The Times doubles up on Information Access

Yesterday The New York Times turned in two stories on news organizations’ recent usage of the Freedom of Information Act and other open records laws.

One, somewhat oddly run on the front page of the Metropolitan section, focused on Bloomberg News’s suit to get documents describing Federal Reserve lending to banks during the worst, early days of the financial crisis. Here’s paragraph framing this as a Gangs of New York style battle.

Now, two Manhattan tribes appear to be squaring off: On one side are the news media — among them The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, which also has a FOIA bailout suit and has agreed to be bound by the Second Circuit ruling. On the other side are the banks — JPMorgan Chase, Citibank, Bank of America and others — which, of course, have fallen in behind the Fed.

True enough, but this is a case with implications far beyond any Big Apple pissing match, one that will shape the Fed’s ability to operate behind closed doors. The Audit has written about Bloomberg’s suit before, and plenty about Mark Pittman, the bulldog reporter who launched it before dying unexpectedly late last year. We’ve also covered a similar suit filed by FOX Business News, which is being considered alongside the Bloomberg effort at the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

The second concerns whether or not media outlets will continue to wage access lawsuits as investigative and legal budgets are sapped by the sector’s economic collapse.

The story leads with some happy news anecdotes. The AP says that they’re gotten more aggressive about appealing denials under FOIA. The Times’s own lawyers says they haven’t backed down. And the Hearst chain’s top lawyer says they have more First Amendment lawsuits going than ever before. (Perhaps it’s worth noting that that category could include a lot of cases—libel, say—that don’t directly have to do with information access concerns.)

But before closing the reporter, Tim Arango, adds some much needed nuance by quoting two well respected authorizes on press access battles.

“I’ve got to say, there’s a heck of a gap between the Hearsts of the world and all these community newspapers scattered across the country,” Charles Davis, who runs the National Freedom of Information Coalition, tells Arango. The coalition recently announced a Knight Foundation funded initiative to bankroll the kinds of information access suits that local media no longer has the money to wage. (Knight, by way of disclosure, is a CJR funder.)

And Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of The Press is quoted saying that she’s confident that overall the litigation picture is bleak. It’s a note she’s struck before, quite poignantly in a speech she gave this summer before the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies.

Journalists are sometimes reluctant to cover or share with readers their information access battles, for fear of writing about inside baseball, or looking overly triumphant. But these suits and questions are important. It’s valuable that the Times decided to give them some ink.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.