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Media Circus

Foiling the FOIA

By Michael Anft | Posted 9/4/2002

Every once in a great while, reporters need to be reminded that they haven't evolved too far from their ambulance-chasing, scoop-stealing forebears. Such moments serve the purpose of bringing journalists, many of whom seem to believe that their so-called profession is peopled by high-minded ladies and gentlemen, back to earth. The industry's "ethics" are slippery, its "culture" rife with back stabbers, its members made up of crusading opportunists--at least when things are working right.Observers saw the true media beast emerge in late August, when Sun cops reporter Del Quentin Wilber filed a request with Baltimore City Police to see all similar requests for departmental information made by others, including his fellow members of the Fourth Estate. Wilber's use of the Public Information Act, the state's version of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that requires governmental agencies to turn over requested public materials to journalists and citizens within 30 days, caused a mild rumble among the rumpled-reporter crowd. Reporters worry that Wilber and other potential FOIA request-happy journalists might use the exclusive information found in some of their requests, thereby negating the advantages some of them may have earned by working sources and looking under the right rocks. "It's all a little unsettling," says WBAL-TV's Jayne Miller, a competitor of Wilber's on some stories. "Someone who apparently is insecure is taking a shortcut. It's all pretty lazy, actually." She also questioned why an organization as august and exclusive as The Sun, holder of a monopoly on daily print journalism, would bother with such tactics. "You'd think they'd want to be above all that," Miller says.

Despite the protests of Miller and others who grumbled about Wilber's work ethic, alleged lack of scruples, or poor sense of the notion of fair play, his request was entirely legal. "It's written into the law that Public Information Act requests become part of the public record," says Bill Toohey, Baltimore County Police Department spokesman. Although journalists might view their specific requests as privileged, Toohey says that goes against the spirit of the law. "If you, as a reporter, write me a letter, why should you get more protection than Joe Citizen, who may have written a letter of complaint to my agency?" says Toohey, who adds that he has only had one "blanket FOIA" request to deal with during his six years as county police spokesman. "It was during the Joseph Palczynski rampage last year," says Toohey, who declined to name the news organization that filed it. "One of the competing reporters called [that request] 'borderline evil.'"

Wilber, who in late August broke the news of city police Commissioner Edward Norris' slush fund, isn't talking, But Sun sources say that his request, while unusual, is not unprecedented. Wilber similarly petitioned Maryland State Police earlier this year. And he's not the only daily scribe in town to do it. Sun city editor John Fairhall confirmed ("Confirm? You mean like we committed a crime or something?" he says) that his reporters will use blanket requests to find out what competing journalists are up to. Currently, the paper is in a duel with The Washington Post over public information concerning the operation of Gov. Parris Glendening's crime office. Blanket FOIA requests have been filed by both papers, sources say.

But the issue goes further than the two regional daily heavyweights. High-minded national professional organizations, such as Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (of which this paper is a member), have discussed and at times encouraged the use of blanket FOIA requests to see what the competition is up to. Apparently, it's a great idea if you're on the offensive, a bad one when you have exclusive stuff that others can glean from your FOIA request, which by nature must be very specific.

Teachers of journalism say that such use of public-information requests is a moral quagmire. Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, says that members of the college's faculty "kind of smiled" when told by Kunkel of Wilber's little trick. "They sort of feel like it's a slimy thing to do, but it happens," says Kunkel, who is also publisher of the American Journalism Review. "They think a blanket request may be fairer than targeting the requests of one publication. Is all of this sporting, or fair game? Good question."

It's one that will be answered in the journalistic trenches. The academics aren't the ones being pressured by editors to get the dirt on the commish first. They're also not out there developing strained relationships with competitors, or tangling with agencies that can make their lives difficult by restricting the flow of information.They're not the ones whose careers ride on the impact they make with their stories.

The imbroglio and its inherent amorality fairly represent the newspaper business, which has never resembled choir practice. Even though journalists talk about ethics all the time, cooperation and squeaky-clean behavior mean nothing in this industry.

The story is all. The successful reporter recognizes that.

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