You're not the public, says WMATA
So says WMATA's chief of staff, Shiva Pant, in a letter denying my appeal of their October decision that blogs aren't "news media." I asked for reduced information request fees under the "Member of the News Media" and "Public Interest" sections of WMATA's Public Access to Records Policy, or PARP. The PARP derives from the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and according to the letter, "WMATA interprets and applies the PARP consistent with federal FOIA law and practice."
I request information from WMATA to write articles about their activities. Most of my articles come from their press releases, board and RAC meeting reports, and information posted on wmata.com. I also request information from staff contacts. More recently, WMATA staff have initially declined some of my requests, and directed me to use PARP. For example, I recently analyzed bus reliability data. I originally asked the press office, who directed me to the PARP office. This process can take months, and if the information requires extensive searching, can be expensive. Ordinarily, the person requesting the information must pay WMATA's costs.
Like federal FOIA, PARP allows members of the news media to obtain documents without paying for search time. For some recent information requests, I invoked the member of the media provision based on my writing for my own blog as well as Greater Greater Washington. After WMATA denied it, I submitted the matter to administrative appeal.
WMATA based its decision on an interpretation of outdated federal law. They cite two cases, Judicial Watch, Inc. v. United States Department of Justice (No. 99-2315, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19789 *9-12 (D.D.C. August 17, 2000) and 185 F. Supp. 2d 54, 59
(D.D.C. 2002)) and Electronic Privacy Information Center v. Department of Defense, 241 F.Supp. 2d14 (D.D.C 2003), both denying "news media" status to organizations. WMATA also seems to suggest, though doesn't explicitly say, that they consider the readership here at Greater Greater Washington too small to be considered the "general public". However, at the end of 2007, the Open Government Act of 2007 clarified the definition of a member of the news media for FOIA, and thus to PARP, as:
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.This new law, which WMATA apparently never considered, acknowledges that some members of the media need information that is of interest to only a "segment" of the general public, and only needs to reach "an audience." There's no set size needed for an audience to count as "the general public" in the original FOIA law, and this act makes that explicit.
WMATA claims that "a representative of the news media must disseminate the information not merely make it available." But the new law also clarifies that "disseminating" information includes the Web:
These examples [newspapers and broadcast radio or television] are not all-inclusive. Moreover, as methods of news delivery evolve (for example, the adoption of the electronic dissemination of newspapers through telecommunications services), such alternative media shall be considered to be news-media entities.In fact, the EPIC case ruled that EPIC was a member of the news media, despite using new technology and publishing its newsletter to a small segment of the general public. WMATA seems to believe that because EPIC emailed its newsletter and Greater Greater Washington simply posts information on the Web, it does not count as "disseminating." This is wrong on two counts. First, Greater Greater Washington does email posts daily to many subscribers; you can sign up for that service here. And second, splitting hairs between email and the Web as delivery mechanisms simply based on which party initiates the Internet connection completely misses the point of the Open Government Act's insistence that the news media is not tied to specific technologies.
Judicial Watch simply posted documents obtained through FOIA on its Web site, to encourage journalists to write about them, instead of writing articles itself. The Open Government Act emphasizes, which a court first wrote in 1989, that the member of the news media must "use editorial skills to turn the raw materials into a distinct work." I create new works (articles) based on the information, using my editorial skills, and disseminate that new work though Greater Greater Washington.
Why is this all important? Access to information is vital to good reporting, whether through more traditional media like television, radio and periodicals, or through newer media forms like blogs and news websites like Greater Greater Washington. The Washington Post and the DC Examiner both have beat reporters working on transit issues. There's a limit to the amount of coverage they can provide, whether from space in the newspaper or reporter or editor time. As Scott Gant, author of "We're All Journalists Now" explains on this video, blogs and news websites cover issues more deeply than more generalized news outfits could. By providing access to information, whether through press passes, access to press amenities, granting interviews, or through FOIA and its equivalents, government agencies enable news to become effective reporters on government operations.
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