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Why Can't A D.C. Blogger Get Public Records?

Much as its critics and even a few of its practitioners may protest to the contrary, journalism is no profession. It requires no specialized education, has no self-governing code of ethics, and has no self-policing professional organization with any power over its members.

Journalism is a craft, one that anyone is free to exercise. But journalism is an unusual craft, in that its purpose and activities are specifically protected by the Constitution.

So when government agencies, businesses and courts get into the question of just who qualifies to be a journalist, things get murky very quickly. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which operates Metro, has informed the excellent Greater Greater Washington blog that it is not part of the news media and is therefore not eligible to make public records requests and get a fee waiver, as reporters from real journalism outlets do.

Greater Greater Washington, a winner of my old Blog of the Month Award (hey, maybe we should resurrect that program) is one of the most energetic and informative blogs in the region. It--well, he: founder and chief blogger David Alpert--does original reporting on exactly the issues that Metro concerns itself with: transportation, regional planning, development. And lately, Alpert has been expanding, involving some of his most dedicated and well-informed readers as budding reporters on the blog. One of those nascent reporters, Michael P, sought some documents from Metro, whose lawyer denied him a fee waiver on the grounds that the GGW blog doesn't "publish or broadcast news to the public," but "merely makes it available" on a web site.

It's hard to imagine a more specious distinction at this stage of our information society's development. Let's say, God forbid, that the owners of this here Washington Post decide at some point in the future that it makes sense to publish online-only, with no print product. Would that then eliminate The Washington Post's claim to be part of the news media? Obviously not, so Metro's position is purely an attempt to define out of existence blogs that perform a traditional role of holding government accountable, but do so exclusively online.

(Here are a couple of pieces I've done on the rising presence and ever more important role blogs are playing in political journalism, one on Virginia's impressive collection of political blogs, and one on Josh Marshall, the creator of Talking Points Memo.)

To be fair to Metro and the many other institutions in society that deal with the media, they need to be able to draw some useful distinction between a serious blog that seeks to disseminate news and Joe Blogger who is writing for himself and perhaps a few friends. Should every person with a Facebook account have equal access to sitting in the press seats at a Metro board meeting, getting easier access to documents and being able to attend news conferences? I'm loathe to exclude anyone, especially since the media's sole claim to special access is to be a representative of the public. But you can quickly see how this would get completely out of hand.

Sports teams have embraced bloggers even as they discern differences and weed out guys who just think it might be cool to sit in the press box. Government agencies need to learn how to make similar distinctions. Judging a blog by its traffic might be one factor, but it's far from a perfect one: There are plenty of areas of government that might be legitimately covered by a blog that has a tiny audience because it covers a very narrow subject area (how many people would read a blog that covers, say, the Arlington planning board? But such a blog should have complete access to that board's doings.)

The tricky bit here is that no one wants the government to be in the business of judging blogs by their content. So I sympathize with the Metro lawyer who had to figure this one out. But Congress took a useful step toward a workable definition of journalist when it amended the Freedom of Information Act last year to say that "a representative of the news media' means any person or entity that gathers information of potential interest to a segment of the public, uses its editorial skills to turn the raw materials into a distinct work, and distributes that work to an audience."

If that excludes the many, many blogs that just riff on news gathered by others, so be it. Let them invest in some reporting before they seek access. But the definition must be broad enough to grant access to any and all who seek to inform the public--no matter what their political perspective and no matter what medium they use to reach an audience.

By Marc Fisher |  October 20, 2008; 8:15 AM ET
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Comments

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So, what is WMATA hiding? Is it 78,000 bucks for furniture and NO WARNING SIGNS?????

Your money down the tubes! Waste and fraud! Caribou Barbie! Alec Baldwin's tutu! Yeagh!

Posted by: Geen | October 20, 2008 8:57 AM

Thanks for this post, Mr Fisher!

I've found that bloggers don't always get a fair shake when it comes to access. In my area (Silver Spring), some don't consider me "press" because I don't publish in print, or because my readership is relatively small.

Also, I believe some have disdain for bloggers because we skewer local topics that have long been sacred cows. But that's the roll of the press: To keep the public informed, even if that information isn't rosy.

Posted by: silverspringpenguin | October 20, 2008 10:06 AM

Don't agree with you at all. Bloggers have no credibility and no accountability. Reputable news organizations, like the Post, have editors and ombudsman to monitor the content of the paper and respond to readers. I laugh everyday at my office mates who gush over some blog or worry about "the real story" posted by "joe the blogger". Don't care. There are plenty of legitimate news sources, Post, NY Times, Christian Science Monitor, Economist, etc to waste time reading blogs.

Posted by: Jimbo | October 20, 2008 10:20 AM

Don't agree with you at all. Bloggers have no credibility and no accountability. Reputable news organizations, like the Post, have editors and ombudsman to monitor the content of the paper and respond to readers. I laugh everyday at my office mates who gush over some blog or worry about "the real story" posted by "joe the blogger". Don't care. There are plenty of legitimate news sources, Post, NY Times, Christian Science Monitor, Economist, etc to waste time reading blogs.

Posted by: Jimbo | October 20, 2008 10:21 AM

Don't agree with you at all. Bloggers have no credibility and no accountability. Reputable news organizations, like the Post, have editors and ombudsman to monitor the content of the paper and respond to readers. I laugh everyday at my office mates who gush over some blog or worry about "the real story" posted by "joe the blogger". Don't care. There are plenty of legitimate news sources, Post, NY Times, Christian Science Monitor, Economist, etc to waste time reading blogs.

Posted by: Jimbo | October 20, 2008 10:22 AM

Don't agree with you at all. Bloggers have no credibility and no accountability. Reputable news organizations, like the Post, have editors and ombudsman to monitor the content of the paper and respond to readers. I laugh everyday at my office mates who gush over some blog or worry about "the real story" posted by "joe the blogger". Don't care. There are plenty of legitimate news sources, Post, NY Times, Christian Science Monitor, Economist, etc to waste time reading blogs.

Posted by: Jimbo | October 20, 2008 10:26 AM

Jimbo wrote:

"Bloggers have no credibility and no accountability."

Bloggers are directly accountable to their readers. As far as credibility goes, just remember that Jayson Blaire and Judith Miller wrote for The New York Times.

Jimbo also wrote:

"Reputable news organizations, like the Post, have editors and ombudsman to monitor the content of the paper and respond to readers."

A few bloggers (including myself) started out in the traditional media and have years of experience as editors. Personally, I do my best to self-monitor my content, and my readers put me in line when necessary.

Posted by: silverspringpenguin | October 20, 2008 10:36 AM

Bloggers or anyone else who files Freedom of Information Act requests can still get the information, but they have to pay a small fee. This covers copying costs.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 20, 2008 11:10 AM

Let's solve this easily. Charge everyone a small, reasonable and publicly-published fee. As a taxpayer, I want the media to have proper access but they should not have more or less access than the public at large. After all, most media companies are for-profit enterprises, and such costs would be in the normal course of business.

I don't want to government trying to decide what medium is legit and which isn't. That is an excercise in futility.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 20, 2008 11:18 AM

"Bloggers are directly accountable to their readers. As far as credibility goes, just remember that Jayson Blaire and Judith Miller wrote for The New York Times."

With all due respect, this is ridiculous. How are bloggers directly accountable to their readers? What does that statement even mean?

So some big media "journalists" turned out to not be credible. That has nothing to do with the general assertion that bloggers have no credibility. Sure, some do, but there's no reason to assume a priori that any of them do.

Posted by: Dops | October 20, 2008 11:25 AM

Dops wrote:

"How are bloggers directly accountable to their readers? What does that statement even mean?"

It means that readers have direct access to the writer, without having the filter of an ombudsman.

That's not to say that readers dictate how topics should be covered. Just that they can bust a writer directly for editorializing or misstating facts. Readers keep writers humble.

And I agree that not every blogger (or traditional media outlet) is credible. That, too, should be left to the readers to determine.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 20, 2008 11:45 AM

Judging by the Post's standards, the only qualification to be a "journalist" is that when entering the office for your interview you only hit yourself in the face with the door 2 times out of 3. 3 out of 3 is permitted only if you're wearing an Obama T-shirt.

Posted by: rory | October 20, 2008 11:55 AM

Don't be snide about local bodies such as "the Arlington planning board". Anyone, blogger or salaried journalist, who covered it would (1) know it is named the Planning Commission, (2) find out that all its meetings are public, (3) have an avid audience among civic activists, officials and developers, and (4) provide valuable information and insights into Arlington's evolution that The Post doesn't deign to report.

Posted by: cjohnson1 | October 20, 2008 12:21 PM

So the other question is what right does Metro and the various local government have to redact major portions of FOIAd information?

The last time I received something from a local government agency, there were about 40 pages of fully redacted (blacked out) content.

What is the point of having a Freedom of Information Act if the information supplied really isn't?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 20, 2008 12:26 PM

In addition to apparently not understanding how the "Submit" button works, Jimbo also misses the point- if you're concerned that bloggers have "no credibility," the solution to that is to give them MORE factual information. Withholding legitimate information about governmental bodies and publicly funded services like Metro isn't going to help improve the quality of reporting on blogs.

Posted by: Tiffany | October 20, 2008 12:32 PM

Marc, you raise a very good point and I want to address Jimbo. Back in 2004, while I was working as a journalist at Roll Call, the congressional newspaper, I launched a little old website called DCist.com as a side hobby. A blog if you will. A blog with roots in the basic tenets of journalism. DCist quickly took off and today remains the area's most popular general interest news blog around. True, not all blogs are the same. But I can attest that Greater Greater Washington is a Class A operation, one the furthers the discourse about Washington, D.C., the problems it faces and solutions to make it a better place. It's a site that should be taken seriously by WMATA, Jimbo and everyone else.

Michael E. Grass
Deputy Managing Editor, Politicker.com

Full disclosure: I was once employed by The Washington Post Co. as a blogger.

Posted by: Michael E. Grass | October 20, 2008 2:18 PM

Marc -- You've captured fairly the challenge in figuring out who gets a break on fees and who doesn't. It's not easy writing who's eligible for reduced fees. The fee reduction is there because certain requests provide a direct benefit to the public -- informing the public about government activities, dangers brought to light by FOIA requests, or revealing what government officials knew about embarrassing events, for example -- and the public deserves inexpensive access to such information. For us media associations who pushed the new definition you mentioned (to include bloggers), *how* the information was disseminated to the public (print v online) was less important than whether the information requested could be disseminated to the public.

Yes, this was a case where representatives of the "tranditional" news media supported the rights of bloggers. It may not be what some people might expect, but that's what happened.
Rick Blum
Coordinator, Sunshine in Government Initiative

Posted by: Rick Blum | October 20, 2008 2:31 PM

To be fair to WMATA, all I asked for was that I pay copying costs only, which is consistent with Members of the Media, Educational and Scientific Institutions. Otherwise, I would have to pay for search costs, which is the WMATA employee's wage rate plus 50% for benefits.

I also asked that copying fees be reduced or eliminated based on the benefit to the public.

There really shouldn't be any charge for copying since the records are electronic and I requested them electronically.

Regardless of their final decision on whether I qualify for reduced fees, I hope to have the information I requested shortly. It will probably be of great interest to the WMATA ridership.

Posted by: Michael P | October 21, 2008 11:49 AM

Just think what would happen if the government decided who could and who could not be a journalist, like they do with doctors, manicurists, barbers and hundreds of other jobs, crafts, and professions. Now that is scary. Abolish licensure by the government!

Posted by: Jack | October 22, 2008 8:54 AM

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