The Mr. Spaghetti scandal, and other unexpected FOIA tales

Governments may have the grandiose tasks of keeping the economy afloat; stopping terrorists; and, you know, not poisoning the water supply, but the reality of the women and men in government is slightly more quotidian, and includes things like: naming dogs, affixing ratings to restaurants, watching movies, and complaining about how slow their computers are.

Luckily, we have the Freedom of Information Act, which theoretically opens up channels of communication between citizens and US governments about grand and mundane matters alike. Unluckily, FOIA is often an adversarial process, with journalists pitted against government bureaucrats wielding digital magic markers.

Things look especially gloomy for FOIA these days. The act celebrates its 50th birthday this year, and it isn’t aging gracefully. It’s a post-9/11 world, and despite promises to the contrary, the Obama administration is as tightfisted as administrations get; meanwhile, depleted newsrooms don’t have the resources to fight for access to information.

So perhaps FOIA journalists–and curious folks with a penchant for paperwork–should be forgiven for getting a little frisky once in awhile. Here are five examples of them doing just that.


Now playing

Sign up for CJR's daily email

In April, Refinery29 reporter Vanessa Golembewski decided to test the White House’s penchant for secrecy by requesting the Game of Thrones screeners sent to the Obama family. At the last update, Golembewski’s FOIA had been been upgraded from the “submitted” to the “evaluation” stage. According to her story, she’s anticipating “an epic rejection letter.”

But fear not, FOIA warriors! While you wait on POTUS’s GoT screeners, you can check out a trove of presidential movie-related FOIAs from Matt Novak at Gizmodo. He snagged pictures of George H. W. Bush and friends at the White House screening of The Hunt for Red October in 1990, complete with redacted photos; collections of every movie watched by Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter during their White House gigs; and the five spookiest movies Richard Nixon watched in his tenure. (ETA on Dubya’s list is August 2019, says Novak, but he may have found a shortcut.)


Doggy McDogface

An actual epic rejection letter came from a Transit Police Department in the case of a dog-naming scandal. It all started when Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority police solicited the public’s help in naming the team’s new dog via an online poll, and the public chose “Mr. Spaghetti.” But despite Mr. Spaghetti’s clear lead, after the polls closed, the dog was named … Hunter. Gawker reported on this griveous betrayal, and MuckRock reporter J. Patrick Brown FOIAed for information, but the department’s superintendent was having none of it. “All correspondence as it relates to the naming of a K9 can be easily obtained publicly on the internet via our FaceBook and/or Twitter Account,” he wrote in response to Brown’s FOIA. “We consider this request closed.” Moral of the story: Stop asking the public to name things.


The guacamole files 

In the slightly-more-serious-but-still-whimsical department, Vocativ created a map with every Chipotle in New York City where somebody reported getting sick, based on FOIAed documents from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (Midtown Easters, you win this round.) Please note, however, that these are not verified cases of food poisoning, or evidence of Chipotle wrongdoing, although they do include colorful complaints concerning projectile vomit and medium salsa. One special complaint begins: “I have been diarrhea.” 


In tribute 

In the slightly-less-whimsical-but-more-sadface-emoji department, after news of Prince’s passing, reporter Joshua Eaton requested the musician’s FBI file via MuckRock. “Best tribute I know how to make,” Eaton tweeted. Which is sweet.

This is not exactly a first for MuckRock. Its reporters and users regularly FOIA the FBI files of famous people and have amassed quite the collection, including files on Steve Jobs, Malcolm X, Aaron Swartz, and Walt Disney.

Of course, there’s nothing whimsical about the FBI collecting information on artists, writers, activists, and film producers. In some cases, they have good reason to do so–most of Steve Jobs’s file was gathered before he was appointed to a White House committee, for example–but many more raise questions about the FBI’s power over private citizens. Reading the files makes for some morbid entertainment. African-American writer James Baldwin is describes as a “dangerous individual,” Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee as “a colossal liar,” and Steve Jobs as “a very complex individual” who “will twist the truth and distort reality in order to achieve his goals.”


The 1980s are calling

MuckRock has more to offer us. Allan Lasser, also a MuckRock reporter, is hunting for the government’s oldest computer. The quest started as an attempt to collect computer inventories from various agencies, Lasser wrote in an email, and searching for the oldest computer proved a fun target. It’s also proved just as difficult and unpredictable as other FOIA hunts. The FAA rejected his request citing security concerns, the Department of Interior complied, and he received this delightful response from the Census Bureau:


Happy hunting, Allan!


Many of these FOIAs, though fun, often require ninja-like FOIAing skills (saintly patience and translating lawspeak are high on that list) and are doorways to important questions. “The fun FOIAs that you file can be illuminating in ways that you didn’t expect,” Gizmodo’s Novak says, though he acknowledges that something like FOIAing Games of Thrones screeners is simply a waste of government resources. By honing his FOIA skills on movie playlists, Novak has been able to report many other FOIA-based stories, including this one about teen hackers in the 80s and an early version of the internet. 

While burdening hassled FOIA departments unnecessarily is probably not ideal, these documents–about projectile vomiting, aging computers, and K9 dogs–belong to the public. Putting a more amusing spin on what’s often an adversarial process reminds the public that FOIA isn’t just about blacked-out national security documents, it’s about a dialogue with the people we elected to make decisions and spend our money; the people who are supposed to keep us safe from diarrhea and terrorism and everything in between.

To be sure, FOIA is a powerful tool that’s too often blunted by incompetence, willful malfeasance, and government employees choosing power over transparency. 

All the more reason to find a backdoor.


5/10/16 This story has been updated to reflect that Joshua Eaton is an independent reporter and information on Mr. Spaghetti was FOIAed by J. Patrick Brown. 

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

Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa