his Inauguration speech, “This will be the most transparent presidential administration in history.” But it will take enormous effort to push this country back to anything resembling the openness we became accustomed to in the 1990s and I didn’t think it was all that great back then. After all, under President Bill Clinton, we almost had an Officials Secrets Act.

Nevertheless, along with several other media groups operating as the Sunshine in Government Initiative, we’re going to the new administration whosever it is with a “white paper” memo outlining our thoughts about what the new presidential administration can to do improve government transparency.

We have a straightforward agenda on the federal level.

  • Roll back the Justice Department’s interpretation of FOIA to encourage discretionary release of federal records.

  • Fully implement the amendments to the federal Freedom of Information Act that went into effect on Dec. 31, 2007 particularly the provision that creates an ombudsman office at the National Archives.

  • Prevent an Official Secrets Act from getting traction in Congress.

  • And most importantly: Get Congress to pass a federal shield law.


We were saddened to learn recently of the death of the Reporters Committee’s first executive director, Jack Landau. (see obituary, page 26)

When I took this job eight years ago, I knew there were great expectations to meet the legacy left by my two predecessors, Jane Kirtley and Landau.

Landau was a legend in Washington, D.C., for his crusading tenure. He positioned the Reporters Committee as a full-service legal defense and advocacy organization for all journalists. We continue to benefit every day from his foresight and leadership.