#OpenGovVideos with Ken Bunting

As the first full-time executive director of NFOIC, Ken Bunting administers funds for the Knight FOI Fund and oversees pass-through grants to state freedom of information groups, works daily to strengthen the work of its member coalitions, coordinates an annual conference, publicizes the efforts of the NFOIC and its affiliates, and collaborates with a board of directors to chart the future of the organization.

Bunting was associate publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for five years. Including his tenure as associate publisher, he spent a total of 17 years at the Post-Intelligencer, also holding the positions of executive editor and managing editor. During his tenure as ranking editor, the newspaper and staff won more regional and national awards—including two Pulitzer Prizes—than at any time in its history.

 

Transcript:

I’m Ken Bunting, I’m executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, better known as the NFOIC, and we’re headquartered at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Missouri.

If you could start out talking about the importance of FOIA, open record requests, to both journalists and citizens?

Well, it’s important because citizens want to know what their government is doing to them, for them, and there’s no other way to do that besides information. Self government really doesn’t work without the people who are governed having access to information about what’s going on and who’s doing it. That’s not a new concept, and we sometimes talk about the beginning of the open government movement as being in the 50s or the 60s or the 70s, and all those things are true. But really it goes back to the birth of the Republic. Because our founding fathers knew that if self-government was going to work, people were going to need to keep an eye on those who are in power, and that’s what open government is all about.

Instances in the past where FOI requests have netted a breakthrough or helped…

Certainly, and these things happen day in and day out, and not just in my career as a journalist but any journalist who tries to report on the government knows that he needs access to the government’s records, access to the government’s meetings in order to keep an eye on what’s going on. But I hear examples day in and day out about the roadblocks that journalists encounter, and that ordinary citizens encounter, just trying to keep an eye on their government. The truth of the matter is that if we wanted to know the salary of the mayor of Columbia, Missouri, or the size of the budget or the line item of the budget for cleaning up the leaves in the park, we should be able to walk into a clerk’s office or the comptroller’s office, and ask for that information and get it without questions and without hassle. Nothing about those three examples I just suggested would fall into any of the exemptions in the open government law or —here in Missouri it’s called the Sunshine Law—but the truth of the matter is that citizen who wanted to know the mayor’s salary or the budget for leaf-cleaning in the park, or the size of the city budget, would find out that he would probably encounter a bureaucrat who said ‘why do you need this information?’ Illegal question, shouldn’t even be asked. And then he would have to submit a letter and he’d get a response to that letter in a few days, and then in a worst case scenario, he might even get some gobbledygook that says you’re not even entitled to that information.

One of my favorite examples since I’ve been in this chair was when I got a call from a reporter in Richmond, Virginia who had sent an email to five school districts asking simply for information about outsource evaluations for the past year for those school districts. What he ran in to was every sort of roadblock you can imagine, but essentially they told him it would cost him between $98,000 – that was the cheapest estimate – to the most expensive, $238,000. That’s to retrieve and produce a years worth of outsourcing contracts for the school districts. Now, that’s ridiculous. He didn’t have to pay that half million dollars or whatever it amounts to. He got those records on a DVD for about 200 dollars total, which is all it takes. But the culture of resistance that we deal with, day in and day out, results in a lot of difficulties when citizens ask for records that really belong to them. The examples of how it makes a difference in journalism, they’re endless and infinitesimal. In my experience as a reporter, we found out through open government requests that some political operatives in California were forging President Reagan’s name on campaign letters and running a campaign against people they didn’t like and didn’t realize they needed the President’s permission to forge his name. That’s one example.

I think through open government search, when I was a reporter in the state capital of Texas, Austin Texas, at the Austin Telegram, I found out that even though there was an embargo on South African steel, the largest bridge project in the history of the state was being built with steel being imported illegally or with a wink and nod from some people in the government with south African steel. Information that nobody would volunteer in a press release, and nobody in the highway department was going to go out and tell you about. So investigative reporters know that access to information is essential to the job they do, to the watchdog function they perform for us.

Talk about the NFOIC?

We are as strong as the state and regional coalitions that make up the coalition. We’re not called a coalition for nothing. Matter of fact sometimes here at the university, because of the academic setting, people say you head the freedom of information center, and yes I do. But more than that, I head the National Freedom of Information Coalition. Which is a coalition of state and regional groups who work day in and day out who help citizens and journalists. But the key part is citizens and journalists have aggressively assert their access rights under state open records and open government laws. They’re 51 of those – every state has open government laws, and they vary from state to state. And there’s also the federal FOI law. But there are a lot of other national organizations besides us who help people with the federal FOI laws. So our focus is primarily on the state open government laws and as such, we work to strengthen the state organizations that work in individual states. We work for legislative reform to bring about more transparency and less secrecy. We work against legislative reforms that would have the opposite effect. But we also work to help citizens with the roadblocks they run into day in and day out. Those were some of the examples I was giving you where citizens shouldn’t have the hassle of asking for information that belongs to them, but in reality and in truth, these things are always difficult to get to.

Tips and tricks?

First of all I would tell any journalist at any level who is going to cover public affairs at any kind: whether or not you see yourself as an investigative reporter, familiarize yourself with your state’s open government and open meetings law. You don’t want to have to learn about it the first time you get kicked out of a meeting that you have access to. You should familiarize yourself with that the day you move into that state, and if you move on to a different paper in a different state, stop again and re-learn the open government laws. It’s essential to you doing your job. That’s the first tip I will tell you.

The other tip I will tell you is don’t think your lawyer will do all your work for you. You also need to cultivate relationships and cultivate sources. Often, the best investigative reporters will tell you that yes, they’re aggressive in filing lawsuits and demanding records under the open government law, but they’re also very aggressive in getting to know the people that have those records, who understand what records are available. Now in most states it is not essential for a citizen to know the name of the document he’s asking for. The law says if you give a general description of what you’re looking for, the government has an obligation to produce that record. But what the best investigative reporters will tell you is you’ve got a better chance of getting it on time before your deadline passes and avoiding hassles if you first familiarize yourself with the type of information the government gathers, how it’s gathered, how it’s available. If you’re looking for paper records, which few reporters do these days, what’s the name of those records. Because that cuts down on the hassles you will go through or the delays you will encounter getting that information.

And finally I’d say to any reporter who is going to do this job at all, even if you don’t see yourself as covering public affairs, even if you don’t see yourself as an investigative reporter, try to spend some time getting to know how to ask for and gather information in digital form. That’s the future of our profession. Twenty years ago, if you went into a newsroom, you could identify an investigative reporter because that was the guy with the big stack of mess on his desk. He had a stack of records this high, a stack of index card file boxes on the other side. And if he was ever going to tell a story about corruption or about how the government wasn’t working the way it should, based on the records he had gathered, he had to cull through all those documents one by one, page by page, in order to tell that story. It was a skill that some people had but didn’t have the patience for. These days, the reporter who is still depending on those index card files or stack of paper records is going to be beat by another reporter who knows how to get the same information in digital form from electronic records. So that’s a long winded way of saying, everybody who is going to practice journalism—even if you see yourself as a feature writer—learn how to deal with gathering information in electronic form. That’s going to be very important to you doing your job.

Touch on anything else?

The Knight FOI fund and FOI hotline. The Knight FOI fund is an essential tool, it’s certainly one of our signature programs now. It started right before I came aboard in January of 2010 and essentially it’s a way of guaranteeing that the recession in the news industry doesn’t keep meritorious FOI cases from being filed. We’ve got a war chest that will pay for your research costs, your depositions, your filing fees… almost any expense that surrounds bringing civil litigation. And this is the one grant we give that doesn’t have to come from one of our member organizations. Anyone, any individual who’s got a meritorious FOI case, who’s been denied records or denied access to a meeting to which they’re entitled to attend, we will give you the upfront cost to file that lawsuit. Now, we also expect to get that money back after you prevail. And in 44 of our states, there are very good fee recovery laws which say if you bring a meritorious case, the entity that denies you the records or denies you access to those meetings, are responsible for paying your legal expenses. And in some cases your attorney’s fees. And we ask that once you get that money back you pay it back to the fund, and the idea there is that we’ll have the money in perpetuity to bring righteous, meritorious FOI cases.

We did a study in August of 2011, which was a reprise of another study we did in July of 2009, and both of them basically say that citizens are getting more and more interested in asserting their rights as citizens concerning information about governments, access to the records of their government, but the newspapers who once saw that as their responsibility…

There was a day when editors thought that protecting the first amendment and protecting access to government information was a sacred responsibility and duty as a steward as editor of that newspaper. But these days with the downturn in the recession, legal budgets have been sliced, and newspapers are less and less likely to bring open government lawsuits. Well the Knight FOI fund, which was made possibly by the generosity of the Knight foundation and through us, the NFOIC, makes it possible that when government officials fail to respond to open government requests when they should, we’ll still have a war chest so they can be sued, which unfortunately it’s a last resort, I know that law suits are a last resort, but unfortunately in open government cases it’s also a first resort because there’s not a strong enforcement mechanism in most of the open government laws around the country.

Hotline?

Well the hotlines… one of our goals, and we’ve got many goals at the NFOIC, but one of the goals is to make it possible to have an essential, reliable, open government hotline available not only to journalists but to citizens in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Right now, about half the states have hotlines of these sort, and most of them were started by our state coalitions, but some of them were started by press associations, or even the government itself. But my goal is to see that there’s one available in every state, and that it’s available to citizens, so that if you’ve got a question about your rights in that state’s open government laws, you can call and get reliable information on what those rights are and what steps you can take to get the information you’re seeking.

See more #OpenGovVideos here.