The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, pronounced “foy-ah”) is one of the most important weapons in the reporter’s arsenal. Essentially, and with lots of exceptions and exclusions, it requires the government to supply documents on request. Journalism schools offer courses on how to file a FOIA request. Many exposés of official misbehavior would be impossible without FOIA. It’s almost like a subpoena power for journalists. It’s also a tremendous burden on government agencies—and some of its biggest users are not journalists but companies trolling for commercial information about their rivals.
California’s state version of FOIA is called the Public Records Act. Last fall, for reasons too boring to go into, an aide to State Attorney General (and once and possibly future governor) Jerry Brown covertly taped and transcribed a conversation with a reporter. (Taping phone conversations without the consent of everyone on the call is supposed to be illegal in California.) Several California papers requested this transcript as well as those of any other covertly taped phone conversations between journalists and the state attorney general’s office. The results included four interviews with Brown himself. Brown always “gives good quote,” as they say, and the dean of the Sacramento press corps, George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times, got a nice juicy column out of the transcripts. Nevertheless, he admitted,
it still makes me cringe. The public records act seems to be running amok when a reporter’s private interview with a public figure can be handed over to competitors … I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me that a reporter’s interview with a government official is not public business. It’s not like awarding contracts, appointing cronies or appeasing contributors.
Actually, it’s very much like all those things. An interview is a commercial transaction in which the reporter and the source each hope to gain something. Such exchanges rarely amount to anything illicit, but most FOIA requests, on all subjects, are dry holes. And many FOIA requests offend people’s sense of privacy or give succor to their enemies, rivals, or competitors. Now, Skelton knows how it feels, and he’s honest enough to say that he doesn’t like it (though in this case he benefited from it). But he never felt the law had “run amok” until it intruded (at least potentially) on his own commercial privacy.